Monday, June 22, 2009

The Gendered Care of the Self

Foucault's discussion of the 'care of the self' has followed the same interesting path from a concern with how we are shaped and constrained by power to how we create our own spaces within the web of power. In his own words, from being 'acted upon' to becoming 'works of arts' of our own making... It's an interesting shift, which seems to me closely related to the whole post-modernist hype emphasizing our own power to act upon our identities, resisting prescribed values and recipes.

What I find really interesting however is the overlap between this scholastic attention to individual power and the neoliberal discourse presenting the individual as all powerful, able to do things and to make things only by virtue of being determined and committed. Think of all those Hollywood movies where the main character succeeds because of her/his determination.

The care of the self, the duty to take care of and to form yourself into a worthy individual becomes an act of will, of determination and of commitment. But it is so rare that we stop and reflect on exactly what are the ideals that we aim for, what are the values informing them, who gets to profit out of those values, and what are the sanctions applied to those who refuse or, for that matter are unable to conform to them.

Someone very close to me has this very nasty habit of reminding me of how I fail to take care of myself. I'm more and more reluctant to use nail polish or hair dye, mostly for health reasons. But in a world of appearances, my refusal to use certain products and do certain things to my body is seen as a failure to take care of myself. I'm no longer properly groomed, as if my colorless nails are not enough. Truth be told, you seldom have any reasons to reflect on the constraining tyranny of 'looking good' when you conform. The act of conforming isn't even perceived as such: you find those shinny, long, red nails so very attractive. As a child, you're fascinated by them; but as a teenager, you learn their sexual power. A power you may start craving for. And you conform. And your nail polish becomes your most pretious ally, helping you climb the social ladder. So what's the big deal?

Try giving it up. Try persuading yourself that your natural nails are just as sexy as your red ones. Try persuading the your partner of that. Just as you have come to terms with it, try facing the your close friends and family. Then, maybe, you'll recognize how powerless we are in the face of the mainstream recipes for taking care of yourself. Moments like this one remind me that Foucault's idea of the care of the self as an empowering act of creation needs more meat to make sense.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Beauty's in the Eyebrow

Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the shape of your eyebrow... But who decides what shape is to be beautiful? And even more, how do we know what shape is beautiful for women and what shape works for men?

- "My doctor", the cosmetician says, "has really really wild eyebrows. No really, like her eyebrows are twisted, so she needs to use gel on them".
- "Really?"
- "Yes. What about your eyebrows", she says, "they are so thin..."
- "Well, that's how they have always grown. " I feel the panic taking control over me... I always thought my eyebrows were perfect. After all, as the story goes, when I was born, the doctor told my mother 'This baby's gonna be an actress, she has perfect eyebrows. Thin and arched as if they were drawn by an artist'
- "Oh, I thought you plucked them," the cosmetician says trying to mend my broken heart.

But the damage is all done. How will I ever look at my eyebrows again without the fear that their thinness does not mean perfection, but in fact, a lack of it?

- "Yeah, my doctor's eyebrows are really twisted," she jumps back to her previous thought. "She inherited them from her dad. But they are not nice for a woman".

So, not too thin, but not too man-like either - and especially not twisted... What to do, what to do? And what makes some eyebrow shapes more manly? I remember reading somewhere an article about Brooke Shields' eyebrows and how she, against all odds, made thick eyebrows beautiful. Against all odds, since Barbie's eyebrows are thin and precise...

Photo credits: dreamglow
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