“I…liked how we were neither dogmatic in our judgments (i.e., no one played the role of feminist fashion police), nor laissez-faire in thinking that ‘anything goes’—after all, feminists were the ones who had popularized the slogan the ‘personal is political.'”
At the most recent Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting, I got into an impromptu late night discussion with several women friends about why some of us participate in “beauty culture” and how we feel as feminist Christian ethicists and moral theologians about our decisions. Each of us shared why we have chosen to wear make-up (or not), keep up with fashion (or not), dye our hair grey to mask the signs of aging (or not), or put in the effort to maintain a certain physique (or not). We also addressed what role our own mothers and larger communities have played in our decision-making processes.
Since it is certainly not my place to reveal what others disclosed behind closed doors over wine, let me expand upon a few things I shared that night.
First, I told them that when I used to work at Virginia Tech (2003-2009), I had noticed and been a little self-conscious about the fact that I was the only faculty member in Women’s Studies who regularly wore make-up. My self-consciousness stemmed from multiple sources:
(1) I was a new member of the faculty who simply didn’t know what the conventions of dress were among my female colleagues (and thus I didn’t want to over- or under-do it),
(2) I had grown-up with a mother who, because of her own youthful indulgence in vanity before she “gave her life to Christ” (as she describes it), repeatedly cautioned me away from caring too much about my physical appearance,
(3) I received implicit (although occasionally explicit) judgment from older, second-wave white feminists who held very strong views about what attempting to beautify oneself meant—internalized misogyny and an acquiescence to patriarchal capitalism. In short, whether a woman put on lipstick, donned heels, or cared about clothes was used as a litmus test for how “feminist” she was.
Second,when the conversation turned to plastic surgery, I started talking about how popular blepharoplasty (a.k.a. “double eyelid surgery” or even “Asian eyelid surgery”) is among women of Asian descent both in the U.S. and in East Asian countries. (Truth be told, several Asian male celebrities have had it as well including martial artist Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame.)
I told them that these surgeries nevertheless remain controversial in Asian American communities given concerns about increasing numbers of patients going under the knife to emulate Western standards of beauty and accordingly “erase” a distinctive marker of ethnicity. As many others have done, I compared these debates about Asian eyelid surgery to internal debates in Jewish communities about rhinoplasty (“nose jobs”) or to analogous ones in African American communities about chemically straightening hair.