Face-ing Criticism

Whenever I go home I love to look through old family photos. I love seeing everyone’s cute baby pictures, and my dad’s thick, dark hair that looked somewhat like that of a llama, the weird matching outfits that my siblings and I used to wear (such as the purple and pink elephant dungarees), and seeing the smiling faces of relatives who have long since left us. What makes me sad about these pictures is that there’s someone missing. My mother. She’s the invisible woman. Sometimes there’s a hand propping up a baby, and sometimes there’s even a woman in the back ground holding a newspaper up to cover her face, but mainly there’s no evidence of her at all. She hated being photographed because she didn’t like the way she looked. Nowadays, while she is an incredibly confident professional, she still makes us delete almost any photo we manage to snap of her with a smartphone, and I bet she’s not alone. I bet that many of you, when leafing through your family albums, will find that there’s a woman who just isn’t there.

Talking of photos, this January I entered a competition like none I had entered before. It wasn’t an essay prize, a running race, or even, as you might have been lead to believe, a photography competition. In fact it wasn’t a competition where I was required to show any skills at all. The prize was to be the face of an independent, vintage-inspired makeup company for a year, Le Keux Cosmetics, and to receive some lovely free beauty products. All entrants had to do was email in a front-on photo of themselves, and the five that received the most ‘likes’ on Facebook, would be shortlisted. So I thought, why not?  Well, it turned out that some of my friends had very strong feelings about ‘why not’. “Why have you entered a beauty contest?” one friend asked. “Don’t you think that’s pretty unfeminist?” I understood where she was coming from. I am proud to say that I’m a feminist, and I think that anything that limits women purely to the status of objects, only to be valued for their appearance, is not a good thing. I don’t think, however, that is what’s going on with Le Keux’s ‘Face’ competition. It's not a beauty contest. I think the competition is a brilliant and fun example of modern day feminism and you won’t be surprised to find, that I’m going to tell you why!

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

My mother, the invisible woman from our photo albums, isn’t alone in disliking the way she looks or in lacking self-esteem. One friend, who may be the most beautiful and glamorous woman I have ever seen, didn’t wear a wedding dress to her wedding because she didn’t think she was pretty enough to deserve one. She wasn’t, she says, that kind of girl. Go into a public toilet and for every woman you see smile at her appearance in the mirror, you will see five frown. In the gym you can hear women telling each other how much they hate their own thighs, their stomachs, and their arms. Women are taught to put themselves down and to find fault with their appearance. This endless self-denigration is often manifested in the way we talk about our appearance but it doesn’t end there. At work, instead of putting themselves forward, women, it seems, are constantly putting themselves down. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In women assess themselves more harshly than their male colleagues do, women have lower expectations of their own potential, and they don’t put themselves forward for promotion as often as men. The link between negative body image and a wider lack of confidence is discussed well by the Guilty Feminist podcast on "Being Bossy". Le Keux’s competition asks ordinary women to go against this feeling of self-loathing, to deem a picture of themselves pretty and worthy, and to put themselves forward. It actually takes a lot of effort to do that. Scarier still is the idea of then asking your friends to vote for you by liking your picture. I was surprised by how difficult and embarrassing I found it to ask people to like my picture, but I was glad I did it. In the images on their social media pages Le Keux doesn’t promote a narrow idea of beauty that makes women feel bad, but body positive, fun pictures, that make women feel brave. The variety of pictures in the competition show that women of all different shapes and sizes have been encouraged to put themselves forward. Sexy women, pretty women, curvy women, skinny women, striking women, and quirky women have all felt good enough about themselves to say, hey there, vote for me! From what I can see all the entrants have also liked each other’s photos, complimented each other, and built each other up. The feeling of empowerment I got from asking people to like my picture has made me feel as if I could put myself forward in other ways too. Over the last few days I’ve been considering career options that I had previously not allowed myself, just because I feel that little bit more confident. If the experience has made me feel this way, I’m sure that it’s had the same effect on other entrants. That makes Le Keux’s competition pretty feminist if you ask me.

Why do women feel this way about their faces, their bodies, and their wider worth? Well, there are lots of answers to that question. As this is a Shakespeare blog, and Shakespeare has formed part of almost everyone’s education (whether we liked it or not!), and for many is the cornerstone of English Literature, I’m going to lay a little portion of that blame at old Shakey’s door, for his presentation of women. After all, Shakespeare’s plays present women wearing makeup as deceitful, and most often describe the sexual parts of women’s bodies in some of the most vile language imaginable! Most of all, though, in these plays, to get things done, a woman’s body has to be denied, or hidden. Active women in Shakespeare’s plays, the women who break the rules, set plots in motion, and get things done, do so, with a few exceptions, in the disguise of men. Portia in The Merchant of Venice is clever, witty, resourceful, and very wealthy (which can’t hurt), but as a woman she can’t save Antonio, from being murdered by Shylock’s pursuit of his pound of flesh. It’s only dressed as a man that Portia can travel to Venice and argue the legal case against Shylock’s bloody contract. In As You Like It Rosalind and Celia escape into the forest of Arden in disguise. Rosalind dresses as Ganymede, a boy, and Celia dresses as Aliena, a girl, and their disguises seem to bring with them their own personalities. Whereas Rosalind and Celia conversed in private as equals, and Celia made as many jokes as her cousin, in the forest of Arden Aliena is practically silent. I once spoke to an actress who said this was her least favourite role with the RSC, as she spent almost the entire production sitting motionless on a tree stump every night. Rosalind, by contrast, runs the show while she is dressed as the boy Ganymede. She tells people what to do, she arranges meetings and marriages, and by goodness does she get all the best lines! In Twelfth Night Viola’s masculine disguise allows her to get a job, travel freely around Illyria (Olivia never moves from her house and garden), fall in love with someone she has had in depth conversations with about life and love, and then marry him. That’s pretty unusual for a woman in a play (think of poor old Katherine in Henry V – she barely knows the man and he’s just conquered her country). In order to have any say, or have any freedom, these women have to become men. Of course, you might argue that is simply because in those days women had fewer rights than men, but I say representation matters. Women need to see women in literature doing bold and brave stuff while not denying or hiding that they are women, and dressing however they want to dress. The women in Shakespeare who buck convention while not pretending to have a penis are usually villains!

So, in the interest of being bold, and positive about my self-image, of putting myself forward, and being represented, I curled by hair, flicked on my favourite eyeliner, didn’t bother to bleach my wee moustache – because who really has time? – and took a flipping selfie!

 Follow the link to vote


Popular Posts