New Eyes on the Natural Look

There is a popular trend within the Twittersphere which sees women of all ages posting photos of themselves without makeup – the ‘no makeup selfie’. The idea took off at the beginning of 2014 as a way to raise money for charity and was a great success. Since then it has become a way for many female celebrities to try and break from the expectations and demands made on them to look ‘perfect’ at all times. All in all, this can be seen as a good thing, if a little sad due to what it says of the modern demands on women and their appearance.

As my name may suggest, I am not a woman and cannot grasp the pressures that women are put under regarding aesthetics, makeup, hairstyles, clothes, and so on; however, I am privy to the male conversation about these topics, which of course ranges widely. That being said, one common comment/joke regarding makeup, that I often hear, is the desire to ‘wake up next to a women who has the same face she went to bed with’, which elicits some Simpson’s-like scene of an entire face of make-up sticking to the pillow as she rises in the morning.

This light-hearted male concern for aesthetic alteration, and a desire for what we might call the ‘natural look’, is not as modern an idea as you might think.

The great polymath Xenophon of Athens wrote a dialogue (mid-4th century BC) featuring his old teacher, Socrates, in which a very familiar sounding topic arose:

Ischomachus then said, “One time, Socrates, I saw that [my wife] had covered her face with white lead, so that she would seem to have a paler complexion than she really had, and put on thick rouge, so that her cheeks would seem redder than in reality, and high boots, so that she would seem taller than she naturally was.” […]

"Don't think then, my dear", Ischomachus told me he said [to his wife], "that I enjoy the colour of white lead more than the colour of your own skin, but just as the gods made horses prefer horses and cattle prefer cattle, and sheep sheep, so human beings prefer the natural human body. You might successfully fool someone outside the household by this kind of deception, but insiders always get caught when they try to deceive one another. For they can be found out when they get up in the morning before they have time to prepare or they are caught out by sweat or put to the test by tears and exposed completely by washing." (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 10.2-9)

Here we have, quite clearly, a disdain for excessive makeup, and a simple defence for the ‘natural look’. But, before we start declaring Xenophon as the proto-modern man and a bastion of feminism, we must remember the entire context of this discussion. This passage comes within a section of a dialogue which is often referred to as ‘How to train your wife’. The opening question to this section comes in no uncertain terms:

“Ischomachus”, I said, “this in fact is what I'd like to learn from you - did you teach your wife yourself what she needed to know or did you take her from her father and mother knowing everything she was supposed to do?” (Oeconomicus, 7.4)

It transpires that the woman in question came to Ischomachus untrained at the age of 15, but her husband’s dutiful intervention transformed her into an ‘acceptable woman’. So perhaps we should not see too much of ourselves in this passage. Likewise, returning to the issue of the natural look, Ischomachus was not freeing his wife of oppression but merely replacing it with his own:

“she never put on make-up again, but tried to present herself with a clean face and suitably dressed. And she asked me if I could advise her how she might look beautiful in reality, and not just appear to be beautiful” (Oeconomicus, 10.9)

By removing makeup and high heels, Ischomachus was merely enforcing his own set of ideals of what a good wife should look like. While we may share a small desire for a more natural looking female ideal with Xenophon’s Ischomachus, I certainly hope the underlying reasons for both views are not the same.

Owen Rees is a freelance historian and writer.