Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Lives talks beauty icons, societal standards and future perceptions of beauty.
by Claire Butwinick
Photo by Siouxsie Suarez
The common saying tells us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we also have photoshopped models, Instagram stars and underwear models sporting elaborate wings contributing to the mainstream interpretation of beauty. So what happens when we begin to question these desired aesthetics that we have been conditioned to accept and strive for by our constant exposure to the “ideal image?” In Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s critically acclaimed book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Lives, she explores the complexities of modern beauty standards and practices. Through extensive research, interviews and critiques on social media and advertisements, Whitefield-Madrano analyzes the effects of the of beauty industry on society and self-perception. Ahead of our event with Autumn this week at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, we turned to the expert herself to ask about her opinions on makeup, body positive campaigns and the way she perceives inner and outer beauty.
Claire Butwinick: What sparked your interest in the modern dynamics of the beauty industry?
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: My interest began when I was trying to untangle my own relationship to beauty. I’d had this push-pull relationship with the industry—I coveted all the stuff you see on the pages of beauty magazines, and enjoyed buying them, but then would get frustrated when I couldn’t get it quite right. I also had come to believe that the beauty industry fed women a pretty solid line of “you’re not good enough,” and while that’s true, I also had a hard time believing that women were just that eager to throw money at an industry that told us to hate ourselves. There had to be something else there, and I wanted to find out what.
CB: Who is your inner/outer beauty icon?
AWM: Honestly, Gloria Steinem. She’s a perfect example of the contradictions of beauty: When she was coming to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s, not only was she intelligent and articulate, she was conventionally good-looking. She became a media darling as “the face of feminism” because she defied the erroneous stereotype that feminists were bitter because they were ugly—which allowed her to get away with saying things far more radical than some other feminists were saying. The idea was that because she was pretty, maybe feminism wasn’t so bad. It’s a gross sentiment, and she didn’t actively exploit it. But sort of against her will, she became known for both her politics and her looks. The funny thing is that she’s said since then that she wasn’t ever considered beautiful until she became a feminist! It was the supposed shock of seeing a good-looking feminist that drove people to call her beautiful. In any case, she was and remains a beautiful woman, and she embodies a certain form of glamour that I’ve always found enticing. So she’s definitely someone who is a role model for her inner beauty, and her own beauty narrative is fascinating.
CB: How have your opinions on makeup changed since conducting your research for “Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Lives”?
AWM: I wouldn’t say that my opinion on makeup has changed, but my own use of it has. Listening to some women detail how much joy they derived from their beauty routine, and how much fun they had playing with products, made me want to play more with it myself. I’ve always been a sort of “functional beauty” person—the “natural look,” you might call it. Part of that was because that look felt right to me, but I learned part of that was because I was afraid of getting it wrong—of showing up with a bold lipstick and having people think I was foolish for trying to call attention to myself. I broke out of that a bit, and while I’m still pretty “natural,” I enjoy trying new colors way more than I did before.
CB: Recently, there has been a flurry of beauty campaigns like Aeire Real, Always #LikeAGirl , and Dove Real Beauty, which highlight the diversity of real women. Do you think these campaigns have been successful? Enough to rival objectifying advertisements?
AWM: I’m glad those campaigns exist—the more diversity we see in images, the more we begin to reshape our baseline notion of what beauty is, and of course it’s refreshing to see someone who looks more like me in a campaign as opposed to someone who looks like a supermodel. That said, those campaigns often hinge on the idea that women hate themselves. And some women do, but most of us have a much more fluctuating, complex relationship with beauty and value; most of these ads don’t acknowledge that, and instead pose beauty as an entity as something women are always in opposition to in some form. I worry that campaigns like these exploit women in a different way than more traditional campaigns do, particularly some aspects of the Dove Real Beauty campaign, which at times seems like it’s trying to control women’s interior lives in addition to their exteriors.
CB: How did your experiences working at Ms. magazine and CosmoGirl influence your perception on beauty?
AWM: Being at the flagship magazine of the feminist movement, and then at a magazine people liked to dismiss as being frivolous—and seeing that the kind of people who worked at each of these magazines weren’t entirely different from one another—made it clear to me that we’d drawn a lot of false divisions. “Serious” women aren’t supposed to care about makeup, even as all women are supposed to be attractive; “frivolous” women aren’t supposed to be whip-smart. But you had women at Ms. who wore full faces of makeup and were clothes horses, and women at CosmoGirl who didn’t wear a drop of it and who were just as political as the folks at Ms. I’d expected to be sort of an outlier at CosmoGirl by being—ta-da!—a feminist who ALSO liked makeup, what a shock! But surprise, surprise, most of my colleagues there were feminists too.
CB: What beauty advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
AWM: I’d tell her not to pick at her zits! I still have acne scars from doing that. I’d also tell her to appreciate the facets of conventional beauty that come naturally to you when you’re young. I bemoaned my “bad skin” back then so I didn’t recognize that while I had acne sometimes, I also had a really nice plush quality to my skin, like everyone does when you’re 18. I look and feel better inside and out than I did when I was 18, but man alive, do I miss that natural plushness to my face! So I’d tell her that, but she wouldn’t have listened.
CB: How do you see the definition of beauty changing in the future?
AWM: The biggest way I see the definition of beauty changing in the future is its expansion to men. We reward good looks in men as much as we do for women—more, in some cases—but we don’t usually conceive of them as being beautiful per se. We prefer to stick with handsome, cute, sexy, what have you. But I love the word beauty and how it relates to the sublime. We’re beginning a major shift in how we think about gender and how rigidly we’ve defined gender, and I think along with giving men a little more cultural permission to play with their looks, we’re coming to appreciate the sort of mystical element of beauty and how it can show up in men too. That’s not entirely a good thing, though—I don’t want us to start exploiting and evaluating men on their looks as a sort of comeuppance for the ways women have been treated historically.
CB: What are your go-to inner/outer beauty tips?
AWM: Honestly my biggest outer beauty tips are also sort of inner—sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. If I slack in those areas I immediately look worse, and sometimes if I’m having trouble getting myself to bed it can be a good motivation to remember that a lack of sleep will show up on my skin the next day. Also, shape your eyebrows. It changed my whole face, I swear.
CB: You said on your blog that a person can make themselves more attractive just by tweaking their personality. Have you tried it? And out of curiosity, did it work?
AWM: You tell me! No, seriously, I haven’t tried it in the way I mention in the book. But I have also come to understand that I’m very conventionally feminine in a lot of ways, by which I mean I have traits that have usually been associated with women. I’m warm and friendly and welcoming and I don’t think people tend to be threatened by me. That probably serves me well insofar as seeming conventionally attractive. But does it make me appear attractive in the way I’d secretly prefer to be attractive?—charismatic, compelling, spellbinding? I don’t think it does. If I had a harsher persona, meaning that I was still perfectly pleasant but seemed more severe, I might not have that benefit, and that’s troubling.
Want to join in on the conversation and touch on some beauty ideas we haven’t yet discussed with Autumn? Make sure to mark your calendar for our upcoming event, “How Has Beauty Shaped You?” where we will discuss the complexities of modern beauty with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano in partnership with Leaders Of Today and Tomorrow (LOTT). We invite you to join us at Magers and Quinn Bookstore on Tuesday, January 24th at 7:00 pm to reflect, critique and refine everything you know about beauty.
Claire Butwinick is a contributing writer for The Riveter. She is a Minneapolis native who has moved out West to study journalism at The University of Washington – Seattle. Claire loves writing with her colorful pens, funky sunglasses, and all things iridescent. Check out what she’s up to on Instagram.