During a recent trip to Bangladesh to do the business of American diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed wearing no makeup, aside from a bit of red lipstick. Her shoulder-length blonde hair hung loose and easy, and she wore a pair of dark-framed eyeglasses.
The fact that Clinton went out in public on official business in the name of the American people with a mostly bare face caused enough of a kerfuffle among the media that she was asked about it during an interview with CNN. She responded with her signature guffaw and noted how pleased she was to have arrived at a point in her life when she could essentially style herself however she pleases.
There is a saying within the world of professional coaching that employees should dress for the job to which they aspire. Clinton, at the top of her game—a 2016 presidential run notwithstanding—does not need to fret about having the right sort of career-enhancing wardrobe, haircut or makeup. She could arrive for a diplomatic meeting wearing flip-flops and blue jeans and no one would doubt her authority—although they might be concerned about her sense of propriety.
The lack of makeup and her scrunchie addiction aren’t going to cause an international incident. But they have drawn both attention and criticism.
It’s tempting to climb atop a soap box and launch into a complaint about how women are held to a different standard when it comes to appearance. But of course, this would be stating the obvious. Society makes different aesthetic demands of women and that is not necessarily sexist as much as it is economic. In their professional lives, men wear uniforms—no matter how much the fashion industry tries to convince them to do otherwise. All but a few men have given up the role of flamboyant peacock. And their style choices—where they exist--tend towards the subtle.
Women are the target of a multibillion-dollar industry that constantly tries to lure them with enticing color combinations, shiny adornment, sensual fabrics and wholly impractical—but oh so pretty—shoes. The pleasures of fashion are aimed at women. And mostly, they willingly partake.
Clearly, if a woman is judged to be less capable than a man because she happens to be wearing a pencil skirt and a pair of peep-toe pumps, this is a problem. And it is ridiculous to expect the average woman to be as hypergroomed, aerobicized and yoga-cized as professional models and actresses. The red-carpet elite, for whom beauty is a major part of the job description, have résumés that are accompanied by a headshot; a corporate titan does not.
But it was still surprising--and a bit confusing--to see Madame Secretary without makeup. Such a choice is uncommon. For many women, it is a matter of vanity. For others, it is part of the reassuring social pact. In the same way that one might be startled to see Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta with a bit of five o’clock shadow, it was a jolt to see Clinton failing to adhere, not just to standard cultural practice, but to her own tradition. She has, at least since her time as First Lady, greeted the world with a face fully made up.
We are not accustomed to public figures—male or female— being photographed or filmed without some sort of makeup. Everyone gets a little pat-down with powder. And generally, makeup helps them look more polished, a little closer to perfect, a little more controlled, a little less real--because reality can be messy and distracting.
Understand this: Clinton did not look bad. Some media described her as looking “tired and withdrawn,” and in fact she did. But that’s what happens when the country’s top-ranking diplomat tours India, China, and Bangladesh in practically as many days. Her bare face showed reality—a kind of humanity that typically is not revealed by public figures who bound off planes and campaign buses and whose staff love telling stories about how their principal is indefatigable. It’s why public officials, whenever possible, straighten their tie and powder away the sheen of stress before they go in front of a camera to tell their constituents that everything is going to be alright even if they’re not so sure. Polish is reassuring. Clinton’s tired eyes? Honest.
When Clinton grew her hair long, it was a visual rebuke to cultural rules about women-of-a-certain-age having to cut their hair. So is it a feminist gesture to forgo makeup? To say yes implies that feminism is all about refusal—about shunning mascara and blush, saying no to a pair of heels, turning one’s back on the things designed to transform a woman’s appearance into something closer to our idealized standard of beauty. Feminism shouldn’t be defined as a woman asserting her right to look crappy. It is about a woman having the freedom to become her full self, however she might define it.
That has often proved difficult for women who aspire to power. As a culture, we have been painfully slow in adjusting to the way female authority looks. And in politics, perception carries outsize importance. It’s no wonder Clinton’s appearance has long been the focus of such aesthetic obsessions. In the enigmatic role of first lady, she struggled with the symbolism—part beauty queen, part saint, part helpmate. What does that unwieldy combination look like?
She changed her style countless times. From headbands, bangs, and bobs, to safe St. John skirt suits, to glamorous Oscar de la Renta gowns, Clinton’s style has been accompanied by a constant question mark. How will she look today?
She relied on a black-pantsuit uniform for her Senate campaign and switched to a rainbow of them for her presidential one. Variety is her right, but so often it seemed that just as she settled into a style that seemed to bring out her best, she was on to something else. For a woman who never gave any indication that fashion was a source of pleasure, her constant style machinations became a dizzying distraction.
Clinton is still shape-shifting. But instead of continuing to pursue an aesthetic identity, the recent photos suggests that she had one all along. She says age has allowed her to make peace with her public appearance. Has she finally silenced the teenage girl whose insecurities haunt the psyche? Or did that youthful, internal voice remind her of who she has always been?
In the photos that caused such a stir, Clinton looked a bit like she did back in her Wellesley days, before she entered public life--before she took to wearing contacts, threw away her headbands, cut her hair and slipped on the mantle of a politician. The best makeup job makes a woman look like herself--only better. Clinton looks like her old self--not necessarily better, but certainly braver.