Rather than deconstructing the misogynistic demonization of feminine endeavors, Smith shows a limited understanding of why women use makeup.
By Erin McLaughlin
In a recent interview at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, novelist Zadie Smith expressed her disdain for young girls’ preoccupation with makeup and beauty, describing it as a waste of time and “infuriating”. “I decided to spontaneously decide on a principle: that if it takes longer than 15 minutes don’t do it”, Smith stated while retelling how she gave her 7-year-old daughter a 15 minute time limit when getting ready.
As a mother, she could mean well as it’s easy for young girls to develop body-image issues when they are socialized to focus on how others perceive them, but that doesn’t seem to be the main concern here. Smith dislikes the idea of spending too much time on one’s looks in general, regardless of age.
As far as beauty in our current culture goes, there’s been an undeniable shift as of late. People of all ages, sexualities, and genders are increasingly represented in all corners of beauty, whether it be for self-care, as a hobby, or pursuing a career in it. But why is there still so much disapproval with participation in beauty? Fear lingers among women because we’re afraid of being seen as unintelligent and vain. Zadie’s reaction to vanity reveals that, as well as her forgetting that forcing one to choose between beauty and intellect is always a double-edged sword.
As a dark-skinned Black woman who enjoys beauty and is aware of the politics involved, it’s clear that Smith’s statements barely scratched the surface of why girls and women even partake in beauty and are image-oriented to begin with. It shows a lack of understanding that many people — especially those with privilege — have when it comes to beauty. Her response was a rehashed version of the simplistic belief that vain women are stupid, which is nothing new. Rather than deconstructing the misogynistic demonization of feminine endeavors, Smith shows a limited understanding of why women use makeup and how we’re affected by eurocentric beauty standards.
While trying to combat the telltale sexist “pretty girls are dumb” schtick, Smith believes in teaching her daughter that focusing on beauty is nonsensical, despite the fact that what she’s teaching is still internalized misogyny. It still feeds into the idea that showing signs of vanity means one lacks substance and fuels the binary that women can only either be pretty or smart.
Many tend to forget that the presence of intelligence and beauty privilege can also be a recipe for success because they compliment each other, although they sometimes do try to cancel each other out. One or the other will always happen throughout one’s lifetime. There will always be people who doubt your intelligence because of your looks, and people who will overlook your skill and focus on your looks instead because you’re a woman. Which means there’s no point in choosing one over the other.
Ironically, Zadie Smith has spoken on how her appearance has made people doubt her skills because of her beauty, “It is a really misogynistic and fascinating thought … Because what it means is that if you are beautiful, then you have no need to be intelligent – it is a very sinister thought actually.” While she is right, it’s also important to point out that countering that perception can’t be done by discouraging women and girls from participating in beauty, because it’s still making them choose.
This discussion also can’t be had without pointing out Zadie Smith’s position in society. Smith is a conventionally attractive, light-skinned biracial woman which means she has ample privilege and access to opportunities others may not get because they lack that privilege. She’s one of the women who is able to navigate life without makeup. She doesn’t have discolored skin, acne, dark circles, etc. which means she won’t be treated negatively because of her natural beauty. But for someone like me who is dark-skinned, has dark spots, and dark circles, makeup is a tool to garner the niceness and respect I would not otherwise get because my natural beauty doesn’t fit society’s standards. Makeup and beauty can be a tool of survival, especially for trans women who in order to stay relatively safe, use makeup for both beauty and as a shield.
Avoiding beauty and trying to minimize the process in this society is pointless. Young girls, especially those around the age of puberty, will want to engage in these practices. The sexualization of young girls is another concern when it comes to how they indulge in beauty and presentation, but sometimes the efforts to fight that are futile and it isn’t so much about teaching girls to hide themselves, we should be teaching boys and men to stop sexualizing children and teens. There’s not much purpose in trying to drive young girls away from concern in self-image and beauty in an attempt to minimize sexualization, because the onus shouldn’t be on them.
Instead of teaching young girls to neglect their looks in favor intelligence, we should be encouraging them to do both. It does a disservice to young girls by trying to place them in a box and not allowing them to be dynamic, multifaceted beings with different curiosities and interests. If you actually have the range, then you can focus on inner AND outer beauty simultaneously instead of having to choose one and shame others for it.
Author Bio: Erin McLaughlin is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and beauty enthusiast with a focus on colorism, pop culture critiques, and centering Black women. In her free time she binge-watches tarot readings on youtube, indulges in skincare, and makes people uncomfortable.