“Make-up is both an interest and an expectation, and I don’t think the two are in conflict,” says the Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race author.
I’ve been thinking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s skincare routine. By now, you may have already heard that the unapologetically socialist 29-year-old New York congresswoman posted the basics of her method on Instagram last month. For those interested, it consists of double cleansing, followed by a toner, a serum with active ingredients, moisturiser and daily sunscreen. Her routine drew far more media attention than the average celebrity skincare feature. That’s because she’s a politician. Among the press coverage was an underlying assumption that, in talking about her skincare, AOC’s honesty was a little bit revolutionary. She kicked back against a simmering assumption that skincare and beauty – female- focused interests – are vain and self-absorbed. That women who are interested in these things do not have our own minds, and are only interested in being pretty and pliable – background decorations in the life of someone far more important, and almost certainly male.
It rankles in the eyes of some men who think that we do these things for the male gaze. It’s a shock to see lips coated in red lipstick speak up for justice, rather than smile subserviently. But it’s also a received wisdom in some feminist circles. Years ago, at a feminist conference, I listened to a well-dressed academic lament that young women were fooled into a false consciousness when we claimed to be threading our eyebrows for ourselves when, in fact, it was for the patriarchy. The academic did not appear to be wearing her natural hair colour, but I didn’t dare challenge her.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been arguing with myself about what it means to be a young woman with a serious job in the public eye. My debut non-fiction book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, was published when I was 27. Its success put me on the cover of Stylist. The book was a Sunday Times bestseller. It won three prestigious awards and drew praise from politicians. And as the book travelled through the world, it required me to be seen with it. I obliged, bringing my make-up and skincare with me. A red lip for my author headshot to let the world know I meant business. Glowy foundation and orange blusher – a very women-of-colour-friendly shade – for my TV interviews.
I resent the conflict that ensues when worldly women put effort into the way we look. It’s both expected of us and derided. Expected because what we’re told is a choice is often a necessity. I was contractually obliged to participate in publicity for my book and, as a young woman, that involved photo shoots, hair and make-up. And yet, it’s derided because we’re not supposed to talk too publicly about the process of looking polished. There’s an illusion to maintain, and a feeling we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with such flippant matters.
I’m tired of women being put into little boxes. Make-up and beauty are both an interest and an expectation, and I don’t think the two are in conflict. The interest is as legitimate as any other form of artistry. But I would like to do away with the expectation, and the sexist hypocrisy, in which we are supposed to care about our looks but also not care because it makes us look like airheads. I’d like to see a world where women are not expected to be made up in order to appear ‘presentable’ in public. But I also hope that those of us for whom skincare and make-up are an interest can indulge, unchided.
AND ANOTHER THING…
January and February are always cold, sedentary and sunlight-starved. My cuticles dry up, my clothes become uncomfortable and my socialising narrows down to nothing. This year, I’ve interrupted winter’s unhealthy habits by anticipating and then acting on them. My friends are being caught up with weekly. A winter body requires new winter clothes, rather than being berated for not fitting into the summer ones. My days have been lifted by James Blake’s latest album, Assume Form. I managed to pierce through a high-stress day with an early morning solo walk and a listen to the album. The combination of both is almost meditative, weaning me off the ledge of an anxiety peak. It is the closest to ‘mindful’ that I’ve ever felt.”
Brie Larson says: “The way Reni writes is awesome. Her book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is so powerful.”
Photography: Mark Harrison
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