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.