Aesthetic labor and changing femininity

Monday, October 8, 2018 - 5:19pm

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Of all the fads that have come and gone societally, one of the more prominent cultural obsessions is the push for immersion in a world of DIY. From your own house, to your clothes, to the entire world of crafting, there really isn’t anything that we can’t somehow make for ourselves. A beautifully, and in most cases empowering, concept emerging from this hands-on world is a completely new breed of self-motivators, spearheading self-activism and opening the world of “do it yourself” to the complex realm of cosmetics. With beauty blogs, tutorials, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts and even entire businesses dedicated to self-improvement — through not just cosmetic products, but beauty routines as a whole — an entire new concept fabricates itself from within the depths of DIY pitfalls. This world, practice — or rather, expectation — is a concept called aesthetic labor, and it’s changing femininity as we know it.

We’ve seen it on Vogue’s regular Instagram posts showcasing and promoting various celebs’ seemingly flawless makeup routines, and Glossier’s entire blog “Into the Gloss” rests on not the actual products, but rather aesthetic labor. As defined by Ana Sophia Elias in her book “Aesthetic Labor: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism,” aesthetic labor is the privilege that women have to take ownership over their beauty routines. It is more than just some Glossier Boy Brow or Covergirl mascara. It is the process, the labor of beauty as a whole. From a young age, girls are exposed to the world of cosmetics and expected to uphold societal norms by taking ownership over their routines in terms of their cosmetic choices and steps of their routines. In theory, this ability to build a routine seems easy, breezy and beautiful, but in a culture so heavily focused on self-improvement, the dedication to aesthetic labor becomes more than just a minute-long Instagram video, but a full-time job. A full-time job that, once it starts, the constant buzzing of beauty blogs, videos, channels, tutorials, magazine editorials, new and improved product lines, makes it nearly impossible to let go.

As more and more women, and young girls especially, dedicate themselves to the burden that is aesthetic labor, the link between the pressure to uphold aesthetic labor and femininity becomes ever-present. With the constant watchful eye of DIY culture and social constructs reminding us that there are never enough changes we can make to our appearances to achieve true beauty, aesthetic labor suddenly becomes a crucial aspect of a woman’s femininity. In other words, to be a woman is to be an aesthetic laborer, a hunter for the latest and greatest, an upholder of routine, a user of the best products. The only problem? To be the best aesthetic laborer is to be inhuman. It is practically impossible to keep up with DIY culture, to obtain the perfect routine. Yet women are deemed less feminine for failing to put enough work into their routines, and for not taking ownership and bettering their appearances, because as society likes to remind us, we are never good enough and cannot make enough changes and choices to our beauty regimes to embody perfection. And this, this is where the vicious cycle starts all over again.

Especially with the emergence of Instagram as a platform of social media, the feeling to aspire for a perfectly effortless routine and lifestyle is ever present. Hundreds of profiles saturate Instagram with regular postings of photos and videos of products, various makeup looks and just the day-to-day lives of the account owners. With so many of these accounts on one’s feed, it is nearly impossible for viewers to escape the constant reel of content and comparison from these accounts. Account owner Huda Kattan runs @hudabeauty, a page featuring tips for all things cosmetics, with regular video routines showing extensive contouring, fake lashes, bright eyeshadow and skincare techniques, to name a few. Kattan also regularly posts photos of her extensive makeup collection, packed with name brand products conveniently laid out on her Louis Vuitton makeup bag.

In theory and on paper, it seems obscene that a few photos and videos could hold so much weight in society for women ascribing themselves to the philosophy of aesthetic labor. But in a world revolving so much around materialism and looks, aesthetic labor thrives on the social media scene’s overwhelming properties. Because aesthetic labor is always changing, it preaches for us to find the latest and greatest, to always assume that we can be better. So naturally, following one beauty Instagram account simply will not do. To keep up we follow not only our favorite blogger’s pages but also brands like Benefit Cosmetics, Glossier, Lush Cosmetics and Birchbox, adding up to a large percentage of daily Instagram scrolls to be overtaken by routines, new products and more photos of Kattan’s perfectly contoured face, Glossier’s perfect new packaging for Coconut Balm and Rihanna effortlessly glowing while explaining her 10-Minute Guide to Going Out Makeup for Vogue.

Although all different in exteriors and makeup choices, what unites these women and accounts is how they are socially constructed. Because Kattan has a specific routine including her own makeup brand, because the women on Glossier’s account are incorporating Cloud Paint and Lash Slick into their looks, because Rihanna has a different routine for going out than day to day, they are all considered feminine. These women are working to better themselves, their appearances, they are laboring working to fix the flaws society has told them that they have, yet making it look effortless. And for that, they are considered truly feminine women. They are trying new products, keeping up with what’s on trend in the cosmetic world and posting about the labor they are putting into their routines. And for what in return? For all this work, society deems this body of women to be beautiful.

The only issue with this is that the aesthetic labor portrayed through social media especially is so far from effortless. And while the videos, posts and brands make it seem as though it’s OK to have a routine unique to yourself, there are always consequences. Whether you’re wearing too much makeup, not enough or if you’re not up to speed on the latest cosmetic trends, there is literally no right answer. Yet, as women, we are still expected to work away at our routines and appearances, to be aesthetic laborers and neoliberals, because this is what it means to be feminine. With social media as our overseer and constant reminder that there is always something more to strive for, the vicious cycle of dedication to aesthetic labor never ends. It is as unending as it is unrealistic, something that we as women may never exactly know what it means, as we curate our Instagram feeds, purchase our Glossier and stay in the know on cosmetic blogs, all completely unsure of just how far from easy, breezy and beautiful this lifestyle is.