Tuesday, June 24, 2014

So You Want Some Introspection, Huh?

Well, that's one thing I have no trouble providing.

The beauty blogosphere has taken a turn for the introspective in recent months, with some of my favorite bloggers questioning how and why they write about makeup and beauty. Before I say anything else, I want to stress how lucky I feel to belong to such a thoughtful, intelligent online community. When I first started reading beauty blogs a few years ago, I was struck by how good a lot of them were: how well-written, funny, analytical, and just plain smart. I started my own blog because I wanted to contribute to the discussion, and maybe even entertain some of you as much as you'd entertained me. (Plus, none of my real-life friends are makeup geeks, and I didn't want to bore them discussing the minutiae of blush textures and lipstick finishes.)

Four or five months on, I'm still in the honeymoon period of blogging. I get excited every time someone leaves a comment, and I can hardly believe that none of those comments have been of the "hey, ugly, you're ugly" variety. The first half of 2014 has been hard for me in many ways, but writing about beauty has brought me nothing but pleasure. I'm still mildly surprised that anyone wants to read what I write, since I've spent five years preparing to produce scholarly works for a small, specialized coterie, and now I have proof that I can reach people outside that coterie.

Blogging has also been a welcome respite from the stress of academic writing. Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in which two professors in my department discussed how they balanced academic and creative writing. One of the professors, a novelist as well as a literature scholar, admitted that she hadn't done any creative writing in grad school. "Writing a dissertation is hard," she said. "You're learning how to construct a long-form argument, how to do research, and how to master the conventions of academic writing, all at the same time." I realized I'd never heard another professor say that. Writing a dissertation is hard. It was, sadly, a revelation. I'd been assuming that I was supposed to have mastered all those skills already, and that any difficulties I encountered were purely my fault. When, duh, I'm writing a book, and writing it under tremendous pressure to find exactly the right argument. A literature dissertation has to be original, but not so original that it can't engage with other scholarship in the field. It has to deal with major authors, but if it's too Spenser-Shakespeare-Milton it's not "exciting" enough. Plus, there are almost no tenure-track jobs, so every grad student assumes (incorrectly) that somewhere out there exists the Platonic dissertation topic, the magic argument that will impress every hiring committee in the world. The pressure can be paralyzing.

Under these circumstances, beauty blogging feels like a vacation. My posts aren't subject to peer review or the gaze of a dissertation committee. I'm not trying to make money from my blog or secure a job in the beauty industry. I'm just writing about something I enjoy. It's not a huge part of my identity; it's a hobby, a passion, and a way to connect with smart, fascinating people. And even if I weren't blogging, I'd still be buying makeup, so why not photograph and write about it too? I don't like keeping my interests to myself.

But these are early days for my blog. Had I started it three years ago, when I first became obsessed with beauty, my spirits might well be flagging by now. And despite the pleasure that my blog has brought me, I've had my misgivings. When I was growing up, my family had no disposable income to speak of, and I was taught to buy only what I absolutely needed. As a grad student, I'm not exactly sleeping in piles of money (actually, I'm sleeping on a mattress on the floor), but I do have enough for the occasional treat. But splurging on myself, even if I can afford it, is still psychologically difficult. Buying nice things makes me feel spendthrift and self-indulgent. Celebrating those nice things in a blog helps assuage the guilt, but it also gives me doubts. What makes a beauty blog successful? Is it, ultimately, the amount of stuff it manages to sell? Has a post of mine succeeded if I inspire someone else to spend their money? Am I writing nothing more than glorified ad copy for beauty brands, and free ad copy, at that?

I think the answer is no. Or maybe the answer is "Yes, but that's not really the point." Beauty blogs that focus on reviewing new products are fun and helpful, but they're not my favorite ones, and they're not the ones I choose to emulate. I'm not planning to buy anything new for a while, but I still have plenty of ideas for posts. And blogging about my shiny new lipsticks doesn't make me some sort of evil hyper-consumer. (Who am I trying to convince here? Why am I imagining some devil's-advocate asshole disagreeing with all of my points?) I'd probably feel more ambivalent if I had a huge, debt-producing, storage-defying makeup collection, or if I were trying to leverage my blog into a career. But for now, I don't see anything wrong with discussing the purchases I'd make anyway.

Plus, what I love most about makeup isn't the individual brands or even the individual techniques; it's the shared ritual. Last week I was in the restroom in Grand Central Station (I lead an aspirational life, guys), reapplying one of my favorite lipsticks: MAC Up the Amp, a pinky purple. Next to me, another young woman took out her own MAC tube and began touching up her own purple lipstick--a deep, rich purple, almost black. Cyber, maybe? The new Lorde collaboration, Pure Heroine? I knew nothing about this woman, but for a few seconds, we were connected. Then I put away my lipstick and headed back into the world.

12 comments:

  1. Lovely post, and I'm glad you elaborated on the differences between academic and creative writing. I think that maybe for a beauty blog, which are essentially a mix of the subjective and the objective, having an academic/research writing background can help in keeping your points clear, but it becomes boring all too soon if there's no creative streak. And I like how reasonable and clear-headed you are about beauty blogging - I think maybe I've been doing it for so long that sometimes I lose track of the foremost reason I started blogging - which is to share your enthusiasm about the products.

    Oh, and I also loved your Grand Central anecdote - I always try to take a peek what other women are using as well :) Btw, if you ever get a chance, there's a lovely free guided tour of the Grand Central every third Friday of the month, I think. Highly recommended!

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    1. Yes, one of the things I love most about beauty blogging is that it combines my creative and analytical sides! I used to do a lot more creative writing (mostly short stories) than I do now. These days, every time I try to write creatively it sounds so...academic. Blogging has helped my writing loosen up a little, and I think it might eventually be my entree into writing fiction again.

      Ooh, I'll have to check out that Grand Central tour next time I'm in New York! It's a magnificent building. (Unlike Penn Station, which is a little slice of hell.)

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  2. Oh, I just love the ending of this post. Exactly! And how beautiful is that connection?!
    As vain as it seems on the surface, I'd like think my approach for beauty blogging is practical. At least I aimed for that direction when I started my blog in English about 2 years ago after having written about 700 reviews in Korean. I love sharing information and opinions about the things we incorporate in our daily lives, and I want my blog to self-sustain in the future. The "balance" would be a big issue and I am consciously working at it, but all things aside, whether my blogging is practical or just for pleasure, that beautiful "connection" you speak of is the thing that gets me and my blog going.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. I like that blogging helps perpetuate that connection! I'm always curious what other women have in their makeup pouches or on their dressers. Like, curious enough that I'll actually start snooping around friends' apartments when I go over. Last time I was at my grandmother's house, I was touched to discover that she had a bottle of Revlon Cherries in the Snow nail polish in her bathroom cabinet, since I own that one too!

      There's nothing wrong with having a practical aim for your blog. For me, I think it would increase the pressure, but I've never been a terribly practical person. :) In any case, I love reading your blog, so you're doing something right!

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  3. Lovely post. Blogs are simply a place to work out your thoughts, and there's no real way to do it except exactly how you like it.

    A lot of what you said is reminiscent of my early days. I started beauty blogging the year I went back to school full time to finish my English degree after a long break. It was only an undergrad degree, but I was taking ONLY literature related courses and knew I should write regularly, but I also knew that anything more serious was going to be taxing and turn to the opposite of fun quite quickly. Then beauty just took over my life -- mostly in a good way. My favourite blogs have always been the ones that share bits and pieces of the blogger's life and thoughts along with the beauty products. But I've also found that as of late, the more I share my face and identity, the less I want to reveal as well. Something there to think about.

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    1. Interesting that your blog produced your obsession with beauty, and not the other way around! And like you, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how much to reveal online. Before I started my blog, I had an internal debate over whether to show my face, for instance. Even now, I don't feel comfortable posting my name or the name of my university. Sometimes I worry that writing a beauty blog will have professional repercussions--what if someone on a hiring committee finds this blog and decides that I'm too shallow and vain for an academic job? I comfort myself that I've never written anything offensive or given away any details of my professional life, and that most academics don't spend a lot of time looking up lipstick swatches online, but it's still a concern.

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    2. I'd say that I was pretty obsessed with beauty pre-blog, but blogging took it to a whole other level. Before, I was generally aware of what was out on the market and buying like mad. And now, although I probably buy less, I always have an eye out for upcoming launches and read/write/breathe beauty to stay informed and in the loop.

      I was completely anonymous when I started (no name, no face), because I didn't know what was going to come of it, and one can never be too careful when treading uncharted waters. But now, I think the release of a first name (or an initial) isn't a big deal so long as you don't disclose any other information that can locate you on a map. :)

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  4. Very well said! I actually don't think that lovely beauty blogs like yours inspire consumers to buy more. I think that a good blog provides information and leads people to make more informed purchases, or even indulge in a love for makeup and beauty products without having to set food in a store or spend a dime.

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    1. Thank you, and I agree! There's something cathartic about living through other people's purchases. So many of my favorite bloggers have bought Dior Fluid Sticks, for instance, that I no longer feel like I need one; I can enjoy other people's enjoyment of them, and that's somehow enough. And reading negative reviews has certainly saved me from more than one stupid purchase.

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  5. Love this post so much, and your blog is actually one of my favorites. :) I think I've been torn about mine because I've yet to come to a conclusive answer as to what "success" means to me, or if I even want it. I think I'm slowly re-embracing myself as a beauty nut, after momentarily feeling guilty that I am one.

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    1. Your blog is one of *my* favorites! And I agree, "success" is a complicated concept. I'm not actively trying to make my blog huge or lucrative; I guess that would be nice if it happened, but it's not something I fantasize about. Writing this post made me realize that one of my favorite aspects of blogging is the independence. I'm not beholden to anyone, which is a welcome change from academia. I'm my only editor--how often does that happen in life? Obviously I want people to enjoy my writing and photos, but I don't want to find myself in a position where I care more about the size of my readership than my own pleasure in blogging.

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  6. Well.

    Firstly, sorry for being late to the party! Things have been a bit chaotic here recently, and I like to take time to sit down and read your lovely posts fully :-)

    Secondly: ... There's not a lot to say. You have an uncanny knack, my antipodean twin, for taking the words right out of my mouth (and rearranging them into a much more coherent and eloquent form ;-)) For your comments on the whole grad school thing, you get the *understanding/comiserating shoulder pat* sacred to grad students everywhere.A small tear sprang to my eye, no joke! Keep blogging the way you want to blog, for as long as it makes you happy :-) I'll look forward to reading every post!

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