Get a lipstick, get a job? The bare-faced cynicism of the ’empowering’ makeover

Has any woman, in the history of anything, ever thought to herself “if only I could be more empowered“. Empowerment – that ambiguous, Oprah-esque substitute for genuine power – strikes me as pretty low on a woman’s list of priorities. Choice, freedom, respect, yes, empowerment, no. And yet we’re still being told that it’s exactly what we need.

Empowerment is liberation turned into victim-blaming. Once you’re “empowered” everything’s in your hands and privilege ceases to exist. Empowerment is part of the reason why no one believes in workplace discrimination any more. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we no longer entertain the idea that employers might still be sexist. These “empowered” women, well, they make their own beds and they can damn well lie in them.

Empowerment is particularly toxic because it’s so vague. Ten years ago The Onion produced an article proclaiming Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does:

“From what she eats for breakfast to the way she cleans her home, today’s woman lives in a state of near-constant empowerment,” said Barbara Klein, professor of women’s studies at Oberlin College and director of the study. “As recently as 15 years ago, a woman could only feel empowered by advancing in a male-dominated work world, asserting her own sexual wants and needs, or pushing for a stronger voice in politics. Today, a woman can empower herself through actions as seemingly inconsequential as driving her children to soccer practice or watching the Oxygen network.”

It’s a very funny piece, but only because it’s so miserably close to the truth.

Today I’ve been reading a piece in the Guardian about a movement set up by makeup mogul Bobbi Brown. Pretty Powerful has been “created to celebrate the diverse and unique beauty in all women”. Aah, that’s nice, isn’t it? You can even buy a book, featuring both “real women and celebrities”! Hurrah! I’m being sarcastic, of course, but to be fair to Bobbi, I own one of her products – the gel eyeliner – and I’ll be honest, it’s quite good as long as you remember to clean the brush. But from my limited experience of the Brown range, I’d say it has sod all to do with diversity and being unique. Sure, I could have bought the liner in a different colour, but it’s all about drawing the same old boring lines along your lids because your eyes aren’t deemed to look good enough on their own.

Brown is working with a US charity called Dress for Success “which helps unemployed women get back into the workplace through mentoring and transformative makeovers”. What’s more, next week “a formal corporate partnership with Dress for Success London will be launched in Britain”:

Based in Islington, north London, the small-scale venture – where Samantha Cameron  volunteered in 2010 – helped 1,250 women last year. That’s a fraction of the 1.09 million women unemployed in the UK, but Brown hopes that, by raising awareness of the scheme and supporting it with practical resources and funds, it might grow to be as prolific as the US operation.

Hmm. I don’t wish to be mean and cynical, but the very mention of Samantha Cameron is setting alarm bells ringing. A charity which seeks to help unemployed women with – what? Lipstick? What kind of answer is this in the face of outsourcing, short-term contracts, workfare, exploitation, unworkable shift patterns, unaffordable childcare … just what?

Brown argues that what she’s giving these women isn’t just make-up, it’s self-esteem:

“Their self-esteem is at rock bottom, and even if they have relevant qualifications and résumés they just don’t have the confidence to sell themselves as the right person for the position. If you don’t feel good about yourself, how can you expect others to invest in you?”

When these women go to Dress for Success, they have a session with a trained stylist who helps put together an outfit, with accessories, that makes them feel good (they get to keep it). “Then we teach them how to do their makeup so they look polished and professional,” says Brown. “With that, they feel they can accomplish anything. It changes their life.”

Well, that’s just great. Master the eyelash curler, conquer the world.

I don’t doubt that having a makeover can help women feel better about themselves, especially if, for reasons which presumably have nothing to do with the cosmetics industry in the first place, they value themselves primarily on the basis of how attractive they are. Even so, while a nice outfit might make a woman feel she can “accomplish anything”, it doesn’t mean she can, nor should it mean it’s her fault when she still finds her options restricted. The makeover offers a boost, that’s clear, but it’s a temporary one, and one that’s situated within a broader cycle of ever-decreasing self-esteem as women try to look “acceptable” to the unforgiving culture that surrounds them, and fail ever more dramatically as the so-called “ravages” of time take their toll.

Dress for Success isn’t the only example of a project where vulnerable women are “helped” to regain their pride by a benevolent cosmetics giant. For instance, the L’Oreal Foundation describes itself as committed to “restoring dignity and confidence” through “socio-aesthetic workshops” for women with cancer and make-up sessions for (I kid you not) “young patients of anorexia”. Because obviously, that’ll help (I had years of hospitalisations and CBT; if only I’d been given more advice on finding the right mascara). Even if these things are not harmful to the individual – I wouldn’t be surprised if many women appreciate these gestures – I’m still troubled by it all, and I’m not the only one. Complaints from female breast cancer sufferers about the crass “pinkification” of their disease have increased in recent years, and it’s hard not to see cheery cancer “makeovers” as part of the problem. In Smile Or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich notes how being positive has been come to be seen as almost the cure for cancer, placing too great a responsibility on the sufferer. Empower yourself with pink ribbons! Restore that “lost” femininity, ignoring the fact that no one had the right to tell you it had gone to begin with!

I don’t want to be someone who rants about charities, or indeed make-up. I’m rather fond of both. But this particular combination – and the way in which prettiness and image-boosting are presented as serious answers to female unemployment and sickness – seems quite ugly to me. Just stick to the eyeliner, Bobbi, and work on developing a brush that cleans itself.

POSTSCRIPT: I am sure, from comments below, I got it wrong about Dress for Success (see comments). I am sorry. And embarrassed, seeing as I’m accusing other people of being too cynical …


16 thoughts on “Get a lipstick, get a job? The bare-faced cynicism of the ’empowering’ makeover

  1. Buck up, ladies! Stop whining about the patriarchy holding you back, or sexist employers evaluating your competence mainly by your looks.
    Just PLAY THE GAME, OK? If you only knew how to put your slap on properly, you’d be EMPOWERED, because you’d look like a REAL WOMAN. Not to mention giving all your male colleagues something nice to look at. Smile a bit more, while you’re at it.
    Thank you, Glosswitch – nail on head, as usual! 🙂

  2. OK I’m going to make a stand for Dress for Success because they do actually do great work. It’s not just ‘here’s a makeover now get on with it’. High quality appropriate interview clothing is bloody expensive. Dress for Success take donations of really smart office clothes and give them to vulnerable and impoverished women jobseekers. This is practical help with a real financial barrier to work.

    The women, most of whom are referred from mental health, homelessness and domestic abuse orgs, are then given loads of interview training, confidence building (which they do actually need, it’s a good idea to be able to meet your interviewer’s eye occasionally and to talk about your skills and successes at all) AND guidance on dressing for work. As well as referrals to any other suitable organisations to support them on their way. If the women get a job they give them four more days worth of suitable clothing to get them going.

    Whether or not we like the way that women are judged on their appearance at work (hint: we don’t) it’s no fair that privilieged women get to make a choice to play the game when it suits us and vulnerable women don’t. This is another case of expecting higher virtue from the excluded than from the privileged. “We’re going to make you have our morals for us because it’s good for you!”

    Poor and vulnerable women should not be excluded from the workplace because no one has told them what professional dressing looks like and/or because they can afford a decent interview suit and the clothes to follow it up.

    I hate all this empowerment shit as much as any of you but you’ve got the wrong target here. Dress for Success are ace.

    1. Thank you for the information on this. I have added an extra bit to the end of this post now. To the effect that, as regards what DfS do, I have been wrong, especially as I’ve taken it upon myself to call others out on their cynicism *cringes*

  3. I see Quince Tart has got there before me in defending Dress For Success, but while I’m not a huge fan of the very milquetoast Caucasian look of Bobbi Brown’s brand, I’ve also got to defend it because I’ve worked with DfS.

    I approached them a few years ago for help with interview clothes after long term unemployment and homelessness, and they didn’t just offer me a suit, they offered me some work doing make up courses for them as I was still a make up artist at the time. Most of the women on my courses were victims of domestic violence, a lot of whom had been told by their abusive partners they looked like sluts and whores in a lippie. So half were scared to wear any make up in case they were blamed, the other half had rebelled by ladling it on. We discussed wearing make up because you wanted to, not because anyone else wanted you too. So at the end of the day, I’d showed the women how to be good to their skin on a budget (and not just in a cosmetic way but looking why they might have eczema for example), to choose their look and to see make up as something more akin to putting cushions on the sofa than painting the walls. Half of them still went home wearing none because they realised they didn’t need it and the other half wore less and because they loved it.

    I went home and realised that unlike the fashion industry that made me feel terrible about myself and need a mask of make up, I didn’t. I started wearing much less, felt more confident in myself (and ironically retired from make up work.) But my professional work with both Dress for Success and Look Good Feel Better, teaching cancer patients to disguise their missing eyebrows so children didn’t laugh and point or their boss didn’t realise how sick they really were and fire them, was nothing like you’ve portrayed here. Feeling you can face the world is vital in building self esteem for both men and women and being pro-active in that is part of it, so I can’t get behind even remotely targetting an org that allows women to stand up and tackle one of the issues of unemployment and aim for work that’s above minimum wage and doesn’t come with a drip dry polyester uniform.

    You may laugh at the ‘women empowered by other women’ vibe but sometimes it really really works, especially in peer led women only spaces (like DfS where many women got the chance to meet other DV survivors or divorcees in a non ‘victim’ based set up like a support group) Frankly it’s starting to grate on me when some women are judged for having nice hair or make up or nails by people who think that’s a bit frivolous and somehow letting the side down to use mascara. I’m actually very proud of the work I did with orgs like this, because I know it helped other women see that they didn’t have to conform but be individuals and it was my little corner of patriarchy fighting.

    I wish DfS continued success, especially since the abolition of the Social Fund in April means these jobseekers you are so worried about now only one option (ie: private charity) to access clothing for new work (and none for moving house or childcare deposits). I haven’t seen any feminist articles about that though.

    1. Thank you for this – I think you are right about Dress for Success (and I am wrong not to have informed myself more about DfS before writing this). To be clear, I don’t think for a minute women “let the side down” for wearing mascara (I don’t go out without it) but I’m uncomfortable with the ways in which cosmetics companies exploit the “empowerment” angle to suggest they help women (but can see how if they offer things to charities who don’t have the same motives, that’s still a benefit). It pisses me off that L’Oreal push “empowerment” when so much of what they do diminishes women’s self-esteem – but you are right about DfS. Sorry!

      1. I agree with you about the contradiction of ’empowerment’ while telling women they are ugly or flawed unless they use this product (hello L’Oreal) and the article about Bobbi Brown that noted the link with DfS was ripe with that so I can see where the confusion arose. And actually now you mention it, I wonder how DfS will continue thrive in the way it does when big cosmetic houses are involved pushing their product in the way they typically do?

  4. I agree, dress for success do good work, a lot of their clients can’t afford professional work clothes and do not even have cvs or know what their skills are because they are often so demoralized. It isn’t about looking pretty but clean, tidy, smart, professional, organised, ready for work.
    I hate the culture of pretty and pink, and the big cosmetic firms may well be damaging dress for success’s image by equaling a woman’s confidence to lipstick. But that isn’t the dress for succes i know, i hope they don’t turn into a version of ‘the swan’. If it does i am all for humanly putting it out of its misery

  5. I don’t know anything about DfS but if the comments are true then sounds like they’re much needed.

    I get what you’re saying though – there was a advert on the underground in London today which said “to smash the glass ceiling, you don’t need a sharp stick, you need a sharp suit”

    Er. I don’t think either of them will quite do it somehow!

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