Pretty Hurts: Is Makeup Highlighting Our Power , or Just Concealing the Ugly Truth

Me and make-up haven’t always got along. When I was around 11 years old and in my faux-punk black everything phase, I rejected it as an activity only a “girly-girl” (the horror) would partake in. Fast-forward two years, and I had discovered the witchy, beautifully raccoon-like visage that too-light foundation and black kohl on my lower eye rim could offer. Fast forward three more years, and I was wearing tinted moisturiser and mascara sporadically, when I could be bothered in those slovenly school mornings. There was ventures into green eyeshadow, shaky liquid liner, and most regrettably, foundation as “natural-look” lipstick (thank the MAC gods I have since discovered Creme D’Nude). In my final years at school I had found my best eyeshadow colours, my favourite way to shape my eyes with liquid liner, and how to apply mascara without contracting self-induced conjunctivitis. But I balanced those days of wearing makeup with many days of a bare face. This is because I always seemed to have two different feminists on either of my shoulders – one who said that makeup was empowering, and one who said I was betraying myself and compromising my feminist ideals by pandering to the instructions of the patriarchy, to cover up supposed imperfections which they had deemed unacceptable. I have always been torn between what it really means to wear makeup.

There seems to be much conflict in the feminist community about this topic. Makeup falls under the category of external beauty, which, as we all know, is a topic feminism has covered very well. Photoshop used in fashion magazines has been widely criticised as creating an unreachable beauty standard for women. Diversity within the fashion world is better than ever, but that’s not saying much, as it still largely consists of UK size 4 white women under 25. So logically, the topic of makeup has also been critiqued and questioned. However, it was mostly the second wave feminists who began this critique and who were its loudest critics. They believed that makeup sent the message that a woman’s appearance was insufficient without cosmetic assistance, that their natural features weren’t good enough on their own. Meanwhile, men were free to be as old, ugly and spotty as they liked, because their superficial appearance was not what they were valued for. But then, the early 1990’s saw a shift in this opinion. Third wave feminism birthed “Lipstick Feminism”, introducing a brand of feminism which saw makeup as an empowering tool to be celebrated, largely using it to make themselves look even less like the ideal object of the male gaze, with loud red lipstick and garish black eyeliner, eschewing the powdery-pink, sugary-sweet makeup trends of the ’90s with a counterculture of “Riot Grrrls.” They were deliberately misusing makeup to counter the dictation of the patriarchy.

But was it a true victory?

Many feminists have covered the subject of female beauty ideals extensively-most prominently has been Naomi Wolf, whose fantastic feminist tome “The Beauty Myth” dealt with the impossible standards set by men via advertising and the media. She writes, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Her argument is that dictation of the female appearance is used to hinder women’s advancement in the world. “Bang on, Wolfy!” I thought as I read. Then, after a beat and a Victory Bite of a panini, I thought to myself, “Oh…” as I glanced down at my bulging makeup bag.

But I’m not necessarily conforming to any beauty ideal by painting on navy-blue eyeliner and dabbing on a dark berry lipstick just to look a little rad, am I? After all, David Bowie did it and though he had male privilege in truly choosing to do it, he looked pretty damn cool. He used makeup as self-expression, so why can’t we? It can’t be anti-feminist just to want to look a bit like David Bowie.

These days, in the era of “Fourth Wave Feminism” (or “Tumblr Feminism” as I like to call it), there is a strong argument for makeup as being synonymous with empowerment. Blog articles, think pieces and popular Tumblr posts alike have all supported the idea that wearing makeup doesn’t mean surrendering to the patriarchal agenda, “because we’re not wearing it for men. We’re wearing it for ourselves.”

Here lies my quibble. Are we really wearing it for ourselves? And if we are, does that mean it’s not conforming to the beauty ideal? Most beauty companies are still largely owned by men, and in those big advertising agencies, it is men who are deciding how to sell you products you don’t actually need. Does buying into it all not still mean that we’re deeming ourselves insufficient in our natural state?

This type of feminism is also the kind that irks me with how liberal and tolerant it is in terms of what women do. They argue the idea that feminism dictating what it is right for women to do with their bodies is counter-productive and sexist in itself.  However, I would counter that if we don’t challenge the rhyme and reason of our actions, then aren’t we letting ourselves off with an awful lot? Part of being a feminist is self-examination. As products of a patriarchal society, we often do sexist things every day without thinking. We often stab ourselves in our own proverbial backs without thinking, because we have been conditioned not to think about these things. Cutting ourselves a bit of slack when we do these things is good, because we, as feminists, are bound to mess up at some point. But completely absolving ourselves of responsibility for our actions just because we are products of the machine is self-victimising and proffers a very light, easy, fat-free kind of feminism I’m not interested in consuming.

I suppose my point is what I probably always knew deep down: that by concealing “flaws” that all humans have and that men do not feel the need to cover up, we are falling privy to the pressures of the beauty ideal. I should hold myself accountable for these missteps. Yet I also believe there’s no harm in painting on a dramatic eye or lip because it is really quite a lot of fun to do, and who am I to be the feminist killjoy?*

Confession: I quite like being the feminist killjoy.

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