The New York Times asked a bunch of people to comment on whether makeup empowers women or hurts their self-esteem. Unaccountably, they didn’t ask me for my opinion, but I shall give it to them anyway.
Some might find this odd from a makeup-hating hairy-legged radical feminist, but the pro side is not wrong. Some women get a self-esteem boost from feeling like they’re presenting their best selves to the world. Some women think of makeup as armor they put on before battle. Some women consider makeup to be three minutes of self-care, time they take for themselves. The key word there, however, is some women.
I don’t understand why so many people have trouble with the idea that different people can have different opinions about things. “BDSM makes some people happy” and “BDSM makes some people feel violated” are not contradictory statements. Neither are “sex work makes some people feel raped,” “sex work is a job some people love and would rather work than anything else in the world,” and “sex work is another mildly unpleasant thing some people do to put food on the table.” And neither are “makeup makes some people feel empowered” and “makeup hurts some people’s self-esteem.” In a perfect world, people could be left to wear or not wear makeup, have or not have kinky sex, do or not do sex work, as pleases them.
Job discrimination against women who refuse to wear makeup is real, as are romantic partners who feel entitled to a partner who always wears makeup. Women who wear makeup tend to be considered more likeable, competent, and attractive, which is rather unfair, given that the application of crushed rocks to the face has exactly zero effects on any of those things. Not wearing makeup can, in some circles, make people wonder what’s wrong or worry that you’re not taking care of yourself. All of that adds up to a lot of fucking coercion.
For that matter, look at the way this debate was framed! The discussion was between “women must wear makeup” and “women should be free to wear makeup or not wear makeup.” Apparently “women should not wear makeup” is entirely unthinkable, since the New York Times could not find even one person to argue it. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t wear makeup (of course not), just pointing out that the asymmetry is telling.
Partially, of course, the pressure for women to wear makeup is a side effect of makeup companies trying to keep their business. The set of people who believe makeup is fun is much smaller than the set of people who can be convinced that if they don’t wear makeup they are ugly and horrible and a failure as a woman. But makeup companies’ best interest is also to convince men that they’re ugly and horrible and failures as men if they don’t wear makeup, and they have so far failed to do so. What gives?
It’s fucking patriarchy again. Women are supposed to be Beautiful because they must be Pleasing to Men, and specifically Pleasing to Men’s Boners, because if you aren’t Pleasing to Men’s Boners then you will never get to marry Mr. Bingley. On the other hand, men do not have to be Pleasing to Women’s Boners, that’s what money is for.
On the other hand, a lot of anti-makeup sentiment– particularly anything that starts talking about how “frivolous” and “shallow” makeup is– is also misogynistic and femmephobic. Makeup is a form of visual art. If making your face beautiful is shallow, so is making a canvas beautiful or a block of marble or a hunk of plastic. If you understand why someone would feel satisfied and happy when they make a gorgeous print, you understand why someone would feel satisfied and happy when their makeup looks perfect. I do not think it is accidental that the form of visual art almost entirely practiced by women is the one that gets accused of frivolity and where the talent exhibited by many of the artists is ignored or denigrated.
A final note: if makeup is so damn empowering men should have a chance to put it on too.