Makeup, Beauty, And Being A “Bad Feminist”

“To wear, or not to wear makeup: that is the question.” – Hamlet Me.

Women are often shamed for wearing makeup, and are equally often shamed for not wearing makeup. We are trapped in a peculiar double-standard: called ugly when we don’t wear makeup, told that we need to “cover that sh*t up;” and then are told that we are “sluts” when we do wear makeup, told that we are only wearing makeup because we’re ugly in the first place. The most egregious examples of this shaming can be seen on the Internet, where anonymous trolls lurk behind YouTube comments and pass judgment on strangers. However, less visible are the instances where women shame other women for wearing makeup, and shame other women in the name of feminism.

As a proud feminist, I have often had to defend the veracity of my feminism every time I express my femininity. Once, I was asked by someone, “If you’re really feminist, why do you wear such girly makeup?” There is a long-standing debate on whether or not wearing makeup is anti-feminist. Some say that wearing makeup plays into a patriarchal society that expects women to be perfect and pretty at all times, and that wearing makeup is solely for women to be attractive to men. Others note the anti-feminism of the beauty industry, that the beauty industry perpetuates sexist notions of what it means to be beautiful, and that by buying and wearing makeup we are “false feminists”—not good enough to be real feminists, and certainly not feminist enough to be truly committed to promoting gender equality.

I like wearing makeup. I like the way my eye color pops when I wear black eyeliner and mascara. I like how my cheekbones look when I contour them. Sometimes I even like to wear lipstick for fun. And sometimes, I like not wearing makeup at all. I like letting my skin breathe, and I like how my skin feels after it’s been washed clean. I like giving myself the extra few minutes in the morning to sleep in before class, even if it means I don’t look as put together. However, I shouldn’t have to defend my commitment to feminism while justifying my choice to wear or not to wear makeup in the morning.

As Roxane Gay notes in her collection of essays “Bad Feminist,” “In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. Far too often, the fidelity of other feminists comes into question. We see it with the criticism towards Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the multitude of women who claim feminism as their own. We, as feminists, constantly police the personal choices of other women and use it to invalidate their claim to fight for gender equality.

However, labeling myself as a feminist does not mean that I won’t make mistakes. Being a feminist doesn’t mean that every act I commit has to be a feminist act. By wearing lipstick, I’m not setting the feminist movement back 10 years. But I’m also not moving it forward. I don’t think that by putting lipstick on that I’m breaking glass ceilings or striking down sexism. But if I truly enjoy wearing lipstick, it shouldn’t be anti-feminist for me to exercise my freedom to wear it. It shouldn’t make me less committed to gender equality.

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That being said, while beauty and beautification may not be at odds with feminism, the beauty industry itself has a history of anti-feminism. The way beauty products are commercialized and pitched to women caters to a narrow image of what it means to be beautiful—one where being beautiful means to be tall, Caucasian, young, and thin. Even among the women who fit this standard, there are many who truly do not feel beautiful, who don’t feel pretty enough after spending an hour straightening their hair, powdering their face, and curling their eyelashes. Who, even after caking on layers of foundation, blush, bronzer, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick still feel like they aren’t worth it. The constructs of beauty perpetuated by the makeup industry have made women feel like they are inferior, that their appearance needs fixing, and that the only way to achieve the right “fix” is by buying beauty products.

But the anti-feminism of the beauty industry does not derive from wearing the makeup itself—it has to do with the limited scope of what is considered beautiful. If we are truly trying to address the connection between anti-feminism and makeup, we should be focusing on the ways in which makeup companies dictate what is considered beautiful and what is not. Makeup can be a form of self-expression, so long as we don’t allow the makeup and beauty industry to determine what form that self-expression must take.

When I wear makeup, it isn’t a feminist act. But it doesn’t mean it’s anti-feminist. And that doesn’t make me any less of a feminist for it.

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