“If I’m going to spend an hour in the morning doing my glam … it’s because I feel like it. … My body, my choice!” U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, describing her daily beauty regimen in a recent film made by Vogue magazine and shown on YouTube. Some 2 million people have watched.
“There’s this really false idea that if you care about makeup or if your interests are in beauty and fashion, that that’s somehow frivolous,” she says. “But I actually think these are some of the most substantive decisions that we make — and we make them every morning.”
Ocasio-Cortez is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and a Democratic Party politician elected largely by middle-class professionals in New York in 2018. She promotes anti-working-class big-government “socialist” reforms that would maintain the capitalist system. Here she is promoting the profit-driven “beauty” industry — cosmetic companies, magazines like Vogue and other operations that rake in billions of dollars. Like Ocasio-Cortez, they present their products as the answer to women’s insecurities.
The congresswoman has been promoting her “glam” cosmetics routine in a step-by-step “Beauty Secrets” online tutorial — applying layers of makeup while discussing her reformist politics. Ocasio-Cortez ends the session saying, “Let’s go seize the day and fight the power!”
Some 6.9 million women have been tossed out of the workforce since February, as workers have borne the brunt of the government shutdowns of production and trade imposed after the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. Women make up a large majority of workers in child care, clothing stores, hotels and restaurants that have been shuttered.
Cosmetics industry bosses are looking for ways to rebuild sales that have shrunk during the crisis. Estee Lauder reported sales fell by 32% from April to June and said they will cut between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs.
Cosmetics and exploitation of women
The fetishism of cosmetics under capitalism is nothing new. In the 1950s, a debate on the question of the use of cosmetics and its connection to class relations, women’s oppression and the struggles of working people unfolded in the pages of the Militant. In 1954, editor Joe Hansen published an expose of the cosmetics industry and how it profits off undermining women’s self-confidence. One reader wrote to complain that his article was an affront to the right of working-class women to strive for “some loveliness and beauty in their lives.”
This discussion is just as relevant — and fascinating — today. It is reprinted in Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women by Hansen, Evelyn Reed, and Mary-Alice Waters, leaders past and present of the Socialist Workers Party. “Concealed behind the debate,” Reed explained in the book, is “a question of class struggle and class ideology.”
“What we have in cosmetics is a fetish, a particular fetish in the general fetishism that exists in the world of commodities,” wrote Hansen. “The special power that cosmetics have derives from the fact that in addition to economic relations, sexual relations attach to them. That is the real source of the ‘beauty’ both men and women see in cosmetics.”
Working people are inundated by constant advertising, pressuring them to buy these and other commodities. “Our task, therefore, is to expose both the capitalist system as the source of these evils and its massive propaganda machine which tells women that the road to a successful life and love is through the purchase of things,” Reed says. “To condone or accept capitalist standards in any field — from politics to cosmetics — is to prop up and perpetuate this ruthless profit system and its continued victimization of women.”
When we defend the right of women to use cosmetics “without clearly distinguishing between such a right and the capitalist social compulsion to use them,” Reed says, we fall into the trap of ruling-class propaganda.
In the 2010 preface to the Spanish-language edition of the book, Waters writes that Reed “explained how and why ever-changing standards of ‘beauty’ and ‘fashion’ imposed on women — and men — are integral to the perpetuation of women’s oppression. How millennia ago, as private property and class society emerged through bloody struggle, women were reduced to a form of property. They became ‘the second sex.’”
Waters says that since the 1954 debate, “the pressure to be ‘fashionable’ — that is to be ‘employable’ and attractive to a potential spouse has penetrated even more deeply into the working class.” But, as Reed points out, that “does not mean that we must accept these edicts and compulsions complacently or without protest.”
Reed says that the fight for women’s emancipation is critical, explaining, “The class struggle is a movement of opposition, not adaptation, and this holds true not only of the workers in the plants, but of the women as well, both workers and housewives.”
This is the exact opposite of what Ocasio-Cortez with her “glam” is doing today.