September 24, 2010

Why Wearing Makeup (or Not) is a Feminist Issue.

“Physical attractiveness is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including employment benefits such as hiring, wages, and promotion, and is correlated with social and personal rewards such as work satisfaction, positive perceptions of others, and higher self-esteem. As a result, individuals perform various forms of beauty work, thus reproducing and strengthening a social system that privileges youth and attractiveness.” ~ Samantha Kwan; Beauty Work

The evidence is everywhere and ironically, it is not pretty. Beauty has rewards in our society. Big ones. Deeply rooted in science and reinforced by industry, beauty is seen as a panacea. According to a study published in the scientific journal Neuron, a beautiful face activates the same part of the brain that is affected by drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. In other words, beauty works like a drug, and many of us are addicted.

The bra burning episodes of the 1960’s may have turned out to be myth, but they are a powerful symbol of women’s interest in shedding the oppression of the existing culture of beauty, that is, the objectification of women and their bodies. As more progressive, feminist women began to object to the sexualization of women in advertising, the the decade of the 70’s did see cosmetics, fragrance, and hair-care products all suffer flat or declining sales. Second-wave feminist pioneer Susan Brownmiller explained the situation:

An unadorned face became the honorable new look of feminism in the early 1970s, and no one was happier with the freedom not to wear makeup than I, yet it could hardly escape my attention that more women supported the Equal Rights Amendment and legal abortion than could walk out of the house without eye shadow. Did I think of them as somewhat pitiable? Yes I did. Did they bitterly resent the righteous pressure put on them to look, in their terms, less attractive? Yes they did. A more complete breakdown and confusion of aims, goals, and values could not have occurred, and of all the movement rifts I have witnessed, this one remains for me the most poignant and the most difficult to resolve. (Brownmiller, 1984)

The Beauty Myth, as it has been labeled by Naomi Wolf in her best-selling book (1991) by the same name, speaks of  the powerful social pressure on women to conform to a physical “image” of beauty that is “not born by our true human needs and inclinations, but by a strategically designed plan to give them a carrot they can never reach.

Finally freed of the pressures of living up to maternal or domestic ideals, Wolf argues, women are now kept in social check by how effectively they are able to reflect “beauty” models proposed by commercial media. Wolf argues that women deserve “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women’s appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically.”

As women have agitated over the decades towards equality with men reflected in voting law, property rights, and workplace equity, women also have earned the same right to choose to pursue the conventional expressions of beauty with or without makeup. As women continue to struggle against gender based pay discrimination, it is clear that some women will be loathe to further imperil their potential success in the workplace (or social settings) by showing up bare-faced and insecure.

The double standard set by men who expect beauty, yet judge and belittle women for trying to achieve it, is a glaring hypocrisy.

Due to undeniable pressure from the media, many women believe their beauty is related to their makeup. With makeup related to beauty, and beauty linked to success and opportunity, a woman’s choice to wear makeup in this context becomes more than just a whim, and should be respected as such.

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