I have spots.
They’ve been a part of my facial landscape since my teens. When aged about 13, a particularly spiteful Home Ec teacher (who I can only think took against me because of my incompetence around a Victoria Sponge) suggested to the class that spots like mine were the product of poor hygiene and could easily be prevented by washing. Despite indulging in frequent ablutions, and despite now having grey hair and wrinkles to further enhance my characterful features, the spots persist. They’re just there. I don’t bother about them overly. Occasionally, if I’m really lucky, I’ll get a right good squeezer.
I seldom wear make-up. I’m a Very Busy Person and have better things to spend my time on than colouring myself in. (Although I do wear it when the mood takes me; it’s like grown-up dressing up. And – this is important – I’m perfectly happy with other people opting to wear makeup. I am the sort of feminist that believes women are free to do whatsoever they wish.) Also, the older I grow, the less I care about my appearance. This doesn’t mean I turn up to work dishevelled and sporting the latest in hessian couture, but rather that I’m not out to impress or attract anyone with what I wear or how I look. Certainly in my professional life, I don’t believe my failure to wear concealer makes the slightest difference to my productivity as an employee.
Hence I was rather taken aback today to receive some discreet advice about how I might be able to cure my embarrassing little problem. The main thing that I do, work-wise, is what I tend to describe as getting people to talk to each other. (Which, as it transpires, is also what I mostly do non-work-wise.) When the council needs to consult the public they often enlist my help. I’m a trained facilitator – specialising in Appreciative Inquiry – and I’m darned good. Today, I hosted a focus group about Southend’s new energy partnership; an arrangement which could save local people lots of money.
Having been up since 6.30 am for a radio interview about Southend Soup, it’s feasible my appearance was a trifle more haggard than usual.
However, my put-everyone-at-their-ease chipper demeanour, and facilitation expertise, should rate more highly than how visually appealing I am. After all, were I of the male persuasion, it would be unlikely I’d be wearing makeup and yet; I’ve never once heard anyone criticise a chap in a meeting for failing to make himself presentable.
After I’d wound down the conversation and thanked everyone for their time and contributions, one of the participants – a kindly, well-dressed gentleman likely in his 80s – decided to have a gentle word with me. He handed me a Post-it note on which, earlier in the event (obviously feeling concerned for me) he’d written the name of a brand of cream that, he assured me, was very effective at clearing up all manner of boils, blemishes and other sub-cutaneous unpleasantness. With kind intent, I’m sure, he told me how he’d used it when suffering from outbreaks in the tropics. He suggested I talk to a pharmacist as it was a less common ointment, but still available in some places.
Stunned, my default reaction was the British reaction: Thank you. You’ve just been politely insulting, but, thank you.
My inside voice was less impressed. Oh, you are not telling me I need to sort out my appearance. This is not the thing you are choosing to say to me after I’ve spent two hours conducting a professional consultation. Later on, inside voice continued to provide appropriate ripostes;
does it offend you that I have blemishes? would you have offered that advice had I been male?
Although the best response was offered by a friend when I relayed this tale;
Thank you for your skin care advice. Could I ask which foundation you use..?
If one doesn’t confront such attitudes, things don’t change. However, would it really have been useful to have challenged him? Or would that, actually, have been a rather unkind thing to do – giving that his intent was to be helpful?
This is an example of everyday sexism: the expectation that women should be pretty. I’ve even heard women say it. Stuff like if you’re representing your organisation, it’s important to be well groomed. For women, well groomed means covering up any unsightly imperfections. Because men don’t wish to see that. Perhaps it’s considered an insult that a woman would attend a meeting having not made the requisite degree of effort to appear appealing.
I don’t believe appearances ought to matter anything like as much as they do. But I understand they do matter. And I’m happy to dress smartly when the occasion dictates. Sometimes going as far as to don heels. (Sometimes very much enjoying the sporting of heels.)
It would, for example, be absurd and disrespectful to attend a wedding in scuffed trainers and muddy jeans. (Unless that was the dress code.) But, being expected to cover my spots, or working harder to eliminate them..? Should that be a requirement? What if I had a birth mark on my face? Or a scar? Am I also failing as a woman because I don’t attempt to fix my natural wrinkles using miracle creams or, heaven forfend, by injecting botulism – the most deadly toxin known to humankind – into my face?
Personally, this is my preferred method for face-lifting. Although each to their own.
During my younger years, like so many, I spent lots of time and money on ‘cures’ for acne. I felt self-conscious and ugly. Just as young people are often made to feel unattractive if they are the ‘wrong’ shape or have anything about them that stands out as different. I was also told, as a youngster, that I’d be ‘quite pretty’ if only I’d get my teeth fixed. I had braces, but my teeth want to be wonky. Over the years they re-wonked. Used to worry about. Don’t now. And I’m happier for it.
The messages for young people (which, in my experience is when the grooming about grooming begins) should be
you’re grand, everyone’s unique, gender isn’t binary and neither’s sexuality, be kind n good n stuff, follow your passions, love yourself and accept others, celebrate difference, do lots of stuff people tell you not to, believe impossible things, spend time outdoors, don’t hurt spiders.
people will love you more if you just work a bit harder to look perfect. You know, like all the shiny, successful, rich, people in the magazines and films.
Perhaps I am being unkind and over-reacting. He meant well, and maybe I could benefit from getting some of that cream. (Spots can be a trifle sore, after all.) However, it’s the Principle of The Thing. The expectation that if I don’t look a certain way, I need fixing. Perhaps I’m even to be pitied.
For the record, I can make myself look like this
Sometimes I wear make up. Sometimes I dress fancy and wear heels. I do it when I want to. (Which is rare these days. It’s too much of a faff.)
I don’t cover my spots because you think I should. I don’t look pretty because you think I should. Because I’m not your bitch.