What if make up wasn’t used as barometer of feminist cred?

As a scholar who has done a fair amount of work in the areas of beauty and body image, and as one who critiques what I term “the beauty imperative” of our culture, some might be surprised to find out that I am a make up junkie. In fact, I have often been accused of not being a “real feminist” because I like wearing make up. I am aware my predilections for mascara are likely due to my similarly make up crazy mom. I recall the thrill of making up with her collection from a young age. I would get all gussied up and then go out and pet our pigs or talk to the cows about the troubles of my young life. Mind you, I loved horseback riding, swimming, and getting dirty just as much as I loved dips into mom’s make up drawer. Neither of my parents ever suggested I should or should not wear make up, nor that because I was a girl I was limited in any way (thanks mom and dad).

Later, though, I had relationships in which partners suggested I was “prettier without make up” or that they wanted to see “the real me.” Well, a person who loves make up is the real me, damnit! I don’t always wear it, I don’t feel like I have to wear it, but I like to wear it. I am annoyed when people (usually men) suggest I don’t “need it.” Of course I don’t need it! I don’t need espresso everyday either but damn if I don’t enjoy it.

I do not wear make up (when I do) to play up to the male gaze or be viewed as “properly feminine” – if anything, in my job as a women’s studies professor, I am more suspect BECAUSE I wear make up. Last semester, many of my advanced feminist theory students repeatedly challenged me regarding make up. Several of them seemed to believe my fondness for eye shadow made me a sellout (because who cares how well you know your Butler or Hallberstam when you’re eyelids are colored hot pink, right?). The problem I see with this attitude is that telling women they should not be wearing make up is no better than telling them they have to. Shouldn’t we be able to choose for ourselves? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about choice? Heck, if I had my way, men could more readily choose to wear make up if they wanted to. Why should women get all the eyeliner fun? (For a good historical analysis of changing attitudes towards make up and whether or not women/men should wear it, see this post here. Note also the ire and passion this topic generates in the comments section…)

The emphasis Jessica Valenti puts on feminism being about choices, even when those choices include fishnets or red lipstick, is one of the reasons I like the book Full Frontal Feminism. While I personally find high heels fashion torture, and certainly don’t think elementary school girls should be crippled by them, I don’t see a women in stilettos and think, “Oh, that poor unenlightened dupe.” Likewise, I understand why young girls might WANT to wear make up (and even high heels) – yet, as with other choices, I think we as adults should promote girls (and boys) to question why they want to do such things.

Feminism has an ugly history of imposing all sorts of appearance-based rules – no bras, no shaving, no make up. Well, sorry bell hooks, but as a double D woman, I find going braless a back-breaking experience. And, I know I have learned this from our shave happy society, but I prefer all my underarms without hair (even the male ones).

In the world of women’s studies and feminist scholarship, beauty norms and practices have been scrutinized since the get go. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft warned women about the dangers of valuing themselves based on their looks and her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein, a classic novel that questioned appearance based judgments.

Today, there is lots of talk of “empowerment” and claims that owning one’s beauty, sexuality, desire, etc are feminist moves. However, while I agree that women should be able to choose whether they want to look or dress certain ways, I also think it is imperative to remember the socio-cultural contexts in which these choices are made. We don’t live in a vacuum, and as much as we like to resist or subvert the white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchy, we are all still shaped by it. Thus, even those choices that seem “free” or “empowering” are enacted within a sexist society. As such, when a female looks a certain way, even if she chooses that look and finds it empowering, she may be variously objectified, ridiculed, exploited, etc. So, I can see why some feminists claim that wearing make up is anti-feminist. Yet, if as feminists we judge other women’s feminist cred based on whether they wear mascara or shave their legs, aren’t we enacting a gaze that is just as judgmental as the traditional male gaze? As a colleague of mine writes,

“It is an obvious point, but keeping women in the habit of judging each other and themselves by the way they look just keeps us from banding together and overthrowing the whole system! …Your scholarship and work is questioned/judged based on what you look like; are you ‘brown’ enough, are you ‘peripheral’ enough, are you too ‘pretty’…”

This idea that one is “too pretty to be a feminist” arises quite often. It goes against the “feminists are all ugly, hairy man-haters” mantra. Each semester, I hear versions of this belief. Last semester, a student shared that her dad asked her “So how ugly is your professor?” when she got home from her first Introduction to Women’s Studies Class. Yet, I am not sure that students surprised by the fact that I am not “ugly” is a good thing even though it might help to chip away at the ugly feminist stereotype. Instead, I wish students would question such norms and social constructions all together. What the heck is ugly anyhow? (I disagree with the premise that our definitions of beauty are hard-wired that the new book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff makes). One person’s pretty is another person’s ugly, and as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I understand that wearing make up is not without its problems. For example, recent work in ecofeminism and other areas reveals the environmental implications of everything from nail polish to product packaging. However, wearing make up seems like small potatoes compared to so many other social ills and norms. As a post over at Feministe notes, the “patriarchy” benefits from our squabbles over these relatively minor issues. In the post, Octogalore writes, “If ‘the patriarchy’ were reading many of these posts, they’d be chortling right now. Fiddling while Rome burns!” I agree that we often spend far too much time on trivialities and not enough trying to dismantle patriarchy and other oppressive social systems. Examining beauty norms and practices is certainly important, but looking at the wider causes of our obsessions with appearance seems far more fruitful than trying to wrench the lip gloss from every female hand. Further, in today’s era of infinite war, widespread genocide, and toxic dumping, it seems splitting hairs over bodily decoration is a bit trivial. (This is in fact while I have redirected my more recent research at issues of militarization and corporatism rather than at beauty and body image issues.)

Of course patriarchy, consumer capitalism, sexism, racism, classism and ageism perpetuate oppressive beauty norms and bodily expectations, but the wearing or not-wearing of make up need not necessarily bolster all of the above. The enjoyment of adorning the body goes as far back as recorded history, and I for one enjoy adornment practices. I feel they are part of being an embodied entity. Like tattoos or piercings or fashion, make up is another way to decorate and enjoy one’s body. If it is not enjoyable to the individual body, then by all means that body should not feel pressured to wear make up. As with tattoos, make up is not for everyone. It is perhaps a bit like alcohol – not necessarily good for you, but enjoyable. (Now, the puritan minded out there might claim that using any sort of alcohol or drugs is indicative of some sort of dangerous dependency, but that is fodder for another post…)

This to make up or not to make up is a subject that is very complex and could take longer to dissect than all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Thus, I will end this already long post with the mere claim that while I don’t think wearing make up is a feminist act, (as this post at Alternet suggests), I don’t think NOT wearing it is one either.


18 thoughts on “What if make up wasn’t used as barometer of feminist cred?”

  1. As another women’s studies professor who wears makeup, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. Oh, but of course, you know this is no different from foot-binding and proof of how deeply we’re tools of the patriarchy, don’t you? At least, that’s what I’m told, anyway. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a touch of sarcasm there.)

    This is a wonderful, eloquent essay.

  2. Tilting at Windmills,
    Thanks for the link love!

    “…of course, you know this is no different from foot-binding and proof of how deeply we’re tools of the patriarchy, don’t you?”

    Ha, ha, ha!!!!

    I had a student last semester joke that each morning as she puts on her mascara she recites “I am a slave to the patriarchy.”

    Thanks for the compliment on the post — and for reading!

  3. My pleasure! This blog is on my regular reading list. I usually call my makeup “chains of the patriarchy.” By the way, just this morning I drove two hours to get a refill of my custom-blend Prescriptives foundation. Ha!

  4. Ha! I like to get my patriarchal chains at Sephora — or, as my friend calls it, home depot for the make up set.

    So glad you are a regular reader!

  5. Great post…thanks for sharing.

    I been noticing the way this carries over into sports. How a “pretty face” on the softball field gets people’s attention more than a “robust” power hitter (Crystl Bustos). I guess this has more to do with body parts and facial features than make-up, but I see them going hand in hand.

  6. I understand that wearing make up is not without its problems. For example, recent work in ecofeminism and other areas reveals the environmental implications of everything from nail polish to product packaging. However, wearing make up seems like small potatoes compared to so many other social ills and norms.

    I think we have a tendency to view it as trivial because make up is a womans sphere. I believe in the critique of eco feminists, the choices that we are making are not innocent and have a global effect. Think of the millions of women who daily participate in the beauty ritual and adorn their faces. I refrain from make up not because of the patriarchal gaze but because purchasing such products are harmful to the environment and they produced by exploiting the labor of women. Mascara is not just something that makes one feel good, it is also something that is damaging to women. I believe at times it necessary to weigh ones personal vanity against the cost to other women globally. How much is feeling pretty really worth?
    (Got your e-mail and will get it altogether by tomorrow)

  7. Renee,
    Great points. Thanks for commenting.

    “I believe at times it necessary to weigh ones personal vanity against the cost to other women globally.” Very good point. I don’t know much about the labor practices surrounding mascara… But, as with other mass produced items, I assume them to be exploitive and to have a negative global effect.

    However, I wonder how we can even be clothed citizens in this world without having a negative global effect. (as Tilting at Windmills post and following comments discussed here: http://rachelcervantes.wordpress.com/

    While I may be able to give up mascara, I don’t wish to walk through the world nude. Alas, what is a socially aware person to do in such a socially unjust world?!? But, your question,”How much is feeling pretty really worth?” really has got me thinking.

  8. Renee has a talent for that…she’s challenged some of my positions too and I’m having to ask and answer some questions I’d rather not deal with. Major points to Renee for that.

    Right now, I suspect I won’t give up my designer duds or makeup. But I’m going to be far more aware of what I’m doing in terms of the larger implications. While I’m ruminating on these points, some of the things I’m going to consider is context. How do these things compare with other practices we are devoted to? I need to figure out perspective on this. I have a (sinking) feeling that at some point I may feel compelled to give these things up.

    Just an aside, I only use animal-friendly products. That’s intellectualizing the issue and a bandaid for my ethical quandry, but for right now, it’s all I have!

  9. I am feminist, and I also love make-up. I also love cars and computers. It’s all part of me, and the pigeonholing of “feminists do this, but don’t wear this” is simply more boxing in by people who wouldn’t know a feminist if she or he whacked them with a stick.

  10. Living in a western country unless one lives in a secluded cabin in the woods completely off of the land it is difficult to avoid being complicit in the exploitation of others. What I think it is important to do is seek out products that circumvent such exchanges as much as possible. Though this post is about makeup I will throw out some other items that we regularly consume that are problematic, coffee, chocolate, clothing and flowers. For each of the aforementioned there are ways to purchase without victimizing someone. We just have to be dedicated in our choices. I firmly believe that there is power in our consumer dollars if we band together collectively.

  11. This is a good example of how *any* popular movement can easily become just another set of arbitrary rules. As a non(though not anti)-feminist male, my main beef with the “no make up” crowd is not that those comprising it choose not to wear makeup or shave their body-hair, but that they act like us men who prefer such things are de-facto sexist pigs whos desires are motivated solely by a drive to oppress women.

    The core of feminism, as I understand it, is humanism/liberalism with emphasis on women, and thus is concerned primarily with freedom…and freedom is nothing if not an obligation on the part of everyone to mind their own business on matters that don’t concern them (such as clothing and facial adornment).

  12. Renee,
    I like your positive outlook. But wait, aren’t womanists and feminists like ourselves supposed to be all angry and negative? 😉
    Good points about many things being problematic — but, as you point out, we do have choices as consumers — I only wish that corporations didn’t rule the globe so that shopping without exploiting could be a bit easier…

    I think feminism differs from humanism and liberalism in that it puts more emphasis on the collective than on the individual… Also, it emphasizes that we are not ‘free acting individuals’ but rather people shaped by the society/culture in which we live. Humanism often claims we are rational, autonomous individuals whereas liberalism focuses on the ‘rights’ of the individual. Both are thus overly focussed on a non-postmodern understanding of self. Feminism focuses on ‘rights’ and on the importance of individual choice, but acknowledges the interconnectivity or inersectionality of many factors. Thus, feminism does not only emphasize gender, but also race, class, sexuality, ability, etc.

  13. After I originally left a comment I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a way you can remove me from that service? Appreciate it!

  14. Everytime I read a post like this it makes me think of the muscian Amanda Palmer. She wears make up and utilizes nudity in her performances, but doesn’t shave her armpitts and feels no shame over a little fat on her belly. Her whole attitude is about doing what she wants to do. She also wrote a blog post about unshaven hair not being a symbol of authenticity any more than shaven hair.

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