WNBA rookie makeup class proves old norms die hard

Confession time: I am 34 years old and I am teaching myself how to do my makeup. Well, that’s not accurate, exactly. I know how to do the most basic “natural” look – just enough foundation to even out my complexion, just enough mascara to keep my eyes from vanishing, lip gloss because I like it – but the skillful use of eye shadow and cheekbone highlighters and various liners is something that has eluded me until now, mainly because I just didn’t care all that much.

I’m not sure what caused the switch to flip but it did, and now I watch YouTube video tutorials, pick up tips from the news anchor ladies I work with, and pay close attention as my best friend demonstrates the proper use of a crease brush.  I still mostly go barefaced these days, but I like knowing I have the ability to whip out a sultry smoky eye when the occasion calls for it. I don’t really run myself through the Feminist Guilt gauntlet over my newfound enjoyment of makeup because it’s something fun I decided to embrace on my own terms, and, perhaps most importantly, because I don’t feel as though my worth as a human being depends upon my ability to apply it to my face.

I considered these things while reading news coverage of Elle’s profile of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, most of which focused on Griner’s blithe dismissal of the makeup classes offered at the WNBA’s rookie orientation: “I don’t need that shit.”

The universal response seemed to be, “The WNBA is offering makeup classes? WTF!”

(By the way, the profile is very much worth reading, because the author not only writes about Griner but also gender and sexuality, the evolution of the marketing of women’s sports and sex testing in the Olympics. It’s the kind of writing and reportage that left me feeling so conflicted about letting my Elle subscription expire a few years ago.)

It turns out the WNBA has been offering these classes since 2008, when they brought in famed makeup artist Bobbi Brown to help out with hour-long fashion and makeup seminars during the two-day rookie orientation, which is intended to help the newbies navigate the tricky waters of life as a professional athlete.  Also included in the orientation are seminars on financial investing, media training and fitness and nutrition.  (The NBA has a similar rookie orientation, but sorry boys, no hair and makeup classes for you!  But hey, definitely make sure to take those classes about not beating your wife or girlfriend.)

Knowing how to invest your money wisely and handling yourself professionally during press conferences are what I would consider to be important life skills for a pro athlete, but learning how to blend your eyeshadow properly?  Ehhh…not so much.

It makes you wonder if the organizational officials behind this decision saw the charm school scene in “A League of Their Own” and thought, “By golly, what a great idea! We shall take these slovenly wildebeests and turn them into real ladies.”

Now, as I have already written, I am not at all opposed to makeup.  I would actually love to take a makeup class, and if that class was taught by Bobbi Brown?  It would pretty much rule.  I would be like, “Take all my moneys and please show me how to line my eyes evenly.”  But what I do take issue with is this idea that wearing it is some kind of essential life skill for women, like making sure the world doesn’t see your undereye circles is on par with knowing how to handle your money so you don’t go broke.  Makeup and fashion can be pleasurable things, but they are not nearly as important as being able to manage your finances and they should not be considered an essential part of being a woman.

That’s the core issue of so much of what is problematic about things like this, which is that it reinforces this idea that all of the extra labor and cost that goes into putting on a perfectly feminine presentation isn’t considered optional, not if you want to be considered successful and attractive and professional and all that. Don’t wear makeup? People wonder if you are sick.  Come to work with unstyled or – gasp! – wet hair?  You aren’t professional.  Don’t shave your pits?  You don’t have proper hygiene.  Don’t work out and diet?  You aren’t “taking care of yourself.”

The tension seems particularly highlighted when it comes to female athletes, as we are pretty much constantly battling the idea that we are somehow encroaching upon the explicitly male realm of sports and so we have to compensate for that by making sure the world knows how truly feminine and pretty we are underneath our beastly, intense exteriors.  We can be accomplished and tough and smart, but we have to be sweet and beautiful and well-groomed while doing it, and, oh, make it all seem effortless. Here, Nicki Minaj breaks it down perfectly.

In this regard I can almost understand why the WNBA would offer makeup and fashion seminars for its rookies.  Almost.  In fact, in a 2008 Chicago Tribune article, league president Donna Orender says as much: “I do believe there’s more focus on a woman’s physical appearance. Men are straight out accepted for their athletic ability. That’s reality. I think it’s true in every aspect of the work force. This is all about a broader-based education.”

But at the same time, it just feels so fucking anachronistic, you know?  The Elle article (I’m telling you, it’s a great read) even points out that this approach is falling out of favor:

Flash forward a decade, and WNBA spots—for TV and the Web—are a fast-paced pastiche of game highlights, the voice-over done in a bellicosely dramatic, WWF tone: “132 of the world’s best ready to go at it. It’s 40 minutes of fire every…single…game.”

Richie says the league’s promotion has been influenced by current data indicating that the competition itself is the top draw for fans, as well as by a small but growing body of academic research suggesting that sex does not sell, at least insofar as athletes are used as endorsers to try to sell tickets to sports events as opposed to hawk products from watches to razors. What has been found to work, says University of Massachusetts Amherst sport management professor Janet Fink, is highlighting a player’s “expertise.” Sexualizing female or male athletes can actually undercut their skill in the public mind, Fink adds.

Attempts to play up the femininity and sex appeal of female athletes no longer work in today’s world.  I’m not saying that female athletes cannot be feminine or sexy; on the contrary, many of us are both of these things (and I’d argue that we manifest these qualities in a variety of ways that extend beyond the previously held stereotypes).  What I am saying is that trying to shoehorn every single one of us into a specific kind of femininity just doesn’t work anymore.  Not for athletes, and not for the rest of us.

Sure, there are still some people out there who have very specific ideas about What Men and Women Are, but far more of us are evolving quite rapidly when it comes to our ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman.  This is true when it comes to athletes.  People who want to watch female athletes play want to watch them because they are athletes.  (And for what it’s worth, I think the inverse is slowly becoming true with regards to men.  I don’t think the public response to the allegations against Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito would have been quite the same in the 1970s, you know?)

It’s time the WNBA took a cue from Griner and got rid of the makeup classes for rookies.  Like the lady said, they don’t need that shit.

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7 responses to “WNBA rookie makeup class proves old norms die hard

  1. I’m a beauty blogger so..I’m obsessed with makeup. I know how to blend, contour, and highlight, and love doing it. But I cannot wrap my mind why these classes are even being OFFERED. They’re…basketball players! Why would they need to know how to apply makeup for? Just ludicrous.

  2. I don’t know how the class was presented, but I have no problems with teaching professional women athletes how to put on makeup for, say, television interviews or post-game press conferences. When you’re on TV, makeup is important. If the class was about wearing makeup on the court, that’s ridiculous, but playing basketball is only part of a WNBA player’s job.

    Also, WNBA rookies are fresh-out-of-college, brand-new professionals. The class is about makeup AND fashion. These women represent their team, the WNBA as a whole, and their own personal brand. Dressing professionally is part of the package, and for women, makeup is part of dressing professionally. I would be willing to be that the NBA offers a class during rookie training about how to dress professionally.

    Anyway, I hate that makeup is part of the professional dress code for women and not for men, but that’s the world we live in, and so I don’t necessarily fault the WNBA for teaching its players how to put it on so players who choose to use makeup look their best.

  3. I’m pretty ignorant to the world of makeup even at the ripe age of 50. But I have had to submit to chromosomal gender testing in competition. Where do you find these makeup tutorials? it would be kind of fun to try it out!

  4. A youtube tutorial relevant to your interests 🙂

    I love makeup and spend a lot of time and money on it but I hate that its this expected- bare minimum to be considered presentable in a public space crap. Its such a horrible thing to tell women that their bare faces are somehow inherently not professional/good enough.

    And then you have the whole insistence on the ‘natural’ look/ don’t you know boys prefer natural looking beauty shitstorm. Heaven forbid my winged eyeliner and orange lipstick offend some poor boy who thinks women are naturally pink and shiny and poreless -_-

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