Can makeup be feminist?
Short answer? No, I don’t think so.
Does that surprise you?
Well, the long answer is – surprise surprise – it’s complicated. I identify as a woman, a feminist and full-time aesthete. Beauty, not only in a cosmetic sense, permeates all my interests. But beauty is not apolitical, and for women, beauty is a prison. To think otherwise would be kidding yourself. For thousands of years, the way women look has been used as a weapon against us – too beautiful, and we become all surface, easily dismissed. Not beautiful enough? A failure as a woman, a woman of no value since our value is our appearance. Being beautiful in the eyes of men is rewarding in many ways – but you’re still under their heel. There are no winners in this game.
That said, I don’t necessarily believe cosmetics are a patriarchal invention to oppress women. Humans have decorated their bodies since the dawn of time, and both women and men have worn colour cosmetics in more or less the same way during certain time periods or in certain cultures. In the west, men only really stopped pursuing physical beauty around the French revolution in what came to be called ‘the great male renunciation’. The beauty ideals set by patriarchy have always shifted. There’s nothing inherently patriarchal about makeup, simply because patriarchy hasn’t had a historically consistent policy on cosmetics.
As such, there can never be anything inherently feminist about makeup either. It’s too ancient a thing to be clearly categorised as oppressive or liberating in a historical context.
That said, I think it’s naive to say that beauty in the here and now can’t be read through a political lens. It’s no coincidence that women’s desperate pursuit of physical beauty is fed by misogynist values. That’s not makeup’s fault per se – it’s only a tool. It’s the culture around it that’s at fault. Am I being confusing?
Let’s put it this way. Out of context, lipstick is politically inert. It’s just pigments, waxes and oils mixed together. No magic powers, no inherent agenda. However, the way we talk about this lipstick imbues it with meaning and therefore power. It becomes a fetish, charged with a potential to make us feel, act and think in certain ways.
When women, for the last 100 or so years, are expected to perform femininity by using colour cosmetics such as lipstick in order to meet men’s demands of what a woman should be, that tube of lipstick is no longer politically inert. It doesn’t matter if you love that lipstick, if you feel empowered by it – you have to use it whether you like it or not. There’s an illusion of choice.
This is where liberal feminism fails, in my opinion, as the idea of personal empowerment often disregards context. I happen to love lipstick, I hoard it like i’s going out of style, but I harbour no illusions that there’s anything feminist about it just because it makes me happy. It’s not just about me. It’s about all women.
And until no woman feels like she has to wear makeup, or has to be beautiful, cosmetics will remain tainted with misogynist values.