First, let’s distinguish two different broad types of feminism, what I’ll call radical feminism and liberal feminism. Obviously you can be a mixture of the two views in various ways but for purposes of this post I’ll just assume they are diametrically opposed on the issue of makeup.
Liberal feminists often talk about how makeup is empowering, about taking control of our appearance and reclaiming femininity to boost our self-esteem as well as engage in an artistic endeavor that is pure, fun, empowering, and something that is open to all genders. Liberal feminism is characterized by maximum inclusivity, respecting all forms of makeup as equally valid, including more controversial extremes such as drag makeup and glamour looks with a million products. For liberal feminists, makeup is not a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, it is a legitimate and totally valid way to express yourself.
In contrast radical feminists are more likely to say things like:
-Women wear makeup for men and makeup is a product of the patriarchical institution of men demanding women wear makeup in order to be considered “normal” and is thus fundamentally corrupted as a practice no matter how “artistic” it aspires to be.
Furthermore, the radical feminist insists we cannot escape the social influence of unattainable beauty ideals being pushed on women everywhere, the obsessive judgments against women who don’t reach those beauty ideals, and the negative influence this has in the workplace and everywhere else, where a woman’s professional qualifications are called into question if she comes in with her natural face with dark undereye circles, etc.
Ok, so that’s the two opposing feminist positions on makeup in a nutshell. I’ll get into more differences later in the post.
As someone who has been lurking makeup forums for awhile, my impression is that that most of the people who consider themselves “makeup addicts” vehemently deny that they wear makeup for men. Personally, I think it’s best practice to take these people at face value and if they say they don’t wear makeup for men, then they don’t wear makeup for men, plain and simple. I mean, most men prefer women to wear less makeup anyway so if women are just catering to the demands of men why not wear less makeup? No, women who are true makeup lovers do not wear makeup for men. If anything they wear it for either themselves or for other makeup addicts. When I positively comment on people’s makeup in real life it always makes me happy to see their face light up as someone appreciates the work they did that day.
Why even distinguish makeup addicts from the casual or seldom makeup user? Because I think a more interesting question is not whether casual makeup use is compatible with feminism but whether the LOVE and addiction to makeup as a hobby is compatible with feminism. After all, the casual use of almost any consumeristic product in today’s day and age is bound to lead to ethical problems but this is contaminated by all sorts of other complicated questions about what it means to be complicit but not fully cognizant of problematic capitalistic systems.
Another point of contention that radical feminists make in order to argue against makeup is that women are expected to wear makeup in the workplace but men are not and this sets up a fundamentally problematic dynamic that is destructive to the goal of liberating women.
In my view, this is a valid thing to be concerned about. I of course have problems with any kind of expectation that says women MUST wear makeup in order to be seen as professional, clean, pretty, or competent. But we can be critical of this expectation while at the same time not denying the intrinsic joy makeup lovers get out of makeup, the joy it brings them, the pleasure it gives them from feeling good about themselves, etc. If we start getting hyper ethical, where do we stop? How many radical feminists are willing to stop drinking wine or coffee even though if we as humans used all the land and resources growing those things to grow food for starving people then the world would be much better off for women to live in, but you don’t see radical feminists go around protesting those things.
Another thing radical feminists argue is that the institution of makeup perpetuates the impicit bias that women’s natural faces are seen as ugly and in need of correcting with makeup. Just think of Benefit’s recent “Yuck!” campaign, it perfectly encapsulates the idea that women NEED to buy a million makeup products to be seen as valid and beautiful otherwise they are somehow “nasty” or “icky”, not fully women. It’s been a longtime assumption that women who don’t wear makeup are either lesbians or somehow less fully their gender than women who wear makeup.
As a trans woman this is definitely something I can relate to because I wear makeup to work as a coping mechanism for gender dysphoria and misgendering but I resent the implication that I need to do these things in order be seen as my gender. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy the process of makeup application and it’s not a chore to me. But for many women it is a chore, and not something they look forward to doing yet they do it anyway because if they didn’t they would get negative feedback. I think like most women, I wear makeup for multiple reasons. Because I enjoy it, because it makes me feel good about myself, it’s an avenue for artistic expression, there’s always room to improve, the technical details, to combat the possibility of misgendering and to help cope with dysphoria, because I enjoy the community of makeup lovers, the camaraderie it brings me with fellow enthusiasts, the small connections that happen when someone says something nice about someone else’s makeup.
Another argument radical feminists makeup is that the makeup world is fueled by Youtube gurus and rampant, dangerous, unhealthy consumerism based on trends and fads.
Dont get me wrong, there is a lot of problematic capitalistic tendencies to the makeup world. There are probably people out there, including myself, who perhaps use makeup as retail therapy a little too much than we should. But this is true of almost anything, from spending $50 on a new videogame because you’re stressed, to going out to eat and bar hop blowing tons of money. Everything in life is subject to the same possibility of taking it to the extreme, but if radical feminists held other things in their life to the same standard as makeup then they would have to radically change their own lives or admit to being hypocrites.
One thing I’ve noticed is that radical feminists who are against wearing makeup….often don’t wear makeup! It’s almost like you have to like and enjoy makeup to be able to like and enjoy makeup and the people who don’t wear makeup don’t like it and thus rationalize their dislike of it by inventing problems against it even for people who use it as a source of enjoyment and empowerment. Imagine that. But I want to reiterate that I agree that it’s fucked up how much pressure women are under to wear makeup otherwise they get comments about whether they are sick or feeling under the weather.
But in my view just because there are some problematic issues with the makeup world doesn’t mean makeup is inherently incompatible with feminist ideals and goals. Women are under immense pressure to be fit and slim but that doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with eating healthy and going to the gym. It’s all about the intention you have when engaging in an activity and how it effects you and those around you. Yes, it’s possible to wear makeup for quite possibly the wrong reasons, but it’s also possible to wear makeup for the right reasons, for reasons that are compatible with feminist ideals