The arts in mental health: Woman with Cosmetics

Woman and Cosmetics, by Wayne Thiebaud

Every once in a while, you find an art work, a piece of music, a poem, whatever, that won’t leave you alone. Something about it speaks to you deeply, and you carry it around with you forever.

That’s how I feel about Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Woman with Cosmetics. I first saw it in high school when flipping through the pages of a book on twentieth-century art, and it has never left me.

Wayne Thiebaud is an American painter mostly affiliated with the 1960s Pop Art movement. (And he’s still around today at 91 years old!) From my (brief) research, he focuses on single subjects or small groups of subjects against a plain background, much like a scientific specimen. With his bright, chalky colors and sometimes cutesy subject matter (cakes, lollipops, gumball machines, bunnies), I’m surprised Pinterest isn’t exploding with Thiebaud pins right now–it’s very of-the-moment. Woman with Cosmetics seems to be fairly typical of Thiebaud’s work. Naked and bare-faced, she stares head-on into the camera with all of her cosmetic accoutrements spread out before her.

This painting doesn’t deal with mental health directly, but its messages are very relevant to my life as I train to become a counselor, and to many other people’s lives. Most obviously to me, this work brings up questions of gender roles and expectations. Look at all of the tools this woman needs to prep for her day! I would like to say that back in the 1960s, when Thiebaud painted this piece, social convention required this amount of upkeep from women and that today the restrictions are much looser. I can’t really, though. We have more choices–I don’t HAVE to straighten my hair, pluck my eyebrows, paint my nails, or dress a certain way–but the truth is, life is easier when I do some of these things. And even when it’s all said and done, my choices are still up for scrutiny. It’s why, for example, in the year 2008, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits were as much a focus of the media’s attention as her political campaign. For crying out loud!

Honestly, being “girly” doesn’t bother me too much, meaning I don’t mind doing something with my hair and wearing a little makeup each day. That doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I’d rather wear my yoga pants to work with no makeup, and I feel like the woman in the painting, surveying everything that I feel is necessary to do before leaving the house, and wondering why it’s necessary. I fully expect to have clients who chafe at and struggle with gender norms and roles, wondering why certain things are deemed necessary. I’ve examined my own behaviors to keep what fits and discard the rest, and I hope I can help my clients figure out what fits for them. I hope I can encourage tolerance in my own little corner of the world for others’ choices, too.

In order to make choices about what works for each of us and what doesn’t, I think we also need a certain amount of vulnerability. This is the second lesson from this painting. Woman with Cosmetics also deals with vulnerability in a pretty straightforward way–the woman in the painting is totally unmasked and open. There must be something in the counseling water, because Jen at the Pursuit of Sassiness beat me to it and tackled vulnerability in a post last week. However, I see vulnerability a little differently.

I have a copy of Kent M. Keith’s “Paradoxical Commandments” hanging at my desk, and while I love them all, I love this commandment the most: “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.” In her own way, the woman in the painting is being honest and frank. What you see is what you get. In my life so far, I’ve found that real honesty and frankness isn’t the mean-spirited, tactless kind. Rather, it comes from the heart and leaves you vulnerable and more able to connect and to be yourself. I take pride in my honesty, as it has only brought me good things so far in life.

I hope that in working with clients, I can help them get past their defenses to a place of vulnerability so that we can connect and effect real change. I’ve been through it before myself, and it’s terrifying, and in the end, it’s healing. I am who I am supposed to be, because I am being honest and frank with myself and others. For some people, like I discussed above, that may mean figuring out which social conventions do and don’t work, like gender norms. It takes vulnerability to do something outside the norm, and although doing your own thing can be painful, it can also be the best possible choice in the end.

My views of art tend to change over time, so I’m curious to see how my ideas about Woman with Cosmetics will change as my self and my career develop. It will always be a piece of art that will never leave me–an important reminder to be honest with myself and others. In the end, it is my greatest hope that I can encourage others to be honest and vulnerable in order to heal and become congruent. I know how powerful that connection can be. I don’t know yet who I’ll see during my practicum or where I’ll complete my internship, but I’m sure that this part of counseling will never leave me, either.



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