I read Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives when I was at the beach over a month ago, devouring it in one sitting. But it took me forever to write something at least approximating a review. As you may know, my book reviews often sound like a 4th-grader's book report rather than actual writing, and since I admire Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value so much and have been an ardent fan of her blog for years, I didn't want to do my usual sad review. I finally decided to bite the bullet and share my thoughts on this book, simple though they are, because I want my readers (all 2 of you) to know how excellent it is.
I was so very excited to hear via Autumn's blog that she was writing a whole book! Naturally I had high hopes, and she exceeded my expectations. The general aim of Face Value is to gain a better understanding of the role beauty plays in women's everyday lives, something the author achieves through a combination of scholarly research, interviews with a diverse selection of women, and her own insightful analysis of beauty culture.
I was really curious to see how Autumn would handle the perspectives of women who are not white, straight and middle-class, as this would be my chief concern if I were undertaking a book about the relationship between women and beauty. I should have known she'd be on top of it though - right off the bat, even before the introduction, she included an author's note about her effort to interview women "demographically unlike" herself and identify the commonalities that exist in terms of beauty regardless of their ethnic/racial/class/age/sexual orientation differences.
The first chapter explores how, despite science's best attempts, we are unable to decisively quantify human beauty, and also why we even want to measure it in the first place. Autumn carefully examines research by evolutionary psychologists, biologists, and other scientists, all of whom try to (unsuccessfully) identify specific features that make someone perceived universally as attractive. The thigh gap, waist-hip ratio, the pencil test (something I'm guilty of conducting every year on my birthday since I turned 30), facial symmetry - all were invented as supposedly indisputable methods of calculating beauty. Autumn points out the flaws with most scientific studies and standards for determining beauty and how, on occasion, they even contradict one another. She concludes that the inability to quantify beauty isn't necessarily a bad thing: "quantifying beauty can alert us to the places where we instinctually challenge beauty norms, revealing to ourselves that allure is more multifaceted than hitting all the right neurons " (p.33).
The second chapter discusses the language we use to describe beauty. "Cute" has many more connotations that one would initially consider, and "gorgeous", "pretty", "lovely" and "beautiful" all signify different things. The author details the significance of beauty vocabulary and how we have the power to change our notions of beauty through the descriptors we use. Chapter 3 was my favorite, as it provided an in-depth analysis of why we wear makeup and the various ways, positive and negative, our decision to wear (or not to) is viewed in society, as well as how makeup fits into the larger notion of beauty. Autumn gets down to the nitty-gritty by asking the age-old question, "Is makeup quite literally a tool of the patriarchy, or an instrument of women's self-articulation?" (p. 87). There are a multitude of reasons we wear or don't wear makeup, and one is no more or less valid than the others. She ends the chapter by noting how makeup can be a way of challenging our comfort zones and, by extension, questioning the bigger meaning behind these zones. And she absolutely hit the nail on the head: posting a picture of my bare-faced self online is unthinkable for me; for my non-makeup-wearing sister, putting on a full face of cosmetics is totally out of her realm. What do these polar opposite approaches to makeup indicate about our feelings towards our various public and private roles in life?
Chapter 4 covers how notions of beauty shape our romantic relationships and dating. While maintaining the quality of the other chapters, I didn't find it quite as relevant since I'm an old married lady and the thought of dating makes me shudder. Again though, it's well-written and researched, I simply had a personal preference for other chapters. Chapter 5 investigates the double-edged sword beauty becomes in relation to other women. Beauty can be a bonding mechanism and a way to form meaningful friendships. At the same time, perhaps "beauty chatter" is just another way of enforcing traditional femininity. Beauty notions can also lead to fierce competition in terms of both self-esteem and men's attention (in the case of straight women, anyway). However, the conflation of beauty with other desirable traits, i.e., charisma, confidence, sex appeal, etc., or, as Autumn says, "masking life envy as beauty envy", can actually be helpful once one recognizes that it's not beauty they're coveting but some other attribute.
Chapters 6 and 7 examine the impact of the media's images of women and the influence of social media on self-representation, respectively. These were my next favorite chapters since I'm always up for a discussion of beauty advertising along with a more general critique of women's magazines, TV, blogs, etc., not to mention that I basically live online and am always thinking about how to best present myself to the world. Chapter 7 is particularly notable in that it delves into the recent online trend of men requesting feedback on their own, ahem, erotic photos (read: dick pics) in which they turn the male gaze on themselves, and also traces the rise of the male grooming industry and its implications for what we expect of a man's appearance. Autumn argues that instead of being an equalizer, the surge of products being offered specifically for men is actually harmful for both genders: "we create a separate sort of beauty myth for men...we're giving men the same old scripts. We're content to shunt the possibilities of 'hope in a jar' into a reservoir of conventional masculinity...in doing that, we shut down one possible route of bettering the lives of women, too." (p. 195-6).
The last chapter studies what the author calls the "therapeutic beauty narrative", or the story of how a woman's relationship with her looks evolves over her lifetime. Specifically, it explores how women (sometimes) arrive at a place of peace with their appearance, as well as how cosmetic companies have seized on the opportunity to exploit the narrative to sell more products. The book's conclusion explains why the topic of beauty is important and emphasizes that it should be taken seriously. While we can assume that most of the audience for this book already recognizes this, it doesn't hurt to have a reminder of the tremendous impact it has.
I may be biased, but overall I thought this book was fabulous. Both eloquent and humorous (I literally LOL'ed at some points), Face Value is a thoughtful approach to beauty and helps us understand our individual relationships to it. I must say it's downright awe-inspiring how Autumn was able to seamlessly intertwine heavy-duty scientific research, interviews with women from various backgrounds and personal anecdotes to create a compelling, cohesive analysis of how beauty affects women's day-to-day lives. Go and buy it!