intimate, boring, poisonous wage labor, & art.
radical love letter #73 | on beauty culture
“That's why I get so irritated by the kind of rogue misogyny and the dismissal of aesthetics as a legitimate terrain of political resistance. Sure, read your books, but how do you survive? You survive by finding beauty in impossible and bleak situations.” -ALOK
Once or twice a month I spend roughly 40 minutes holding hands with Johnny, a man I barely know. We chat sometimes, but I get the sense that he’d rather us share silence. When I get a “full-set”, Johnny turns me feral, wild animal-like with wolverine claws, eventually cut and filed and then chiseled down with a literal power drill. Towards the end, he takes a paintbrush to my fingertips, dipping it into a purple liquid, then a pink powder, before molding it to a finish.
This is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the cyborg process that takes place when I get acrylic nails. It’s an experience that is all at once intimate, boring, poisonous wage labor, and art. (If you’ve never had acrylics, and if the above sounds extremely confusing, I recommend watching a video. It’s a fascinating, immensely skillful, and patient craft.)
There is a lot of time to think across the table during the nail session. Sometimes I try to use it for meditation, see if I can really clear my mind, or at least focus on each brush stroke or drill bit. But more often, I’m lost in thoughts of what I have to do next, how my heart is feeling, and, of course, the theoretical and political implications of the whole experience.
“My ‘femme’ is consumptive,” I admit to any anti-capitalist with whom I talk about gender, “And that’s a tension I live with.” My acrylics, my lash extensions, the makeup--they all cost money, they all take time, they are all produced in an unsustainable capitalist system.
But, as I’ve written about before, my femme is also classed in a particular way that complicates it as bourgeois. At the nail salon, for example, I am often the only white person in the whole place, which, in the US, means a disproportionate chance that the clientele (and workers) are lower-income compared to white settler counterparts. And, culturally, my aesthetic choices are often considered “trashy.” Acrylic salons are different from manicure salons. Acrylics are coded, racially and economically, as something for strippers, the trailer park, or, as I grew up hearing in the 80s and 90s, simply (and obviously extremely racist-ly) “ghetto.” My own background in (and current relationship to) trashy, lumpen culture is part of the reason I find great pleasure in and affinity with the aesthetic.
This contradiction maps onto the history of cosmetics: they have always been both something mostly for the upper classes but also utilized (in different ways) by the lower classes; they have been both constructed for “the male gaze” and also sometimes intended to repulse it; they are overwhelmingly white/euro-centric in standard but also pre-date colonialism; they are historically and contemporarily a practice and a ritual (often spiritual) and also another thing recuperated for profit by a planet-wrecking economic system.
I am interested in so many facets of beauty -– the cultural, the economic, our drive towards or against it— because it’s so much a part of how I embody my gender, but also because the stakes feel high in this unique moment of already-unfurling planet demise and an undeniable popular resurgence of fascist ideology.
I frequently ask myself, “Would X behavior/desire/pleasure be sustainable in the kind of world where everyone could be free and have their needs met?” Or another version of that question is, “How much does X behavior/desire/pleasure cause harm?” The beauty industry is not a leading cause of the ecological crises, but its reliance on toxic chemicals is not insignificant. And so, cosmetics matter to the planet because they are harmful to it; but also because they are a tool many of us use to find a little joy amidst collapse.
That conversations around beauty are relevant to the rise of fascism seems evident, but let me spell it out: violence against trans people (especially trans women) is on the rise; incel and other sexist vitriolic thought leaders are on the rise (Andrew Tate, NoFAP communities, and so on); the war against sex workers is on the rise. And tacit (or sometimes explicit) within so much of the rhetoric that supports these ideologies is not just an anti-trans stance, not just an anti-woman stance, but a particular hatred of the kind of femininity that beauty culture supports.
I want to unpack all of this over the course of a few essays, so consider this the preface.
Ironically, I’m typing this to you with my bare, short, real nails. For the first time in my four years of getting acrylics (with a year pandemic pause), my nail tech suggested I take a break to repair some of the inevitable damage I’ve endured. As he buffed my ‘real’ nails (in contrast to my acrylics, which feel more authentic), he talked to me for the first time about the harshness of the chemicals. “A lot of nail techs don’t have a full thumb nail because we always use it to clean up the edges on the toxic powder, you know? It’s really not good for any of us.” I felt a pang in my gut, thinking about this worker whose health I was risking (along with my own). “But please come back in two weeks, don’t stop being a customer!” he laughed. I laughed too, with relief. An invitation, an excuse, a rationalization. There in the salon chair, the cognitive dissonance we are all managing, the contradictions we all sort through: pleasure, our health, the planet’s health, how we spend our money, how we spend our time, hegemonic norms and our insufficient but meaningful attempts to resist them…
I am, admittedly, counting down the days til I can get them back.
I plan to do additional essays deep-diving into the two aforementioned areas – production of beauty industry products and beauty in relation to sexist/transphobic fascism– but I’d love to know if there are other areas y’all are interested in hearing more about/thinking through together maybe? Comment below. <3 Paid subscribers on Friday will get a more personal look at my complicated relationship to beauty rituals (including injections!), so feel free to sign-up if you want more on that. <3