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A Discussion of Makeup and Feminism

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

Before I begin this post, I must preface by saying that I am a regular makeup user. Around five out of seven days, I finish my daily activities, workdays or on a weekend, by creating new looks for myself before I head to bed. I don’t typically post them on social media, but I do always take pictures to explore my progress with technique and color. For over a year now, it has been a part of my routine that I believe I enjoy doing. Lately, however, the question of makeup being compatible with feminism has been plaguing my thoughts.

There are a thousand and one things wrong with the beauty industry and the standards they impose on women, typically most seen in the Western world. A Famous NewYorker article explored the concept of the uniform “Instagram Face” that seeks to display a perfect female white face while also being ethnically ambiguous. The borrowed features to attain this look include Asian eyes, African lips, Native American cheekbones, and a Caucasian nose. Notably, the male makeup artist interviewed for that article believed that these borrowed features increased a person’s attractiveness: “People are getting prettier.”

The homogenizing of these faces undoubtedly excludes women who appear very prominently to be of just one race or ethnicity. The current trend is to spend tens of thousands of dollars to achieve this unattainable face with plastic surgeries and filler. To avoid these invasive procedures, the temporary but just as influential makeup market also seeks to sell women merchandise like heavy contour and feathered brow kits to use for creating the ‘in’ look. The result has been a lack of products created with the needs of different women in mind. Two years ago Beauty YouTuber Nyma Tang released a series of videos exploring the lack of options in major beauty brands to provide a suitable bronzer shade for her dark complexion. She laughed that some of the tested shades could be good enough for a highlighter. The exclusion of Black women in the makeup world has been a long-talked-about issue; often still with little change.

When makeup companies use models with extensive plastic surgery and still photoshop their advertisements, they are inherently hoping to trick consumers into thinking their products can give consumers that look. As the results tend to fall short -- mascara can only do so much compared to false lashes -- the self-hatred women develop for their perfectly normal looks can cripple generations of girls to come. When a daughter sees her mother hating herself for being ‘ugly’ she is likely to apply those same unattainable shortfalls to herself, potentially limiting what she wants to achieve in life because she deems herself undeserving.

The beauty industry’s standards impact every woman exposed to them. In an April video from this year, Jubilee (a YouTube channel with the focus on bringing together people from a wide spectrum of identities to discuss various topics) focused on the concept of, “Is It Ever Too Much Makeup?” Sadly, one woman cited an old belief of hers that indicated she felt sorry for everyone around her who had to see her without makeup. This is undoubtedly a result of the constant advertisements, especially those presented as organic from beauty influencers, aiming to present a bare face as ‘naked’ and thus implicitly labeling it as wrong. You can't have acne, eye bags, or any amount of uneven features. It is a gendered phenomenon that does not nearly affect men in the same way.

Yet, what does this say for the women, like me, who enjoy putting on makeup? For my part, I do try to buy makeup from resellers. That is, independent people and not corporations, sites like eBay and Mercari. Although this helps to limit the profits going into brands who are that reinforced that women like being advertised to like this, is the act of simply wearing makeup causing me to be a ‘bad feminist’ as well?

If I enjoy putting on makeup and believe it is a creative process, then how can I be certain that I am not giving in to the patriarchal standard that women need to look ‘put together’ all the time? In short, where is the line drawn when applying makeup for yourself versus doing it because we’ve been socialized into thinking it’s necessary? Does such a line exist or is there always an implicit belief governing our actions? And if a line does exist, how much does it matter what I believe about myself when other women could interpret my habit as a reason they should continue with a practice they don’t like?

At the very least, I know I don’t believe that wearing makeup makes one a feminist either. Casira Copes in her article for An Injustice! rightfully sloganizes, “you can't buy feminism at the Sephora counter.” She also affirms that the simple choice of choosing either to put on makeup or not does not empower women. I agree that empowerment cannot just be a feeling of confidence within yourself. It must be a tangible authority you have in decision-making. This coincides with another statement I have heard before: feminism is about activism, not an action.

I am perhaps being led to the conclusion that whether a woman wears makeup or not matters less than trying to dismantle the evils within the beauty industry. Women in wealthier countries are not the only ones affected either. Mica, the common ingredient in shimmery products, is often a dangerous mining process done by children in poor countries. As a posting by Ethical Elephant reports, only 10% of these mines are legal and thus protect children from labor laws. Even when children do die in these hazardous conditions, many families are bribed to keep silent.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe you can purchase makeup indirectly to lessen these woes. Being a passive consumer despite these issues will only perpetuate the problems, however. As women who enjoy makeup, we need to stop purchasing from brands that source mica and other ingredients unethically. Consumers will always have the biggest impact on how a market functions. We need to be aware of the power we hold here and demand better for ourselves and the women to come.

Writing about this issue is just another step I am trying to take to better understand my own impact on this industry. Rethinking my habits can enable me to be a better activist in the longrun. Taken from the comment section of the Jubilee video on makeup, one person aptly summarizes my final thoughts: “‘The beauty industry often uses makeup to make people insecure so they buy their products’ and ‘makeup can be a tool of creative self-expression’ are two statements that can coexist. At least in my book.”



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