Jonathan Swift’s poem, The Lady’s Dressing Room, is a comic satire that seeks to show readers the inescapable humanity – and its flaws and gory ugliness – that women have to live with no matter how hard they try to make themselves appear immaculately beautiful on the outside. It could be read as a criticism of the extreme efforts women do to make themselves beautiful, and as a criticism of the beholder, the man, who is enamored by the physical beauty only to realize the imperfections being hidden underneath that flawless exterior in the lady’s dressing room.
The dressing room is where the transformation takes place – this is where the lady goes in simple and when she comes out she is a radiant beauty and men cannot help themselves. That is what the poem implies that is why the poem begins with a man, Strephon, who is enamored by Celia who takes at least five hours to prepare herself, sneaking in the dressing room to find out why, and discovers the horrors that goes on not only inside the room but also with his beloved Celia’s body beneath those laces and brocades.
He discovers: first a dirty Smock appear’d, Beneath the Arm-pits well besmear’d. Strephon, the Rogue, display’d it wide, And turn’d it round on every Side. On such a Point few Words are best, And Strephon bids us guess the rest; But swears how damnably the Men lie, In calling Celia sweet and cleanly. That in fact, Celia is not as perfect as she seems – her clothes have perspiration and bad smell on them. hat follows next is a series of finding other items Celia uses to prepare herself – combs with dirt, dandruff and sweat, a piece of cloth with oil used to cover wrinkles, gloves made from Celia’s dog’s skin when it died, and various little jars filled with pomade, paint, ointments, all these used to cover her imperfections. Strephon even finds the discarded stockings that reveal stinking toes. No wonder that at the end of the poem, Strephon could no longer look straight at any woman, for his imagination always conjures the images he saw in the dressing room and saw their stinks, their flaws that they try so hard to hide.
The narrator of the poem says that this is vengeance for his peeping, for if Strephon did no such thing then he could still be blessed when he sees beautiful women without knowing “such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung”. Hence this is the curse of the lady’s dressing room, that it took the magic and wonder for the beholder and made him see the woman as the imperfect creature masquerading to be a work of art. However, the dressing room is also a curse for Celia and all women, as it is the chamber where they feed their obsession to make themselves beautiful for men.
In the poem the narrator mentioned “Celia’s magnifying Glass”, which is simply a mirror, but in this mirror everything was enlarged, that it can …to Sight disclose, The smallest Worm in Celia’s Nose, And faithfully direct her Nail To squeeze it out from Head to Tail; For catch it nicely by the Head, It must come out alive or dead. — that it makes her so insecure to make her spend time to look for even the minutest flaws that no one would see anyway.
The woman spends a minimum of five hours (perhaps an exaggerated figure, but the point is that women spend a large amount of time preening) and fails to see that real beauty comes from within, not on what is reflected by a piece of glass. The poem shows the readers an image of the preparation taken to make one look good outside but in so doing shows that perhaps it is nature’s way that makes it so difficult – that we should learn to appreciate each other and ourselves, flaws included, for we all have them.
This is not to say to forgo hygiene, but merely to examine what activities we spend time on. The curse of the dressing room is that it makes us believe in the illusion that media sells us: the dream of that perfect skin, that Barbie body, that photoshopped face, that if we make up ourselves as long as we need to we can transcend our human bodies’ flaws. But we cannot, because all these are parts of what makes us who we are.
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