Fifteen years ago some guy friends of mine—friends in the sense that I lived in a suburb so anyone my age was my friend by default—removed my makeup from my purse and threw it out. They ignored my asking them to stop and mansplained about how makeup is oppressive to women. So, just to be clear: the makeup I chose to wear oppressed me—not the group of boys that outnumbered me and destroyed my property while ignoring what I had to say. They were high school boys; they were immature. They probably liked me, right?
Today, I still hear about how men prefer women with no makeup. As if I should care. When I do go without makeup I’m often asked if I’m sick. How am I supposed to reply to that? “Nope, just ugly, I guess?” Too often when mansplainers cheer the no makeup “look” who they’re really thinking of is the cool girl on TV whose makeup team made her “natural.” The whole issue of make-up for women is fraught with a sense of lose-lose.
Women are told they need to wear makeup in order to look presentable. Wearing makeup is an unspoken requirement for many working women. If we don’t wear it, we’re taught, then we must feel bad about ourselves. (Women feeling bad makes a lot of money.) When women do wear makeup, on their own terms, they’re also criticized by wider society. As with anything that’s deemed feminine, makeup is decidedly vain and frivolous. Makeup is both a possible a tool in liberating a woman’s creativity and a weapon used against us as a tool of oppression.
“Makeup as a concept does not oppress women,” says makeup artist Siera Taylor. “The basic idea of adorning one’s skin with colour for either practical, ritual or expressive reasons has existed for both females and males within almost every culture dating back as far as human history is recorded.” Makeup doesn’t have to be used to make everyone look the same: women can defy beauty standards by wearing makeup however they want, ignoring rules about colours, or what is considered too heavy or too light.
Taylor believes using makeup should be an act of joy, and if it isn’t, then it becomes a negative societal obligation—one women shouldn’t feel forced to meet. “This can be difficult to determine,” she says, “as we are conditioned from birth to believe we should all be striving to achieve a certain ideal beauty and the cosmetics industry profits off that belief.”
When it comes down to it, maybe it’s as simple as: We can wear as little or as much as we want. Our faces, our choices, our terms.
A former This intern, Hillary Di Menna is in her second year of the gender and women’s studies program at York University. She also maintains an online feminist resource directory, FIRE- Feminist Internet Resource Exchange.