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In Praise of Plain Women

By Renée Batchelor

Everett CollectionSaoirse Ronan as Jo March in “Little Women” (2019) is often seen with undone hair and no makeup.

In the 2019 Oscar-nominated film adaptation of the book “Little Women”, Jo March, the central character, is often seen in a state of dishevelment. With dark blonde waves that are haphazardly pinned and a clean, freshly- scrubbed face, the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan who plays Jo, certainly captures her character’s tomboyish spirit and distinct lack of vanity. Jo, with her noble intentions to support her family with her writing, clearly has no time for the frivolities of grooming. When she cuts off her long hair to sell it for money, her younger sister Amy exclaims, “Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” Despite her initial stoicism, Jo’s resolve crumbles later on when she realises the weight of what she has done, and begins to sob. Even a character known for her independent spirit is not immune to how she would be perceived without the feminine marker of long hair.

Women have long held a complicated relationship with their hair and makeup and the societal expectation that they should put time and effort into their physical appearance. Naomi Wolf may have exposed the forces controlling our perceptions of female appearance in her book “The Beauty Myth”, but today, even the most confident of women are subjected to a tidal wave of superficial judgment that has become almost systemic, not just in the worlds of fashion and entertainment, but in the working world, too.

In a 2016 study called “Gender and the Returns to Attractiveness,” sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner studied over 14,000 subjects and concluded that while both attractive men and women earned more than their less attractive peers, women were subjected to another layer of judgement. The perceived attractiveness of women was largely based on their grooming habits, and that women who are well-groomed — think coiffed hair, perfectly executed makeup and painted nails — had a significantly greater earning potential than their un- or lesser-groomed peers. In the past, this link between financial success and grooming may not have been quantified, but many women without the means to support themselves found that their future success depended on their marriageability, and by extension their appearance.

Literary history has always had its share of heroines who in their quiet way have celebrated the idea of plainness, but oftentimes they stayed in the background. The Bennet sisters of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” had an archetypal plain sister, Mary. Protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Bennet, the eldest sister of the family, may have seen more of the novel’s action, but middle sister Mary, who is described as the plainest of her sisters, so inspired writer Katherine J. Chen that she wrote an alternative retelling of the novel from Mary’s perspective entitled, “Mary B”. Chen wrote in the website Lithub upon the publication of her novel, “It is no accident that as I grew more comfortable in my own skin, I began to drift away from the bright eyes of Lizzy Bennet and into the bony, awkward arms of Mary. It is the equivalent of putting down a Barbie and finding, to your delight, that you have much more in common with Gloria Steinem.”

Those who have resisted the call for grooming often find themselves having to explain why. Leandra Medine, a fashion blogger who doesn’t wear makeup and is often questioned by commenters, wrote on her website. “I am comfortable with how I look. I don’t hate what I see when I look in the mirror. Even if legions of others don’t agree. I have accepted the reflection that reliably bounces back at me for its perks and its flaws. I understand that there are thick, dark circles under my eyes. I have grown to appreciate them,” wrote Medine, who went on to detail other perceived flaws and note that she did in fact notice them, but just did not care.

Then there is the idea of the makeover whether in a woman’s magazine or a television show, taking a subject — often female — and transforming her with predictable tweaks like eyebrow grooming, makeup and a haircut to create a more polished approximation of her original self. The idea is that a woman in particular is seen as “lesser than” until she presents her best self and often makes the psychological link between appearance and a sense of fulfilment. But those who have stood out for their noticeable defiance of conventional beauty standards like rock star Janis Joplin who was often makeup-free and proudly sporting wash-and-go hair — serve as a beacon to the women who see no need to hide beneath hairspray and foundation, while comfortably presenting themselves in plain sight.