With last week’s No Makeup Day Reflection, I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with makeup and beauty culture as a femme feminist. I’m trying to push past my initial defensiveness and come to a self-reflexive and nuanced analysis. There are a hundred directions to take such an analysis, but right now I’m most troubled by what I see as the frequent conflation of barefacedness and authenticity.
A few years ago, Jessica Simpson appeared without makeup or airbrushing on the cover of Marie Claire under the headline “The Real Jessica.” Several other critiques aside, I take issue with the implication that the lack of makeup and retouching of her image is directly related to the realness of her selfhood, at least as she’s conveyed. In the same vein, the #nomakeup selfie has exploded on social media recently and there seems to be a similar sentiment behind it. Browsing that particular hashtag yields few unflattering images of the mostly young women posting their faces to Instagram and Facebook. No, overwhelmingly the photos are flattering and filtered, similar to the purportedly makeup-free celebrity photoshoots. The message doesn’t seem to be one that resists the compulsory and Eurocentric standard of conventional beauty. Mainly these #nomakeup selfies seem to be an effort to showcase how closely young women conform to our beauty ideals while also conveying a sense of down-to-earth realness. Because while women are expected to be attractive at all times, they’re not supposed to ever admit that they either care about or put effort into their physical appearance because to do so is to be vain and somehow inauthentic. And they’re certainly never supposed to acknowledge feeling any satisfaction or pride in their appearance.
It’s important to understand and critique how and why society remains invested in keeping women preoccupied with their perpetual perceived failure to live up to traditional beauty standards. And I don’t think a simplistic choice feminist approach to makeup and beauty culture holds up to much analysis. However, I do think it’s essential to keep in mind that for some people, makeup can actually be a strategic tool for self-expression. Nothing operates in a vacuum, of course, but alternative narratives for conventional femininity and makeup do exist.
As much as makeup can be a form of armor or a burden for some, it can also be source of genuine pleasure or self-care. For me, an unapologetically bold red lip and five coats of mascara can be part of a calculated expression of my femininity and femme-ininity. It’s a conscious rejection of the pervasive devaluing of femininity as artificial or inferior, a move that is rooted in sexism yet also often occurs in feminist and queer circles. Regardless of the paint on my face, I’m no less my authentic self and no less a feminist.