Few feminist conversations confuse me as much as the one surrounding makeup and beauty standards, a reminder of my outsider status in the feminist community in a lot of ways because of my gender and socialisation. This conversation is conducted in a way that assumes everyone is on the same page, everyone is thinking the same things, everyone has the same experiences, but that’s not actually how it goes. With the makeup conversation, there are some of us who feel really, really at sea, and it’s hard to express it in a way that doesn’t come off strangely, evidently.
What is the makeup conversation? Maybe you know the one. It’s about how makeup is used as a tool for oppression and social control, how women can’t leave the house or go to jobs without makeup. It’s about expressing admiration and shock when celebrities appear without makeup, when magazine covers feature women with ‘naked faces,’ when news personalities are ‘brave’ enough to show up on television without wearing makeup to make a point. It’s about a very specific kind of beauty standard reinforced with makeup wearing. It’s the conversation where everyone assumes a shared experience of feeling forced to wear makeup and hating it.
This conversation makes no sense to me because I’ve never worn makeup. I never felt pressured to wear it when I was presenting as female and no one looked at me oddly because my face didn’t have anything on it. And I am curious about this world where women must wear makeup, where people miss out on job interviews if they don’t have perfect makeup on. I’m not being sarcastic here. I completely believe that some women do feel forced into wearing makeup as a part of gender performance and that women are discriminated against for not wearing it, this is just not an experience I shared when I was a woman and it’s not an experience a lot of women I know share, actually, which may be the result of regional and class differences, perhaps.
And the makeup conversation ignores another aspect of the discussion; makeup and trans women, a sometimes fraught topic. For women who have been told their whole lives that they aren’t women, wearing makeup can be a reclamatory, revolutionary, angry act. Asserting the right to wear lipstick and concealer and whatever-all people wear can be dangerous and being told over and over again that wearing makeup is oppressive, is a performance of femininity, is anti-feminist, is whatever, is a reminder that even as a woman, you don’t belong in a community of women because you don’t share their experiences.
Other transgender people have our own complicated relationship with makeup as well, and we get elided in a discussion where it’s assumed that there are two genders, each of which has a very specific set of life experiences. Talking with other people who aren’t men and women, I’ve encountered a whole range of experiences, some like mine, some not, and these experiences aren’t really widely discussed.
I see mainstream feminist groups promoting events like ‘everyone wear a naked face today’ and I think ‘…uh, ok, so, I should just go about my business as usual?’ And I try to understand these things without being patronising, because I’m sure for some participants not wearing makeup is a revolutionary act, but at the same time, I resent this overmapping of one universal lived experience, a constant reminder of a focus on a specific group of women in feminism, not an examination of women in general.
Why didn’t I grow up wearing makeup? Some people might say it was because I was raised by a single father, but I know lots of people with single dads who started wearing makeup pretty young. Information was out there, I could have asked my friends for help and advice if I was interested. My father wouldn’t have gotten on my case for wearing makeup (or not) because he’s not that kind of guy. I was just never interested and maybe this is due to a lack of ability to pick up on social cues, but I never got the sense that I was being judged for not wearing makeup; I certainly never lost jobs for not wearing it and I was never told I needed to wear it to have a ‘professional appearance,’ including while appearing to be a woman in workplaces where women worked and they wore makeup. It was just kind of a nonissue for me.
And at the same time that I don’t want to make the mistake of saying ‘makeup is a nonissue for me, what’s the big deal,’ I wonder why it is that my experience seems so alien and strange to women who have had the opposite experiences in their lives. People don’t believe me when I say I’ve never worn makeup and that I’ve never had any problems because of it. They try to convince me that at some point, I must have been looked at askance for not having a bit of lipstick on, and, really, no. It’s never happened. I was often told I wasn’t being a girl right, but the issue was never, ever, makeup.
Makeup is a big deal for some women, clearly. The fact that many dress codes for corporate settings continue to reinforce the idea that women must wear makeup to be presentable is a problem and it should be discussed. But I think it might also be worth talking to people like me, for whom it wasn’t a big deal, to see if our life experiences have something to offer too. I didn’t grow up in a vacuum; clearly, factors were at work to make makeup not a big deal for me? What were they? Can they be built on and repeated in other places to make makeup not a big deal for everyone? What about people who don’t share my lived experience or the experience of people who feel oppressed by makeup? Surely, there’s room for all of us at the cosmetics counter.