Women and Asperger’s syndrome: make-up is not compulsory

Cover of a book, with a black and white pattern background and the title "The Asperkid's (Secret) Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome", by Jennifer Cooke O'TooleThe Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome - book information - Jessica Kingsley Publishers

I recently came across the above title in my local Waterstone’s, published by Jessica Kingsley which has some very good books on autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and various other topics related to special needs (sadly, their book on ME is straight from the Action for ME cookbook and is not recommended). Many of them are written by actual people with the condition, like Luke Jackson, or by noted experts like Tony Attwood, and are written in a friendly and accessible style. This one, aimed at “Asperkids” and written by Jennifer Cook O’Toole who carries the authority of someone who “has been one!”, sadly falls short of their usual standard. I raised my issues with certain points in this book with the two ladies from my local Asperger’s service, and with two female friends who also have Asperger’s, and they broadly agreed with one inadequacy of the book, which is its section on make-up for women with Asperger’s.

The book is written in quite an irritating, patronising, faux-Aspie style with quite a number of what the author thought were relevant illustrations including how “Hygeia and Aphrodite were BFFs” so as to prove the importance of hygiene in social interaction and when looking for a partner. There are also references to our mind-blindness and various other stereotypes based on how non-autistic people see us rather than how we really are and how we think. I know, because people said these things about me as a child, and they were not true then and aren’t now. She also uses words like “dumb” and “lame” a lot, to mean stupid and rubbish respectively. There may be a place for some of the milder disability-related slang words (phrases like “lame excuse” for example, and not when used from an authoritative standpoint in a disability-related context), but a book aimed at people with any disability is not one of them. A lot of people with Asperger’s are also mildly physically impaired, have poor co-ordination, and are liable to being called things like flid, spastic and so on (I was).

There is a section about hygiene (which is where the reference to the two Greek goddesses is) and another on proper relations with the opposite sex, which is divided between “Aspergirls” and “Asperguys” and explains how to be a proper “Asperlady” or, presumably, “Aspergent”. (You might notice a trend here; these “Asper-” words appear a lot.) There are two bits about make-up, which take up fewer than ten lines in the whole book:

In make-up and in clothing, choose one feature to emphasize at a time. Make-up: strong eyes or lips, not both. (p.221)

Ladies, you could have your make-up done in a department store or at a professional make-up counter the first time you’re ready to buy. Ask for a clean, natural look and have the artist teach you what he/she is doing. You don’t have to buy everythinig they are selling, but pay attention to the color choices, amount of product and method of application.

There’s an important point missing from both of this short paragraph and a half: it is not compulsory for women to wear make-up. Admittedly, it is kind-of implied where she says “the first time you’re ready”, but this point cannot be stressed too strongly in any book addressing women with Asperger’s or, for that matter, any other learning disabilities. Many women with Asperger’s wear none.

Make-up is a consumable; it costs money (as does make-up remover), and time, both of which you might like to spend on something else. The fact that someone learning to use make-up might be subjected to a “hard sell” should have prompted another piece of advice: take a trusted friend or relative. Make-up is a vast industry with a dubious ethical record. It is also not unafraid to flex its financial muscles. Make-up barons regard with horror the notion that it might be acceptable for a woman to be seen in public without their products; this is why it remains compulsory for front-line female staff in some shops that sell it (in some department stores, as shown in a recent discrimination case in London, the rule is enforced even in concessions that do not sell cosmetics, such as HMV as in this case). Gloria Steinem, the founder of American feminist magazine Ms, noted (PDF) that her magazine once ran a feature on a group of female dissidents in the USSR as was and got an interview with some of them in exile in Vienna, which got a Front Page award. However, it also led to Revlon declining to advertise, because the women in their front-page picture were not wearing make-up.

For women and teenaged girls with Asperger’s syndrome, there are other dangers in suggesting or implying that they should wear make-up. It takes some degree of imagination to decide what kind of “face” you want to “put on”, and imagination is something a lot of autistic people have some problems with. Many women know what kind of look they want, perhaps instinctively but partly through years of learning by observing female peers (and slightly older girls, in the case of the teens and ‘tweens’ this book is aimed at). If someone doesn’t have many friends, or spends much of their time in the company of older people (even if of the same sex), they might not have had this opportunity to observe and might not have the confidence, and might not even have the inclination to change their face. Badly-done make-up could mark someone as socially inept or give the impression that someone is desperate to fit in, which could easily attract the wrong sort of ‘friends’, i.e. bullies or people who want to exploit someone’s naivety and desire for companionship rather than be real friends.

We live in a society where there is a lot of pressure on people to conform, and for women there is a lot of pressure to ‘improve’ their bodies beyond keeping them clean and healthy. Stress is a big problem for people with Asperger’s, and anyone working with a young woman struggling to fit in should tell them that much of what they see other girls doing in pursuit of beauty, and doing to and putting on their bodies, is unnecessary. Most (though not all) women want to be feminine, as they or those around them understand it, and the fact that men do not commonly wear make-up may preclude it from being an option for many women, but there are many ways of expressing femininity that do not include buying chemicals on a regular basis and smearing them on your face. Any book addressing women with a learning disability, including Asperger’s syndrome, on this subject or charged with the guidance of such girls or women should make this point clearly, to save them unnecessary stress and expense.

I would like to correct an earlier Twitlonger post I made in which I claimed the book said that girls with Asperger’s should copy a make-up style from a shop mannequin. This was inaccurate and was from my faulty memory of what I had read. I apologise to the author.

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