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Rejecting Life To Pursue Perfection
On power, obsession, and hyperpigmentation.
Last month Michelle Lee, former editor-in-chief of Allure, started a beauty product newsletter. One of the first posts was titled “Out, Damned Dark Spots” (a follow-up to “dark spots, my old enemy”). I wanted to write an article about how strange it seemed to me, referencing the all-consuming guilt Lady Macbeth felt after plotting a man’s murder in a headline about hyperpigmentation. It’s a small thing, but it’s something, right? There are comparisons to be made, at least. Like the way beauty culture engenders its own sort of all-consuming guilt and confers its own sort of power. Or the question of agency in the practice of adhering to appearance standards: Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” speech happens while she’s sleepwalking — she isn’t fully, consciously in control of herself, but guided by some subconscious force. Also, she carries a candle! Because she’s afraid of the dark (spot)!! And the way she commands this mark to be gone, cries about it and scrubs at it, but the mark doesn’t go away because the mark doesn’t actually exist? (Maybe you’ve done the same with a barely noticeable blackhead or blemish.) The mark is the mark of having been driven mad. But I didn’t know how to put it exactly, so I didn’t write it.
Last week I went mad myself. I’d been out of town in New York City and hanging around all these glamorous, gorgeous people and my brain was consumed by obsessive, comparative thoughts in a way it hasn’t been in a long time. Thoughts about my own face and body and how they weren’t good enough. Thoughts about whether — being so obviously ugly and other and less-than — I deserved success or the sweet, handsome man in my life or anything at all, really. I pulled every single eyebrow hair out of my head. Hundreds of hairs, over and over, my fingers animated by some unconscious, unignorable force — by some part of my brain that swore freeing the exact right hair from the exact right follicle would soothe the phantom ache in my pores. It’s a mental illness. It’s called trichotillomania, or hair-picking disorder, and I’ve dealt with it off and on since high school. Succumbing to an episode made me feel horrible, and also like a hypocrite, which made me feel doubly horrible, until my analyst reminded me that I do the work of critiquing beauty culture because of my obsession, because I’ve been in the underbelly of the beauty industry, because its bile has broken me down so thoroughly and completely. My obsession isn’t my undoing, but my reason to do. She suggested I read Addiction to Perfection: A Psychological Study by Marion Woodman. I ordered the book immediately.
Days later, it was in my hands, in the bathtub, and I read the opening paragraph and laughed.
“This book is about taking the head off an evil witch. Lady Macbeth, glued to the sticking-place of insatiable power, unable to countenance failure to the point of rejecting life, will serve as a symbol of the woman robbed of her femininity through her pursuit of masculine goals that are in themselves a parody of what masculinity really is. And though in Shakespeare’s tragedy it is Macbeth who is beheaded, the head he loses is fatally infected by the witches evil curse. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are metaphors of the masculine and feminine principles functioning in one person or in a culture, and the deteriorating relationship between them clearly demonstrates the dynamics of evil when the masculine principle loses its standpoint in its own reality, and the feminine principle of love succumbs to calculating, intellectualized ambition.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? (There are debates to be had about the use of “masculine” and “feminine,” but generally, that’s it.)
We are “unable to countenance failure” (to be beautiful or, for those less-obsessed, to meet an isolated ideal — clear skin, for example, or smooth hair) “to point of rejecting life” (spending a significant portion of our time, money, energy, effort, headspace — our literal life force — on becoming beautiful or meeting the isolated ideal).
We “lose [our] standpoint in [our] own reality” (for example, believing that hyperpigmentation is something to be scrubbed, slathered, and lasered into submission rather than “a normal biological response” that happens in healed or healing skin).
Our idea of “love” (acceptance, care, nurturing) “succumbs to calculating, intellectualized ambition” (the pursuit of physical perfection and therefore, power — aided by skincare pseudoscience, medicalized beauty standards, and the corrupt idea that aesthetic manipulation in service to those standards is an act of self-love and self-care).
So maybe I will write that Lady Macbeth article?
Of course, I write to and for this specific newsletter audience, which is primarily made of people who have internalized beauty culture conditioning in some significant and life-affecting way.