I’ve been talking a lot about makeup lately. And not in the Seventeen-esque “what color eye shadow will match my nail polish and skin tone while still making it look like I don’t have any eye shadow on” kind of way. The conversations I’ve been having—with my boyfriend, with other feminists, with my little sister—have been about the very basic purpose of makeup. Is it empowering? Is it anti-woman? Is it disgusting? Is it even worth discussing?
My gut instinct is to approach the concept, one relating very specifically to women and the cultural presentation and perception of the female, with an extremely critical feminist lens. I want to see Maybelline ads and magazine layouts and TV commercials and scream “MISOGYNY!” I want to write that we as women are literally being told that we are not good enough; that the way we look is not acceptable; that we must alter our appearance, conform our physicalities, and hide our actual selves. I want women to see that the patriarchy wants us to paint our faces with goop, and that we’re doing it, because we’ve been conditioned to internalize society’s condemnation of our innate physical differences and socially constructed imperfections. I feel obligated to reason that we’re wasting away time, money, energy, resources, and our own health on perpetuating this purely oppressive, sexist cultural phenomenon.
But, after I get past this first wave of broad societal analysis, I realize that it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. I’ve worn makeup maybe three times in the last month, and similar to the first few weeks after stopped shaving my legs, there are times when I feel honestly disgusted with myself. I have this tugging vital need to put on eye liner and mascara, cover up the miniscule chin pimple, brush on a hint of blush. If I fundamentally understood makeup as an oppressive cultural phenomenon, it seems like I wouldn’t be engaging in such polarizing inner monologues. Whether it’s the internalization of a social construct or not, makeup is something that’s far more than just destructive.
For a lot of individual women, wearing makeup gives them confidence to be proud of their appearance and simply feel good about themselves both physically and emotionally. To be able to put on makeup in the morning and think Damn, I look good, gives women the extra self-assurance and pride needed to go about their days with confidence and positive energy. You look good, you feel good. I’ve definitely experienced days where I think I look frumpy or greasy or tired, or my hair is flipping some weird way, or I have a huge whitehead on my face, and I can’t go through the motions of existence with the attitude I want to have. After all, isn’t every sense of anything in our lives socially constructed? Who’s to say that this one instance of normalized beauty is solely harmful, when it’s honestly making women feel good about themselves? (Whether or not that’s because it institutionalized the widespread sense of feeling bad about themselves first?)
My most difficult logical inconsistency to overcome on this topic has been balancing the society-wide capitalist destruction, normalized self-hatred, and gender separation that the entire makeup industry is banking on with the simple fact that makeup really does make women feel good. It allows some to be confident, express themselves, and put forth what they feel is the self they want the world to see. There’s no feasible way to just abolish the use of makeup, which, it’s important to note, is not solely used by women, and not only in the U.S.
So is it better to just concern myself with my own deep-set ideological contradictions, and keep fighting my personal urge to just put on some waterproof mascara? Or to say whatever, completely succumb to the societal beauty standards that are unavoidably engrained in my thinking, and just stay aware of the harmful concepts I’m perpetuating? Or to take it upon myself to lecture other women about the oppressive nature of their beauty regime? Or … ?
Basically, the way I see it, the entire basis for makeup is, well, made up. The industry is a capitalistic, patriarchal, oppressive tool. But, nonetheless, is has evolved into an aspect of life for a lot of women that is important, confidence boosting—even fun. So who am I to tell anybody what to put on her (or his) face? I’ll still get at the glitter and liquid eyeliner if I’m feeling it. I just think it’s important to see the tangible results of our individual place within a very intentional, structural existence. Without being constantly aware and critical, we’re going to reduce ourselves to faux-radical, semi-feminist messes of contradiction and cover-up, and at that point, it won’t matter how good we look.