There was a Zadie Smith quote floating around at some point last year, one about forbidding her daughter from looking in the mirror for more than fifteen minutes. Her daughter was, at the time, seven years old.
I don’t remember looking in the mirror at the age of seven, which is not to say I didn’t, by any means. I remember clearly the mirrors of a few years later, though, the cruel jolt of recognition of my adolescent face in reflective surfaces. I remember the obsessiveness of it, an obsessiveness that still tugs at me now when I pass the windows of empty parked cars or quiet shop fronts. As if I’d forgotten what I looked like, as if I was hoping that this time it would be somebody different looking back.
Needless to say, it never was, and no semblance of change arrived until I discovered makeup. I’d been struggling with cheap eyeliner and orange tinted concealer for a few years, but I didn’t have any semblance of a daily makeup routine until I started sixth form. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen I went to an all girls’ school, and what was the point of wearing makeup if there weren’t any boys to see it? This was the pervasive attitude of my peers and the girls who crowded around the bathroom mirrors at three o’clock to smear Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse on their faces before they could get on the bus (it was 2009, after all); it permeated all of our brains as if by osmosis.
Did these girls spend more than fifteen minutes on their faces? I don’t think so. Time was of the essence; god forbid you were still in school more than five minutes after the final bell rang. Did I take more than fifteen minutes to clumsily apply my makeup at the age of sixteen? I’m not sure. Everything was, and still is, very dependent on the cooperativeness of the eyeliner wing.
What I’m trying to say is that time spent in front of a mirror has nothing to do with anything. For a seven year old, perhaps. But I have already seen this quote twisted out of context and applied to adult women, as if women and makeup have a straightforward relationship. As if a woman’s decisions around makeup are ever entirely hers. “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?” asks Margaret Atwood in The Robber Bride. “Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy.” If makeup is a male fantasy, women’s bare faces are just as much of a male fantasy.
Is makeup a tool of the patriarchal culture we live in? Yes. Is it actively anti-feminist to wear it? No. Like I said, it’s complicated. Mainstream discourse around femininity, beauty, and feminism are too often reductive and counter-productive; nuance seems to fly out the window whenever a mascara wand comes into the equation. As a woman, your face and your body are never simply yours; in Atwood’s words, “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
And what of young girls and makeup? What of the pre-teen girls, ultimately still children, who seem to be increasingly more coiffed and polished as the years pass? Gone are the days of thirteen year olds with blue Miss Sporty eyeshadow and greasy side fringes, or so it seems. Is Instagram to blame? Probably, to some extent; the effect of social media on your mental health is so dependent on how you use it, something grown adults still struggle with, let alone children. Above all, it’s frustrating and saddening; let girls be ugly. Let them experiment and look weird and get hideous haircuts. Let them be ugly. And let them see themselves be ugly. For the longest time, I was almost scared of what I might see in the mirror. I couldn’t look at my own body when it wasn’t covered by jeans and oversized t-shirts. I wish I had spent more time looking in the mirror as a teenager, because practice makes perfect and god knows I should have practised the act of self-love a bit more. I should have practised looking at my reflection with an eye that wasn’t critical, an eye that just saw what was there.
Maybe children should be spending less time looking in the mirror, but maybe it’s more about how they look in the mirror.