“Isn’t the weather beautiful?” I was standing outside my child’s elementary school, making small talk with other parents at pick-up time. “Just about time to pull out sandals.”
“Ooh, that’s right, I need to get a pedicure!” exclaimed another mom.
“Wait,” I thought, “need to get a pedicure?”
I had to ask. Maybe it wasn’t the most polite chit-chat in the world, but the social scientist in me couldn’t let it pass. “Do you actually need to do that before you go out of the house in sandals, or you mean you’re feeling inspired to do it?”
She looked uncomfortable, and I could tell I had really put her on the spot. “I wouldn’t go out without a pedicure. It just feels weird to me.” Surreptitiously scanning the schoolyard once summer weather had arrived, I realized that I was the odd one out, at least in my community. Toenail polish was required for women.
When did that happen? When I was growing up in a nearby town in the 1980s and 1990s, the mothers who lined the edges of the community pool in their lawn chairs might polish their toenails, but it was far from ubiquitous. I lived in other climates for a decade, came back, and found that in the meantime unpolished toenails had become uncouth.
How did it happen? If I had been in the New Jersey suburbs during that decade, would I have witnessed the change? Or, more likely, would it have been a silent accumulation of small acts and gradual shifts of attitude? How do beauty regimens go from pleasurable, even daring, acts of self-expression to basic requirements for good grooming?
If these questions were just about toenail polish, they would hardly be worth asking. But in fact, women spend an average of 45 minutes a day on personal grooming, compared to 30 minutes for men. As Barnard president Debora Spar points out in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, men are supposed to be professionally successful. Women are under pressure to be professionally successful, sexy, and great mommies besides. When there aren’t enough hours in the day or enough dollars in the budget, pedicures can be more burdensome than relaxing.
Ubiquitous pedicures are the latest development in a cosmetics culture that began a century ago. Make-up as a routine element of good grooming was an early-twentieth-century innovation. As historian Kathy Peiss explains, nineteenth-century women who used makeup were “painted ladies,” indicating sexual wares for sale. Respectable women might use homemade beauty preparations to clear blemishes and brighten their skin, but beauty was supposed to shine from the inside, not be added from the outside. In the twentieth century, daring flappers of the “roaring ‘20s” blurred the distinction between nice girls and naughty. They challenged received sexual mores, and borrowed beauty traditions from the world of prostitution. They saw their personal appearance as something that could be a reflection of their mood, rather than an indicator of their character.
Make-up caught on quickly in the new, “anything goes” culture. Women enjoyed the small luxuries of a new lipstick or a dainty compact. Colorful lips and cheeks were fun, and could be altered day-by-day to reflect different aspects of one’s personality. Nearly everyone could afford at least a little bit of it, and nearly everyone did. Within a couple of decades, make-up was virtually required for young, urban women who worked in offices and behind department store counters. Women perceived that as make-up became de rigueur, it turned into a costume requirement in certain settings. A working woman without make-up was dowdy and unfashionable, if not (yet) regarded as inappropriate or unkempt.
As Peiss shows, in the 1970s, after a half-century surge of an increasingly-commercialized beauty culture, a feminist and environmental backlash briefly stemmed the tide. Some women rejected make-up altogether, and a “natural” look became fashionable. The turn away from make-up didn’t last long, but it seemed to subtly alter the terms of beauty requirements in the following decades. Make-up was, at least for a time, self-consciously regarded as optional. A woman was supposed to justify her use of make-up in terms of her own desires, rather than as a matter of social requirement, even if in fact she felt pressure to use it.
So where does toenail polish fit? Nail polish was originally adapted from the durable paints used to create spiffy new colors of cars in the 1920s. Finger nails were the first targets for polish, but toes were not far behind. I found pictures of bathing beauty Rita Hayworth sporting toenail polish in the 1940s. Marilyn Monroe’s toenail polish is highlighted in a number of portraits of her from the 1950s. I suspect that it was not yet considered a requirement for beach-going, but I have not been able to confirm this. (Readers? Does anyone who remembers the 1950s and 60s recall whether women needed to paint their toenails for the beach?) When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, toenail polish was a fun summer flair mostly sported by young people with idle summer hours. It’s possible the “natural” influence of the 1970s accounted for the lack of toenail polish, but I suspect it just wasn’t seen as a requirement yet.
In the 2000s, pedicures took off. Networks of Vietnamese and Korean immigrants channeled new arrivals into the mani-pedi business. It was an industry with low start-up costs and minimal English-language requirements. The geisha stereotype was familiar to many middle-class Americans: Asian women were seen as particularly good at providing comfort, beauty, and pleasure. As highlighted in a recent New York Times expose, labor was cheap and easy to exploit, because women without English skills had few options for employment. Once it became clear that there was a market for affordable manicures and pedicures, nail-care establishments popped up everywhere. A decade or so later, women in my community go regularly to the nail salon just as they go to the hair salon for coloring and the dentist for whitening. Once pedicures seemed normal, they began to seem necessary.
So, every time a new cosmetic or beauty practice arrives on the scene, do we face an inexorable slide from pleasurable self-expression to a sometimes-burdensome grooming requirement? I hope not. But we have to be conscientious about mitigating it.
The key, I think, is to remember that make-up is only serving us well when we enjoy using it. And that means we have to do our best to give other people the space to use it for pleasure, not appeasement. We should accept wide variation in how and when people use cosmetics. If we believe that make-up is essentially “for fun,” we need to treat it that way. This will require effort and extra self-awareness: we are social beings, and common practices naturally become unspoken and unnoticed community standards.
In addition to reducing the beauty burden, there’s a bonus reason to avoid turning every new beauty fad into a requirement: it leaves room for people to be edgy, sexy, and fashionable. If you don’t pressure me into wearing lipstick, then your lipstick is sexy and feminine. If we’re all wearing it, it’s just a uniform, we all work harder, and no one wins.
So I am taking a stand for self-aware beautifying. Here is my stab at codifying my personal guidelines for assessing each element of my own beauty regimen:
- Does it provide more pleasure than pain?
- Would I rather spend the time/money on this than something else?
- Are my beauty practices damaging to people/things around me?
- If I feel I “need” to do this, would I feel the same way if I were a man?
- Have I tried skipping this part of my routine, or this aspect of self-presentation, to see how it feels to go without, and realize that the sky won’t fall?
- Am I appreciating other people’s appearances, and talking about beauty, in ways that support others’ self-expression?
For me, this means that Brazilian waxing is out, nail polish and lipstick are occasional, and face powder with SPF is routine for summer. I admire friend’s glitter toenails and salon highlights, but I don’t use them myself. Which beauty practices are in and out for you? What would your guidelines look like?
Herzig, Rebecca. Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. New York: NYU Press, 2015.
Kang, Miliann. The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Spar, Debora. Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. New York: Macmillan, 2013.
The Beheld: Beauty, and What it Means, blog by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano.