Any writer or speaker who offers his opinions on a topic does so with the implicit promise that he is an expert in the subject and can offer insight not generally available to the general public. But I am forced to take a different tack, since I am about to opine on a subject—two subjects, in fact—of which I am completely ignorant: women and cosmetics. It is not that I am unfamiliar with the topics. As the saying goes, “some of my best friends are women,” and with one in particular I have shared my life and my bed (okay, our bed) for the last 39 years. I even have children and grandchildren of the female persuasion. Yet I cannot claim—and no man can claim—that such long acquaintance has led to real enlightenment. Still, in the admission of absolute ignorance there is a kind of relative knowledge, which is about the best that men can hope to achieve.

My meditation on cosmetics begins with an incident from a book on quite a different topic: Ingrid Betancourt’s Even Silence Has an End, an account of her six years as a captive of the communist guerillas in the jungles of Colombia. It so happened that before she was abducted, she visited a men’s and a women’s prison as part of her campaign for the presidency of Colombia. In the women’s prison, unlike the men’s, the inmates did their best to create a little microcosm of normal life. Their requests to Ingrid were for simple things, things that would help give them this feeling of normalcy, things like lipstick. Ingrid made some promises, which she promptly forgot. As a conventional liberal, she thought her real job was fighting for their rights and speeding their paperwork. But after a few years in her own hellish prison, she said, “How mistaken I was. It was the lipstick…that could have changed their lives. Now I understood.”

What is curious about this statement is that she offers no further explanation about the life-changing possibilities of lipstick. From this, I draw two conclusions. The first is that for the women reading this statement, no explanation is necessary, and for the men, no explanation is possible. And this leads to my second conclusion: any attempt to systematize human behavior and to place social order in neat and logical categories breaks apart when we come to the question of women.

For example, some think that all human action, all economics, politics, art, and religion can be explained in terms of a hedonic calculus of self-interest, and that to understand the laws of pleasure and pain is to understand all things. Now, if one confines the discussion to the the men one meets in the world, there is a certain plausibility to this argument, and this is especially true (it must be said) if I confine the discussion to the man I meet in the mirror. But when one speaks of women, the whole neat system begins to break apart.

Men may separate their pleasures from their pains and learn to trade one off against the other, but women may not. For the simple calculus of pleasure and pain cannot, for example, explain what a mother does in the normal course of her day as she attends to the care and education of her children.

Some think that women are bound to this task by mere biology, but what actually happens is far more mysterious. For as Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, all of human civilization depends on love at first sight, namely, that women, when presented with their newborn babies for the first time, will fall in love with them. Why they do this is difficult to understand. After all, this is not a good time for meeting new people and making new friends. Of course, I have no experience of the process, but I have witnessed it a number of times, and it seems to me that women are not at their best at these moments. In fact, they seem to be downright cranky.

Nevertheless, without this love at first sight, it would be unlikely that one would subject oneself to the task of caring for children. Oh yes, we all like to “oh” and “ah” over babies, but let’s face it: their conversation is not deep and their activities are limited. In fact, these activities seem to consist entirely of sucking, shitting, and crying, especially crying. Babies are the most demanding of creatures, giving no thought to the time of night and totally immune to any reasonable argument. With halfway decent parenting, most will learn to moderate their demands; the rest will grow up to be hedge-fund managers and politicians. Yet as difficult as this task is, enough women are willing to undertake it so that the race of men can continue for another season.

Of course this is not a task for women alone, but for men as well. But at this point, we face a problem, for men do not come to this task naturally. That is, for human males, nature does not dictate their role in fatherhood through instinct as it does for all other members of the animal kingdom. Further, men do not have the same natural relationship with their children that women do. At the time of birth, a mother has been intimate with her child for nine months, but fathers have to be introduced to their children. And they are always in the position of Falstaff, who (playing the role of Prince Hal’s father) says to the Prince, “That thou art my son I have partly thy mother’s word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip, that doth warrant me.” Shakespeare here is a realist, recognizing that men do trust faith and opinion, but mostly search their children’s faces for familiar features.

Therefore the behavior of men is not instinctive, but intentional, social, learned. Indeed, the proper socialization of men is one of the great tasks of any civilization, since men must be “feminized” to the extent that they see their sexual identity within the confines of marriage and the family. Since order in the human family is not instinctive but intentional, it must be created anew in each family and re-created every day.

Since the demands of children are so great and so prolonged, women must order the social order to their will, a will directed not so much to their own needs as to the needs of their children. They must create a little world, a micro-cosmos, that serves the needs of the family. But how are they to do this? Certainly not through strength alone, since the very act of having a child weakens a woman and increases her vulnerability. Nor through reason alone, since reason is not sufficient to motivate most men. Really, in order to create her little world, and through it the wider world, women have only two weapons: beauty, and nagging.

Of nagging, we will say nothing, if we are sensible. But by beauty, I mean something quite specific: I mean the cosmetic. We normally associate the word “cosmetic” with the superficial and the trivial, with mere appearances, but this would be to mistake the whole thing. For to understand the cosmetic, we need to look at its root word, cosmos. This word we often take to mean “everything” or “the universe,” but that is not correct. What the term meant to the Greeks was not “everything” but the harmonious composition of parts that produced a coherent and beautiful whole. This starts with the universe itself, in which everything is seen in its proper place, in its proper relationship to everything else, and therefore forms a beautiful whole. This cosmic beauty then extends down through each microcosm, each little part of the whole which displays its own order and beauty, and then right down to the little cosmos of a woman’s face. The need a woman has to order the world through beauty begins with the need to order her face.

From this habit of ordering herself (a habit which extends to women across all times and cultures) women move out to order the family. They take what resources they have, what gifts their men bring, what talents their children display, in what circumstances they find themselves, and try to compose all of these elements into an orderly whole. The habit of making up one’s face is practice for the task of making up the world.

Some will object that cosmetics are cheating, but this is not so (except in the extreme cases of cosmetic surgery and the like), for cosmetics will not make a plain woman into a great beauty, but they will reveal and highlight the beauty that is the birthright of every woman. Others might object that this is about appearances only, but appearances are all we have in the world. The cathedral is nothing but appearances, and we may judge whether the architect has truly captured the reality of the Church; the painting of the saint is just a bit of cosmetics on canvas, and we must discern the reality it depicts in its appearance. The bread of the Eucharist is just an appearance.

Of course, cosmetics have become a great industry, and like all in the endless search for increase, it quickly passes from the sublime to the absurd. The purpose of this industry is no longer to make women feel beautiful, but to make them feel insecure, to make them believe that there is always one more product they must buy, one more shade of red they must try, or they will be ugly. But this is a perversion which need not concern us here.

We might say that the philosopher and the mother have the same task: to find order in the world, one through reason and the other through beauty. Nor are we allowed to privilege one approach over the other, since both are necessary. But the philosopher has this advantage: since he deals in abstract thought, his errors may lie hidden for centuries; the mother deals in the real world, and her errors become apparent all too quickly. The mistakes of the philosopher get a mild critique; the mistakes of the mother get therapy. The mother may nag because the world nags back at her.

I still do not understand what Ingrid understands; I still do not understand why, in a prison and particularly in a jungle prison, where needs multiply like rats, why the need for lipstick should vault to the top of the list. Still, I am convinced that a habit which seems so trivial (to men at least) but which is so universal must have some deeper meaning, must indeed be connected to the cosmos.

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  1. I think it has something to do with the fact that lipstick is a luxury, and putting on one’s lipstick is something one does, as you say, to order one’s face – it implies a semblance of normalcy in one’s life. When I have been hospitalized, one thing to go has been my “ordering of my face,” and I knew I was getting better when I cared to do my face (one woman’s experience). I think it’s the link to the small pleasures of a normal life that made it precious to a prisoner.

  2. I truly do appreciate your attempt to understand women, as you would put it, but it seems to me that in this attempt you make your first mistake in identifying women specifically as what you must understand. To me, the request for lipstick seems perfectly sensible, in the same way that a man in prison might long for a cigarette, a razor, a cup of coffee, or a newspaper. (Personally, I’m pretty sure I’d ask for the coffee or the newspaper before the lipstick, but who knows? Also, in the absence of chapstick or vaseline, lipstick does wonders for chapped lips, which actually can be a serious annoyance. I always carry both a tube of lipstick and a chapstick in my purse, so if I lose one, at least I’ll have the other.)

    Thus, I don’t think the request has anything to do with beauty or “ordering one’s face” as a particularly female way of ordering one’s life, creating a home, etc. Plenty of women don’t use any makeup, yet still have routines and “creature comforts” – as do men, of course. (And in fact, in my experience, lipstick is not the most common cosmetic. Women who wear lipstick tend to use all the other common cosmetics (eye liner, powder, rouge, mascara…), whereas women who wear the bare minimum of makeup typically choose some sort of powder in a compact, maybe a little blush, and just lip gloss or nothing at all on the lips. Actually, except perhaps for dark-skinned women, it looks a little weird to have on a bright shade of lipstick and no other makeup. But I digress…)

    As for what causes women to sacrifice greatly in order to care for the needs of an extremely selfish newborn baby, I firmly believe the explanation you cite is a myth. Some women “fall in love” with their newborns immediately; others don’t. And it’s different for every baby. I have four children; I can say that I had a “love at first sight” experience with two of them, but not with the other two. This has absolutely nothing to do with the care I gave them or my attitudes toward them now that they are a little older. It had to do with a combination of their looks (sorry, but a newborn with chubby cheeks and a round head really does look more lovable than one that’s skinny and has a head misshapen by the birth canal), their temperament, and the total birth experience – probably the latter more than anything. And it’s an unfortunate myth to perpetuate, too, because far too many women (who turn out to be very good mothers) feel horribly guilty for not falling head over heels in love with their newborns, forgetting all the pain of childbirth and joyfully embracing a new life of leaky breasts, pain, bad hormones, and little sleep.

    And yet, nevertheless, the vast majority of mothers DO care adequately for their newborns, whether they feel like it or not. I do think that in those moments of exhaustion to the point of hallucination, pain, and loneliness than can accompany the first few days and weeks of motherhood, it IS strength and not love (at least not love as a mere emotion) that propels women. That, and a healthy dose of God’s grace.

    Your account of the differences between men and women is a charming one, but it doesn’t ring true (to me, anyway).

    • Katharine, thank you for these comments. I did not mean to suggest that the love was universal, automatic, or equal in all cases, so your correction is welcome. Still, as your own case illustrates, it is common enough to see the race through to another day. And I would certainly not wish to diminish the difficulties in any way, as exemplified by the very real problem of post-partum depression. That love happens at all, under such difficult circumstances, strikes me as miracle enough. Of course, it is one of those miracles I am happy not to experience; it certainly looks uncomfortable.

      I wouldn’t even care to venture a guess about which type of cosmetics are the more popular. And while there are always exceptions, the phenomenon is universal enough.

    • Katharine, the low priority you and your fellows put on lipstick is culturally conditioned, like the high priority that the Columbian women in Betancourt’s story.

      In the Second World War, lipstick was the one thing that women would not be without, even if they were refugees in ragged clothing, hiding in the woods from the SS death squads. De gustibus and all that. It seems to me that women through history have felt better about themselves if they could have a little makeup, and for many women that equals lipstick.

      But then, I’m a man, too.

  3. I really like your rhythmic diminution of the cosmos. It’s fittingness is very pretty and was a pleasure to read.

    But I do wonder about this : “men must be “feminized” to the extent that they see their sexual identity within the confines of marriage and the family.”

    This is true according to the lower appetites but not according to the will. So its not a matter of nature, but of fallen nature.

    • I had the same pause. It made me think of what Wendell Berry says in “The Unsettling of America” in describing the agrarian home centered economy. How men do the cosmetics of the fields, and bring raw materials back to the house. Women then value-add to the material, maybe you could say bring them into the cosmetics of the house. For example, they make food part of the quasi-liturgical civilization of meals.
      I’ve always thought that men order interiorly in their thoughts, and exteriorly in the fields, while women seem so interiorly ordered already, and bring exterior order in the family. I’d never thought about quite as its expressed in this article.
      This article was really pleasurable to read, enjoyable with Aha! moments!

  4. Cosmetics play a key role in every woman’s life. Cosmetics give women exquisiteness. Every women are always trying to find the best ways to make them beautiful and prefect. But I love the designs of nail paints is provided by this company.

  5. John, I have often tried to explain to my husband why ordering the home was as or more important to me than getting the theory of action right or understanding the differences between the appetites, examples of what I’m supposed to do at my day job. I think you’re onto something. Now, what do you think is the connection between ordering the world out of a sense of beauty and the motivation for doing so–love?

  6. Mr. Medaille: I am inclined to agree with you, but you leave out of account a profoundly altering social and psychologocal phenomena, viz., the woman’s ascent to power, of which you may have little or no direct experience (if so, lucky you). This phenomenon is profoundly changing the way men understand and relate to women and vice-versa — now as their subjects, their social and professional inferiors. Cosmetics are less important, I rather think, when you are in command.


    • No experience of women’s ascent to power? Are you kidding? I’m married; I know all about it!

      I think it would be more correct to say “the ascent to masculine forms of power.” The problem is not, imo, that some woman exercise masculine power, but that women are losing feminine forms of power.

  7. I wonder what the lipstick industry would look like in a localist or distributist economy. Can a region of 100,000 people support a lipstick company?

  8. “The problem is not, imo, that some woman exercise masculine power, but that women are losing feminine forms of power.”

    I am very late to this party, but I thought this comment, in the context of the post to which it is attached, warranted a response. Of course, the use of cosmetics by women for beauty (and therefore power) enhancement is more than alive and well in the U.S., but at the same time it is not something that can be assumed as a given for women. Feminism may have something to do with that, but I think there are longer-standing religious and cultural attitudes that prepared the way for a rejection of “the beauty myth” when late-20th century feminism did finally wander onstage. For many decades in many communities in this country use of make-up was one way of separating the bad girls from the respectable ones and even where that hasn’t been the case there has been, I think, a sense that a woman who cares about her appearance is by definition frivolous. My experience has been that most men (at least, most Midwestern men) think of make-up, time spent at the salon, etc., to be at best silly and at worst sinful, and while they all enjoy the company of pretty women, they almost never have any idea of the time and effort, not mention the expense, that goes into concocting that prettiness. Sometimes when they do become aware of that cost they may resent it, and I’ve seen a number of very unhealthy relationships in which husbands have in turn disparaged their wives for letting themselves go while simultaneously begrudging any effort their wives may be making. I wonder sometimes if this weird embrace of denial that personal beauty is an art form may be what fuels some women to give up on the idea of presentation as a form of feminine empowerment: after awhile it just becomes too much hassle in an environment that, for all that beauty is idolized, doesn’t always reward or support the craft that creates it.

    “Can a region of 100,000 people support a lipstick company?”

    I think it depends on how sophisticated a product is desired. For the type of long-wearing lip paints that have come out in the last decade, no, probably not. For a little wax and pigment mixed together? Sure, why not.

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