Is the culture around makeup an expression of feminism?

While makeup can feel empowering and exciting on an individual level, we can still recognize the impact that the overall beauty industry has on women.

May 10, 2018

I watched a lot of wildlife documentaries when I was younger, and I think there’s a case to be made for drawing a line between my childhood fascination at male birds’ brightly coloured mating displays and my current pattern of screaming in joy while watching drag shows.

I love getting dressed up, and I know many women who do as well. It’s undeniable that display and decoration has impact, and that impact both includes and extends far beyond the basics of attracting a mate. There’s a certain element of drama in an exaggerated eye, a vibrant shade, or a splash of gloss and sparkle that feels deeply exciting on an emotional level. As a trans woman, when I wear makeup, it’s often seen as either a capitulation to patriarchy or a statement of purpose. In fact, it’s actually neither of those things—I just really like shimmer. If, when, and how trans women wear makeup is a heavily politicized subject, generally in the eyes of everyone but trans women.

Most of what I’ve read regarding makeup falls roughly into two camps. The first point of view is considerably less popular than the second in the pages of lifestyle and digital media brands. It argues that makeup—and by extension, the beauty industry as a whole—is rooted in the often explicit demand of women that we always stay “beautiful” in the eyes of the male gaze. We’re told that we need to “look good”—but not to the point that we look too far off from what men think they want. The beauty industry is a product of patriarchy, and thus, it’s impossible to divorce makeup from the racist and sexist structures that ascribe a woman’s personal worth to her physical appearance. In many ways, it’s true: women regularly face discrimination and mistreatment for failing to live up to impossible, and often overwhelmingly Eurocentric, standards of what a beautiful woman is “supposed” to look like.

We know that makeup isn’t “good” for us, just that it’s fun. And that’s good enough for me; women don’t need to be constantly and persistently radical in our everyday lifestyle choices in order to be good sisters to one another.

According to other and more popular point of view, however, makeup is actually empowering. It allows us an exciting way to explore different versions of ourselves, highlight the features we enjoy, and celebrate our faces as a canvas for art. In the words of Revlon brand ambassador and former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gal Gadot, who plays the iconic girl-power character of Wonder Woman, makeup is “definitely” feminist.


Never mind, of course, that this message of body positivity is coming to us from the the mouths and pages of beauty brands, who have something to gain from arguing that purchasing new products and following new trends is a true indication of enlightened inner confidence. I enjoy makeup, and I throw my money at it more often than I’d like to admit. I follow a lot of Facebook groups and Instagram accounts devoted to makeup, and I frequently prioritize doing my makeup over arriving anywhere on time. Makeup is fun, but I don’t find it particularly liberating; it’s just a thing I like to do that allows me express my femininity in a recognizable way.

Moreover, it doesn’t strike me as very controversial to acknowledge that there would be no beauty industry without beauty standards, and there would be no beauty standards without the unspoken social rule that for women, our fundamental value as human beings comes down to subjective assessments of our physical appearances.

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But I also don’t think this is really news to anyone. Pretty much every other woman I’ve talked to about makeup already understands this (as a rule, women generally tend to be a lot smarter than everyone seems to think we are). We know that makeup isn’t “good” for us, just that it’s fun. And that’s good enough for me; women don’t need to be constantly and persistently radical in our everyday lifestyle choices in order to be good sisters to one another. While I get the impulse to frame the things that we are supposed to enjoy as women as inherently pro-women, I don’t subscribe to the idea that something needs to be radical and empowering in order to justify our enjoyment of it.

Makeup feels empowering and exciting for me on an individual level, but I can still recognize that the overall beauty industry harms women as a class. There are many women who don’t enjoy makeup at all, whether that’s due to ideology or personal taste or anything else. And as feminists, we have real reasons to object to a popular cultural narrative around beauty that tends to frame makeup in a vacuum, without recognizing who profits off of the view that it’s natural and unproblematic for women to want to change our appearances.

It’s okay for women to have complex feelings about things, because all women are complex human beings. We’re allowed to do things that don’t support the movement. Still, we shouldn’t need to warp our feminism to accommodate our lifestyles, or make the mistake of seeing multinational corporations as gateways to female empowerment.

Individual choice is great and all, but it’s not empowering for women as a class. Makeup is fun. But it isn’t feminism.

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