Being a discussion of plague, guilt, and happiness.
“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”— Susan Sontag
This wasn’t the post I promised this week. I know. In my defense, I was not entirely expecting the apocalypse to happen, and it is making me have some feels. I’m hoping to get back onto my normal track next week, but today we’re working through some things.
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Electromagnetic Sontag. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is wondering if that obsession is “okay” in light of recent events.
I’ve never been a big fan of “Whatabboutism,” or the declaration that one thing is unimportant in the face of another, worse thing. Sure, sometimes it can be a useful reminder of first world problems not being the worst (Yes, you broke your phone charger, but there are people dying of malaria). But most of the time it is used as an attempt to stop legitimate criticism of actual problems just because other actual problems also exist. “Why are you complaining about income inequality, when women in the Middle East are getting stoned to death for adultery?” “How can you worry about being called “sweetheart” in the workplace when other women are being sexually assaulted in war zones?” The intention is to basically make you admit that the thing you care about is less important than the other thing, so you really should just shut up about the thing you care about. (I usually answer with something like, “You are so right, here is an NGO that works on X topic, let’s both donate RIGHT NOW.” Strangely their passion dies a bit after that.)
I hear this type of argument a lot, because one of the things I care about and write about is popular culture. And if you dare to care about representation in media, or female characters in fiction, or the way that female directors get screwed over at the Oscars, you will definitely get told that the thing you care about is Not Important.
Despite hating this argument, I found myself giving it to myself on March 17th. Aka, St. Patrick’s Day. Like most white girls in the US who want free shots or free green beer, I claim to be of Irish heritage. (Though if my family’s 23 and Me results are to be believed, I’m more “genetically 25% Irish” and less “My great grandmother once dated someone named Sean O’Reilly” Irish.) But on most St. Patrick’s Days, I partake in the following routine:
Realize it is St. Patrick’s Day.
Frantically look for green clothing that isn’t in the washing machine or on the floor.
Lecture basically everyone I know about how bodily autonomy is important, and how we shouldn’t be pinching or kissing anyone without permission.
I did all of the same things this St. Patrick’s Day, with the addition of putting on some green eyeshadow as an eyeliner. And the extra addition of feeling very, very weird and as if I wasn’t paying attention to the right things. I was already feeling a bit off when I was grabbing my green tunic (out of the closet, not off the floor. This time). It felt somewhat petty and pointless to care that much about what color I was wearing.
It got worse when I started doing my makeup. It felt like fiddling when Rome burned.
With only one eye done, I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror.
“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself. “People in my state are getting sick, things are shutting down, and I’m worried about green eyeliner? Is this really the best thing I could be doing with my time?”
(I’ve never had an existential crisis with half a face full of makeup, but this was apparently the time for such things.)
After berating myself for being a flaky, superficial, first-world-problems bitcah for a while, I took a deep breath, and asked myself some more questions.
Was I doing the most I could to help the situation? Well, I didn’t panic buy (okay I panic bought Diet Dr. Pepper. But I buy four packs of that at a time anyway. I have an addiction). I was donating to local aid agencies, reposting news stories, and confronting people online who were saying this was all a conspiracy.
Was I hurting anything by doing makeup? No more than I ever was by forcing people to see my makeup.
Was I going to improve anything by foregoing makeup? Not really… but it felt very strange to be caring about something like makeup in a time of crisis.
Exactly how long was this crisis going to last? How long should I feel terrible for doing parts of my routine? …. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. This isn’t a momentary crisis, it’s a waiting game. It could be weeks, or months. It could be longer than I could imagine.
That’s the point where I finished up my other eye.
We are living in very unusual times. And a lot of the things that make our days normal, or make us feel happy, are either being taken away from us or are being given up by us voluntarily to help others. Going to see our friends, going to the movies, going out to eat, traveling… all of those things are gone, potentially for a long time. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty. And SO MUCH anxiety.
There is a lot about our lives we can’t control right now. There’s a lot about our normal lives that we can’t do right now. But small things, moments to breathe that also bring us happiness, can still happen. And these small bits of happiness that aren’t going to hurt anyone else need to still happen, or else we’re going to go crazy. We need some familiarity. We need some joy.
I’m not saying we should turn away from what is happening, or that we should be willfully ignorant about the bad things in the world. You should still be doing whatever is in your power to combat the virus, whether that’s donating to nonprofits, sewing masks, or just keeping your ass home. But we can’t enter this with the attitude of, “This is going to pass quickly and then we can get back to normal.” This IS the new normal for a while. Whatever decisions we’re making have to be as sustainable as possible, or else we’re going to snap in one fashion or another.
It helps to rephrase the question. Instead of, “Should I really be worried about makeup right now?” ask, “Should I really be worried about my mental health right now?” There is a difference between “being an individualistic asshole” and “giving your brain some breathing room.” The former hoards toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The latter gives your a few minutes where you’re not panicking.
For me, that means continuing to experiment with makeup. It means continuing to watch Beauty YouTube. It means taking moments for myself, and remembering that there is a world beyond everything being on fire.
Try to remember these things for yourself, too.