Putting “Cover Girl” in another light

18 Mar

I just watched this TED Talk by journalist Tracey Spicer: in “The lady stripped bare” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PENkzh0tWJs) Spicer deconstructs the time women spend on personal grooming, and the impact this investment in grooming has on women’s psyches, earnings and parenting. (I’m thrilled to have a financial argument that I can present to my mother the next time I have to explain to her why I don’t and won’t wear make-up.)

I think it’s a great talk: informative, engaging and useful. Essentially, it’s about covering. Professor and author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights Kenji Yoshino explains the concept of covering, tracing it back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s coinage of the term in his book Stigma:

Written in 1963, [Stigma] describes how various groups including the disabled, the elderly and the obese manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma… may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” He calls this behavior covering. He distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a characteristic, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how F.D.R. stationed himself behind a desk before his advisers came in for meetings. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, playing down his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities (http://www.kenjiyoshino.com/articles/pressure_to_cover.pdf).

This is what we women do: we literally cover (and compress) ourselves to cover what is “spoiled” or “stigmatized” about us (which everyone is aware of anyway, simply by recognizing that we are women, just as the world recognized that FDR was physically disabled). The visibility of the covering (the apparently teased hair, carefully applied makeup, slightly unnatural Botox-smoothness) underscores the purpose of covering: not to actually erase the stigmatized identity, but to reduce its “obtrusiveness.” And, therefore, to communicate our efforts to contain or tone it–and ultimately, ourselves–down.

As Yoshino argues, and I believe as Spicer’s talk suggests, this is a bigger issue than whether or not an individual woman decides to wear makeup. This is about what Yoshino refers to as “the new discrimination”:

In recent decades, discrimination in America has undergone a generational shift. Discrimination was once aimed at entire groups, resulting in the exclusion of all racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with disabilities. A battery of civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 sought to combat these forms of discrimination. The triumph of American civil rights is that such categorical exclusions by the state or employers are now relatively rare.

Now a subtler form of discrimination has risen to take its place. This discrimination does not aim at groups as a whole. Rather, it aims at the subset of the group that refuses to cover, that is, to assimilate to dominant norms. And for the most part, existing civil rights laws do not protect individuals against such covering demands. The question of our time is whether we should understand this new discrimination to be a harm and, if so, whether the remedy is legal or social in nature.

Put simply, the question underlying Spicer’s talk is whether women as a group have the right to “dare to be openly different” from what grooming standards dictate. And by “right,” I mean the same access to resources and opportunities (including employment and informal social networks), whether or how much we cover.

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