Joanna Schroeder understands the cruel machinations of the beauty industry, but she doesn’t think that minimizes the authenticity of Tom Matlack’s admiration of his wife.
Tom Matlack said that when he wakes up in the morning, he loves the sight of his wife’s face. To him, she is the most gorgeous woman in the world, and her eyes pierce his soul, particularly when she’s wearing no make-up.
Someone on Twitter called these sentiments “shmoopy” and they are. They’re totally shmoopy. And if you hate shmoop, you’re going to find it annoying at best, and disingenuous at worst. But I believe him. Not because I think that his wife, Elena, is objectively the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s lovely, of course, but the reason I believe him is because my husband feels the same way about me. He looks at me in the morning and, even after 9 years, gets a little giddy. He looks at me when I’m wearing no make-up and have my hair up in a ponytail that I’ve slept in and crust in the corners of my mouth and creases on my face and he tells me he loves me… and I believe him.
I don’t need to lie to myself about beauty. I have been both beautiful and decidedly unpretty in my life. I’ve been so thin I’ve been emaciated, and I’ve been a healthy size 10. On top of that, I’ve been in the middle with my weight, right where the fashion industry tells me I should be. I’ve had bad skin and awesome skin, horrible hair and great hair. I’ve had high-end fashionable clothing and I’ve spent years in ill-fitting jeans and American Apparel tee shirts.
I know what it is to have one pulled over on you by a guy who is just out to bullshit you. And I know what it is to be loved.
Beauty is used as a weapon against women in our society, much as success is used against men. If you weren’t born beautiful, you better be doing everything you can to get there. If you have acne, you better subscribe to ProActiv and hope you can follow all the steps. If you have grey hair you should make sure you schedule your hair color appointments no longer than 6 weeks apart so your roots don’t show. Don’t forget the white strips for your teeth, the exfoliator for your décolleté, UV-hardened gel for your manicure, a wedge-shaped brush for smudging your eyeliner and if you live in LA you really should get going with Botox in your forehead before those lines get too deep and while you’re there, just a little collagen in your top lip won’t hurt. And who does your eyebrows? I go to the place across the street, but they make them too thin. If they’re too thin, you look old. Did you know that? Oh, and I know a girl who does IPL so you can zap those freckles. It’s really no big deal, they peel off after a few days and then just stay out of the sun. Go to J. Crew, they’ve got great hats with a really wide brim, only $68.00 and everyone’s got one.
We’re told as tiny girls that we are to be pretty. Strangers reward us when we do with coos and winks and “Oh, aren’t you adorable?” in a way that is pretty hard to replicate from anything we could earn, like good grades or even mastery in a sport. In the eyes of a child, pretty girls have everything—men that adore them, lots of friends, and great jobs like actresses and models and ballerinas.
As we get older and start to feel the machine around us pushing us through its works, beauty becomes a touchy subject. We probably all enjoy being told we’re pretty, but it’s complicated. Who can we trust to tell us the truth? What do they want from us? Does the guy giving me the goo-goo eyes right now really like me, or is he telling me I’m pretty so he can see what kind of panties I’m wearing? And ultimately, why do you care if I’m pretty? What does it matter to you? Isn’t the objective to “win” a pretty girl so you can wear her around town like an expensive watch?
Beauty isn’t like any other conversation women may have, except perhaps sexuality. It’s something we’ve carried with us our whole lives and it’s deeply attached to shame and rejection. Pretty girls are often given advantages that less attractive women are not, that’s been well documented. But pretty girls carry a particular burden, too. First, we’re not supposed to admit that we’re pretty. And our beauty is supposed to be effortless, natural and tasteful. It’s supposed to be contained in the right package and marketed for mainstream use. Anything outside the type of beauty that is currently prescribed is rejected, or at least not fully accepted, and is considered either “exotic” (tokenized) or simply just wrong.
So the mainstream marketing of beauty is also a touchy subject for many women, particularly feminists. My mother’s generation of feminists proved their street cred by going bare-faced, ditching girdles and sporting luscious armpit hair. I was one of those. I may not have burned my bra but I certainly embarrassed my parents by refusing to wear one for a few years. After about a year of no shaving, my stepfather finally noticed and said, “Joey. You have hair under your arms!” and I said, “Yes! It grows there!” and he said, “Should you shave it?” and I said, “No, don’t oppress me!”
So it doesn’t surprise me that Tom Matlack talking about make-up in the New York Times caused an uproar, even though he said that he had no opinion whether or not women should wear make-up (or get breast implants or tattoos). The fact is, there are a lot of people who believe that the only right way for a man to answer a question about whether women should wear make-up would be to say, “Men should have no opinion about women’s make-up.”
Instead, Tom said, “Women should do what they want.” And maybe there’s a difference there. He’s saying what he feels, rather than prescribing a proper way to talk about something. I’ve been struggling with this distinction since heavy criticism was laid against him last week, including by some people I really like and admire. I have come to the conclusion that Tom Matlack is simply never going to be the guy who says, “Men, you should have no opinion.” And maybe that will make him Enemy Number One to some people, but it’s just who he is. He seems to want to tell his truth and let others do the same. He answered the way you’d hope a man would answer—by saying it’s not up to him what his wife or any other woman does—but not exactly the way he was perhaps supposed to answer, because he was supposed to universalize his personal opinion. Some writers even said things like “Finally, Tom Matlack’s opinion about your face” when really, Tom’s opinion was, I have no opinion about your face.
But he did have an opinion about his wife’s face. He deemed it perfect in the morning, bare. He called her gorgeous. And he used a few words that are pretty triggering for those who have studied the effects of the beauty industry upon women: “natural” and “tasteful”. To the average person, those words are so common they’re almost meaningless. But to some people, the word “tasteful” is a natural juxtapostion against “not tasteful” which basically means slutty. And we all know that word’s not okay.
And the use of the word “natural” bothered some women, too. One such woman is Christina Huffington, who’s Friday blog on HuffPo explained the way “natural” and “effortless” beauty have served to undermine her self-esteem. For Christina, the quest for effortless beauty and perfection was dangerous and she landed in treatment for an eating disorder. In her piece, she looks back on a conversation she had with a doctor and explains:
She was perfect, I said. I would never be that perfect. Her perfection was effortless and every aspect of my life seemed to require enormous effort. To talk to boys was an effort. To get dressed, an effort. I was sitting there shivering in a locked ward because I had put a dangerous amount of effort into my quest for perfection. True perfection, it seemed to me, had to be effortless.
Obviously effortless perfection is impossible to achieve, it’s a negation in terms. But I profoundly understand where Ms. Huffington is coming from. I also understand disordered eating. I know what it’s like to despise one’s own perfectly capable body, to wish you could take a knife and cut something off—like your thighs or your thick arms. I know how it feels to become so used to being hungry that you no longer even register the sensation. I know what it’s like to workout until you’re sick, and then feel guilty for not working out again that same day.
I know how it feels to feel profoundly ugly. I spent extraordinary amounts of time in tanning beds in my late teens because of my pale, freckled skin. If I could just get tan enough, the freckles might just blend in. And after a while they did. (Consequently, I’ve had 8 moles removed from my skin before 35 years old, 3 pre-cancerous and one so dangerous I had to have part of my toe cut off and reconstructed by a plastic surgeon.)
I’ve tortured my body for beauty, but it wasn’t actually about beauty. It was about perfection and sexuality and acceptance. It was about being better than others, wanting to feel untouchable in just one way. It was about avoiding the risk of people rejecting me for the things that actually matter—like brains, or skill, or soul. It was about trying to get to a place where, when my partner told me, “I love you, you are wonderful, you are beautiful exactly as you are,” I would actually believe him. But the quest for perfection will never lead you there, because you’ll never be perfect. You’ll always have a dimple on your thigh or a pimple on your nose. And with all that effort, you’ll never be effortless. Yes, the quest for beauty is tortured in a way that few men probably truly understand.
I asked Tom Matlack what he meant when he said that Elena is most beautiful with no make-up on. He told me this, “because of how much I adore her, I find her most attractive first thing in the morning, seeing her with nothing but her natural face and body. I allows me to connect more deeply to the essence of the woman I adore. My comment in the NYT piece was not intended to be generalized to anyone else or make any other women feel pressure or less than. It was simply a reflection on my wife and how make-up works inside our marriage.”
Interestingly, some people didn’t believe Tom that he actually does love Elena’s face more bare than with make-up. I asked Amelia McDonell-Parry of The Frisky why it was impossible to believe him. She explained most men don’t seem to even realize the difference between “no make-up look” and “no make-up”. She said, “I don’t think, like many men, he actually GETS make-up.” I think Amelia is saying that he thinks he likes her better bare-faced, but in truth he likes the “no make-up look” more.
To me, this is more about intimacy than actual beauty. Tom told me it’s impossible for him to say whether the rest of the world would think Elena was more beautiful first thing in the morning versus done up for a formal event. That’s not what any of it was about. And I get that, because looking across the bed at my own husband, who is 47 years old, is when I love him best. That first-morning face is unique. Only I (and our children sometimes) get that face. He can take his everyday face into work, around town, and other women and men can admire it if they want, but first thing in the morning is just for me. And loving him then, beard all messed up, hair crazy, is special because for those few moments it’s just us.
I think that’s what Tom meant when he talked about the way Elena looks at him first thing in the morning. Intimately. Without reservations or distractions. Straight into his soul. And he loves that feeling so much that her face at that moment—to him—is perfect. Not the kind of perfection that Ms. Huffington (or myself) was seeking to dangerous ends, but the kind of perfection that comes with true intimacy; with trust and years of hard work and pain and joy and loss. And for a moment, when we have that kind of a partnership, we get to step out of society’s rules and misogynistic teachings that say that a 48 year-old woman can’t be gorgeous without make-up.
I don’t know if one can fully understand that sort of feeling until it’s experienced. Even if someone adores you and tells you everyday, you have to be receptive to believing it. Believing it is terrifying because the moment you believe your partner feels that way, the more vulnerable you are. This is really it. This is really love. If something goes wrong, it wasn’t because they didn’t love me enough. It wasn’t because I was unlovable.
Believing we’re unlovable does a lot for us in that shitty way that shitty things do. It keeps us safe, because it allows us to maintain control over our hearts. If I tell myself (or you) that I’m not lovable, as I used to, then I’m still the one deciding I’m unlovable, so you don’t get the chance to find it out first. It’s a weird dance of self-fulfilling scenarios and grappling for control.
And maybe we can’t imagine that Tom Matlack loves his wife that way, because we cannot imagine that it’s possible. And if we did believe it were possible, then we’d have to face the fact that we may not have that right now. Tom is lucky (or blessed, if that’s your thing) to have a love like that, but if you go back and read his old work you’ll see that it didn’t come to him unearned. I deserve it less than him, probably, but I have it too.
My husband likes my face first thing in the morning best—pillow creases, cracked lips, matted hair and all. And I believe him when he says it. Finally.
Perhaps Tom should’ve definitively said, “Men have no place talking about make-up” instead of his opinion that women should be the ones to decide about make-up. But let’s not let that cloud the fact that in the space of a few hundred words, Tom said something that we very rarely hear: A real woman, one with ambition and drive and heart and soul, one who is a mother and over the age that Hollywood deems “desirable”, is beautiful to her husband just as she is. And that alone is sort of a revolutionary statement in our youth-obsessed society.
Photo of a sleeping woman courtesy of Flickr/Parker Knight