In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Peter Phillips – creative director of Dior beauty – makes the bold claim that makeup is a feminist weapon:
“To Philips, it’s not something to hide behind, but a tool that enhances women’s feminine power. “A lipstick, an eyeliner is something a woman can use, and should use, to really put forward her strengths,” continues Philips. “She can totally control how she wants the world to see her — and she can also cover up her weaknesses if she wants to. For me if you use it well, it’s the strongest feminist weapon there is.”
Similarly, beauty journalist Sali Hughes – otherwise someone whose writing I admire – said in an article for international women’s day that putting on red lipstick is “the most feminist statement a woman can make in five seconds flat.”
How did we get here? How did something as ideologically ambiguous as cosmetics become a feminist symbol? How did something as benign as purchasing and using makeup become feminist?
In my earlier post about beauty and feminism, I made my position clear – I don’t think makeup is feminist. I don’t think it can be. And why must it? I don’t understand this fairly recent development where anything women do and enjoy is automatically politically radical. Nevermind compulsory femininity or beauty norms. Nevermind capitalism. Nevermind structural and cultural misogyny. If you like it – tada! feminism. It’s as if individual women set the parameters for feminism themselves, regardless of context.
Marketing has definitely been complicit in this form of self-centered feminism. Buzzwords like “empowerment” and “body positivity” have been co-opted by ad campaigns to the point where their meaning has become completely lost, like a game of telephone. Body-positivity can now mean whatever you want it to mean – even liposuction can be “empowering”. This piece from Harper’s Bazaar calls attention to this attitude:
“According to Nancy Jo Sales, an author and journalist who spent years interviewing girls ages 13-18 about their relationships with social media, one of the barriers to having a productive discussion about the unhealthy nature of such relationships is the relatively modern notion that selfies, nude pictures, and lip enhancements are an expression of personal empowerment, or feminism. Sales told me that some of her subjects seemed to have been so conditioned by advertising and media to believe that sexualization equals feminism, that simply asking whether the constant adjustment of their appearance using editing software (then looking in the mirror and seeing the un-retouched image) might be bad for their self-esteem, sometimes left them upset. “Some of them think that even raising the question is being sexist. That’s the dirty little trick of this messaging. Anyone who questions whether sexualization is feminism is ‘sexist’.”
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that enjoying makeup and cosmetic surgery is somehow morally reprehensible. Not at all! It’s not about being a “bad feminist” or a “bad woman”. It’s about this depoliticized idea of feminism where your lifestyle choices are inherently feminist just because you chose them or have a positive relationship to them.
Feminism isn’t about personal happiness, it’s about equality and justice, it’s about liberation. Because the fact is – as I said in my earlier post about feminism – beauty is complicated and sometimes painful for many women. Feminism is about liberating all women – not just you. Whether we like it or not, beauty plays a role in reproducing patriarchal values and women’s oppression, and as long as that remains true there’s no way cosmetics can be a “feminist weapon”.
It’s just makeup. It’s not gonna bring down “the man”, and that’s okay! But let’s not pretend otherwise and settle for a feminism that doesn’t actually promote any significant social change outside of “treating yourself” or feeling pretty.
Header image: Dior Makeup gun by Ted Noten