5 years ago, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano created a blog titled The Beheld in order to critically explore questions behind personal appearance and beauty. Since then, alongside websites such as Jezebel and Refinery29 as well as an array of independent voices contributing to the dialogues in the field, she has helped to define what criticism means when it comes to writing about beauty. Address editor Johannes Reponen interviewed Autumn Whitefield-Madrano in the eve of her Face Value book launch.
Johannes Reponen: Based on reading your articles and essays about the subject, your definition of ‘beauty’ seems broader that how one might normally understand it. As a writer and critic examining this area, what does the term ‘beauty’ mean to you?
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: I use the term ‘beauty’ because it’s a handy catch-all and the broadness of the term makes it very useful. For example, if I want to write about hair, make up, the way that we think we look, being beautiful versus being ugly or self presentation, all of those things fall under the neat umbrella of beauty. I’m also aware that I have been very hesitant to define the term. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’m afraid that it means that I have to go back and edit my work because I wasn’t writing about beauty at all, I was writing about self-image or self-presentation or fashion even at times.
With beauty, I’m usually thinking from the neck up as opposed to the way we adorn ourselves from the neck down. There is something inescapable about fashion and even more inescapable about beauty. What the person brings to it is really inextricable from the result. I’m seeing a lot of teal coloured hair and the idea of someone 19-year-old, living in the East Village sporting that trend right now has very different connotations than blue-haired old ladies. So we are really talking about identity as much as we are talking about the actual trends.
You wrote an interesting essay about beauty criticism for The New Inquiry titled ‘The Birth of Beauty Criticism’. What is beauty criticism to you?
I remember reading a piece by Arabelle Sicardi about contouring. She was describing the application process but what she was really doing was critiquing the culture of it – how it stems from Kim Kardashian and she has built this entire empire around contouring. Sicardi was really asking questions such as ‘what are we seeing and why do the Kardashians have such a big hold over our culture?’ and ‘why has our fascination followed into this very particular thing, like this contouring kit that you can now buy at Sephora?’ To me, that’s beauty criticism even though it was a piece about this make up palette and this make up technique. I think that that piece and that writer in particular is someone who straddles the line of being a straight up disseminator of beauty information and someone who is also asking these larger questions that fall under the realm of beauty criticism.
I’m coming at beauty criticism more from an essayist perspective. I tend to writer personal essays and that ties in with the idea that beauty is inherently more personal because you are talking about your face, you are talking about the way that your face moves, the expressions that it makes and how that plays into how you are visually perceived by other people.
How do you think beauty criticism is different form other types of writing – beauty journalism or beauty blogging for example?
Beauty criticism does not need to, but can in a way that other forms of criticism might shuffle away from, have more of a personal component that reaches out towards the universality. The number one rule of writing a personal essay, which is what a lot of beauty criticism that I see falls under, is that you are writing about your own experiences but you are writing about your reader’s experiences too. There is a reason why a lot of beauty criticism is showing up on YouTube tutorials or on sites that cater primarily to women and from their inception have welcomed personal, more subjective point of you, like Racked, Jezebel and Refinery29.
I think that opinion plays a part in criticism. You see a lot of beauty writers talking about products but that has never done anything for me. I don’t think most of the people who read my work are looking for that. They are looking for something that goes beyond, that connects with broader concerns that play into make up and beauty. I don’t know if I would call that in and of itself as criticism but it is an inroad. It is about discussing beauty, make up and hair as something larger than just a product that you can put down $20 for and get a tube of lipstick in return.
Anyone who falls under the realm of beauty criticism, has to look at it as not just a tool to talk about what makes eyelashes look longer. It’s always something else. I run into beauty writers, or journalists, and their job is just to disseminate the information that is out there but I think that a more curious mind who might fall under the umbrella of beauty criticism is going to look beyond that. They are going to be asking the larger questions behind it.
What is the purpose of beauty criticism then?
What I leaned when writing my book was that women have given a lot of thought to beauty but they weren’t willing to acknowledge it, embrace it or see it as normal even. So many women are eager to dismiss the way that they have thought about beauty, dismiss the time that they spend preparing themselves, dismiss the money, dismiss the effort and the hopefulness. There was just a lot of self-dismissal going around beauty. The impetus behind much of these feelings is an acknowledgement that at the end of the day, there are people starving in the world and here you are with a drawer full of lipsticks – there is something wrong there.
Obviously we need to keep beauty in context, but that said, so many women wanted to just rush away from beauty. Beauty is consuming your time, energy, money, effort, thought and self-image – if you are not willing to embrace and examine the meaning of it then you are not really helping yourself. The base premises of beauty criticism is that it has to recognize that beauty work, rituals and products matter. The purpose would be to – I hate this word but – liberate women form feeling shame about caring about those things.
Also potentially, the purpose is to get the beauty industry to pay a little bit more attention. Dove campaign for real beauty recognised the fact that some women didn’t feel so great about themselves so they’ve got this decade long campaign aimed towards getting women to feel good about themselves. I think the whole campaign is bullshit but that’s a different story, but the idea is that they noted what early beauty critics were saying about the industry and tried to respond to it. That is a useful first step in seeing how a larger body of criticism could shape the industry as a whole.
Your first book is published this month, could you tell me what it is about and how it came about.
I started a blog around 5 years ago called the The Beheld. I wanted the blog to be a collection of interviews at first, so I was interviewing women from all different walks of life. I was looking to see what both individual women had to say and what threads connected all of those women. The more that I talked to these women and put their long-forms interviews up, the more I realised that I myself had a lot of thoughts stemming from what they said. So I started writing more essays myself and doing a little bit of what you would call criticism. And that lead me on to write my first book which is called Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Live. The book is all about how beauty has affected how we are, especially given that I’m part of the first generation of women that came of age after The Beauty Myth (1990) book by Naomi Wolf became a best seller. It really changed the way world saw women’s relationship to beauty, however the unintended consequence of that book was that we begun to see women as primarily having a negative relationship with their looks. My book aims to take a step toward rectifying that, by embracing the more holistic experience that women have with the way that they look.
Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Live is published by Simon & Schuster