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.