My 11-year-old daughter is obsessed with makeup. She spends all her free time watching how-to videos on YouTube and all her money buying eye shadows and highlighters. Her idea of a fun Saturday outing is going to Sephora and “swatching.” She also has her own Instagram account, where she has started posting pictures of herself wearing 10 pounds of makeup—and looking a tiny bit like JonBenét Ramsey. (Her friends write things like, “You look soooo gorgeous.”) She insists that it’s just a “hobby” and that makeup application is an “art form,” but it’s starting to freak me out.
Should I shrug my shoulders and assume it’s just a passing phase? Or should I object on feminist grounds and begin restricting her activities? I’m worried that, if I protest too vehemently, I’ll only make the whole business more exciting!
I like and wear makeup too, but it’s never been of all that much interest to me. I also now feel (in middle age) that I spent way too much of my young life stressing about my appearance! And it was both corrosive and, in the end, a waste of time.
We shouldn’t fall into the sexist trap of dismissing girlish preoccupations as inherently silly. Makeup artistry is probably more creative than Minecraft, for example, which obsesses many boys her age. (One of my former students is now applying to law school, inspired, in part, by the intellectual-property problems she encountered as a YouTube makeup artist.) And what a pleasure to acquire a skill, be publicly admired for it, and get praised for your beauty, all at the same time!
Still, you’re right to worry, Muddled. It’s not the makeup that’s troubling here; it’s your daughter’s relationship to media and to her own appearance that should concern us.
Enjoying one’s beauty and its social power is fun. But in the image-drenched and still male-dominated world we live in, girls’ value is too often reduced to their looks. Your daughter needs to understand that she is so much more than her pretty Insta pics, and the medium makes this hard to keep in perspective. Like you, I worry that if she’s getting too much praise for her good looks, at such a crucial time in her development, beauty will become too central to her identity. And on social media, notes Kris Harrison, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan who has extensively researched girls and media, “They quantify the heck out of it: ‘How many “likes” did you get?’”
Additionally, the time your daughter spends on Instagram and YouTube may be taking her away from spending time with friends face-to-face, says Harrison. Brain research shows that those “likes” from total strangers give us the same dopamine rush as real-life social approval—a huge problem because the more time girls spend communicating electronically, the lower they score on critical measures of well-being. What boosts real happiness and sanity—especially for early adolescents, who are newly developing as social animals—is hanging out with friends in person. Your daughter’s brain, then, is giving her the wrong incentives, rewarding her for activities that aren’t good for her mental health. (Speaking of incentives, the social-media industry, like Big Pharma, is set up to profit from more use, not to help us figure out how to use sensibly.) Harrison adds, “It sounds like that horse has left the barn, but 11 is too young for Instagram.”
While you’re right not to forbid the makeup, you should limit your daughter’s Instagram use. Research shows that a purely authoritarian approach backfires (“It’s forbidden fruit, and they just use it all the more at their friends’ houses,” says Harrison), but if parents and kids discuss the restrictions and parents explain the reasons for them, setting rules can work.
One strategy is to sign your daughter up for makeup-artistry classes or summer programs, where she could move her focus away from the Internet and her own body and meet, in person, people who share her passion. Better yet, encourage an interest in theatrical makeup, which would allow her to get involved in school or community theater, meeting other artistic kids. And the theater would give her skills a healthier—and an equally public—platform.
Is passive aggression especially acute under capitalism? It seems so to me. It seems to afflict a lot of my friends and relations. Is this because everyone is just exhausted?
I posed your question to Marxist psychoanalyst Harriet Fraad, who answered with an emphatic yes. This is because there’s “anger everywhere,” she explained, and, in American society in particular, people have “no political outlet for it.” (“Passive-aggressive” behavior expresses anger covertly, acting out in a hostile manner while appearing to politely comply—for example, agreeing and then “forgetting” to run an errand that you were annoyed to be saddled with in the first place.) Psychologist Leon Seltzer wrote in 2008 that passive aggression is common in people who experienced the following problems in their childhood: Their needs were not met; they could not express anger without fear of retaliation; and they felt helpless, dependent for their survival on people they feared who did not care for them well. That’s an apt description of how many people, living under American-style capitalism, feel about their bosses, government, and fellow citizens. No wonder you’re seeing a lot of passive-aggressive behavior in your daily life.
Fraad finds psychic and political hope in our moment’s embrace of people who reject these familiar passive roles to defy power. Emma González and her fellow high-school survivors of the Parkland massacre have turned their rage into action. Fraad notes that on the day of the March for Our Lives, the students’ eyes were shining and they looked joyful; no longer victims, they “had a mission.” Stormy Daniels, too, is an inspiration. “Instead of being intimidated and helpless,” Fraad told me, “she’s standing up to the most powerful bully in the United States, and she is quite happy. She’s a real hero for the American people.”
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