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

Via Diana Mercer
on Sep 24, 2010
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“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.


About Diana Mercer

I've been delighting in and learning from children for almost 20 years as a teacher, and former owner of Clementine Studio: Art Space for Children. I love to watch a child's spirit emerge and develop through the process of art. I'm also a big fan of stilling my mind with yoga, meditation, and the art of mindfulness, cooking up a fresh, local and organic dinner from the Farmer's Market, making sweet music with my friends, and baking fancy birthday cakes.


15 Responses to “Why Wearing Makeup (or Not) is a Feminist Issue.”

  1. Melanie says:

    Thanks for this! I appreciate this post tremendously. The beauty myth is still very much alive and operating effectively. I have some older posts that you might appreciate on this same subject: http://www.feministfatale.com/2010/03/would-hollyhttp://www.feministfatale.com/2010/04/fat-talk/

  2. Diana Mercer says:

    Betty Rae,

    My point was not at all about Charlize Theron's acting abilities. I agree that she is a very talented actress. I am appalled that Hollywood only hires beautiful women instead of less beautiful women (with perhaps the same talent), I wonder why that is.

  3. Diana Mercer says:

    Jolinda, I agree that she is very talented and deserved the role. My comment was meant to point out the dearth of less beautiful women in Hollywood who may be equally as talented, but never get a chance. That doesn't sit well with me.

  4. Diane Marie says:

    I think, to be fair, we need to examine how we feel about OURSELVES with makeup or without. I personally see makeup, hair, piercings, or what have you as personal decoration/expression of the vessel/body we live in. If we feel more comfortable with eye shadow than we do without, why does it have to be about feminism? Maybe we would feel groovy in beards if we could grow them, but we can't. Men can choose to do that, or not, and it doesn't seem to be about masculinity. It's about looking the way one chooses. I have a rather androgynous face–I can literally look like a woman or a man, though I am female. I have an equally female and male "essense" which tips back and forth, depending on my mood. Makeup, hair, etc is just a way of "wearing my mood" in much the same way as I wear my clothes. I might opt for loud colors and high top tennis shoes with spiked hair and eyeliner one day, and be in something lowcut and slinky with bright red lipstick the next. It doesn't entirely have to do with how I want to be percieved by others, because it's just as important for me to feel comfortable in what I wear and how I look to myself–even if I stay home alone all day and no one even sees me. I guess never wearing ANY makeup is just as expressive, but I don't happen to choose to do that because I like to play with makeup and haircolor as it suits my mood.

  5. anniegirl1138 says:

    The fact that we still debate this is proof that it is an issue. Issues compel people to take sides. If how we chose to adorn ourselves or not was truly settle to a "to each her own", we'd have nothing to say.

  6. Martha says:

    en in fact it only goes as far as

    appearance. The politicians never intend to do anything…just

    ''You write very well but I am finding

    that many articles on ELE are really saying the same things

    over and over again.''

    Thank you, same article by different people. Boring which is why I rarely drop by these days.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Your concerns and comments are as relevant about make up as they are about everything these days. Politics for instance is all about "I or we want to appear in favor of this or that…or against this or that" when in fact it only goes as far as appearance. The politicians never intend to do anything…just want to appear as if…. You write very well but I am finding that many articles on ELE are really saying the same things over and over again. To the point that reading this blog is amusing. Tell me…why is this view point important enough to write about? Aren't we all aware of this already? Your comments about the pretty actress could be turned around on you. You are very pretty and calling for the acceptance of not wearing make up… It is sort of like the skinny advertisemant with beatiful women telling other women to" just be yourself." Subconsciously saying…"being yourself should be skinny pretty and on a magazine cover". What do you think?

  8. elephantjournal says:

    via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    Betty N That comment about Charlize Theron is ridiculous. The only thing more offensive than Hollywood choosing an actress just because she is beautiful is someone implying that a truly amazing actress was only chosen for her looks. Unreal.

    Christina Stanley Theron was incredible in that part.

    Diana Mercer I absolutely agree that Charlize Theron is a talented actress and deserved the part. What I obviously did not make clear enough in the article, was that my dismay comes from the complete disenfranchisement of less than perfect women in Hollywood – leading to even more pressure for women to do whatever it takes to be beautiful (ie: wear makeup).

    Jolinda Van Haren OMG! Even "perfect" women wear make up. It's a personal choice somethimes having nothing to do with self esteem issues but with self expression. I wish we could all be less critical of each other and just support each other and each other's goals for self betterment. The rest is just [email protected]#$ S%*& !

    Rachel Angela Collier I think the first two paragraphs made this article devoid of power… I understand the sentiment, but the power of it was wiped out.

    Kristie Orchard Lindblom hmmm… I've always viewed my makes up wearing as self expression… adorning my outside to match my inside and enjoying the artistry of it– like painting a canvass. Do I wear it every day? No… but when I do, I have fun playing with colors, shadow, and light. 🙂

  9. Diana says:

    Not at all Padma. Actually, I am calling for the acceptance of the choice TO wear make-up. I object to calls from men for women to wear less makeup, when in fact, there are deeper societal issues of power that motivate women to want to look better.

    I think this view point is important enough to write about because just 2 days ago I read an article on Elephant Journal that was a call for women to wear less makeup. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/09/take-off-y…. This is my response.

    I do, in fact wear makeup.

  10. […] is evidently more going on than my little article can reasonably account for.  And judging by some other articles on Elephant lately, these issues have been on peoples’ […]

  11. […] cut off. He looked as handsome as ever. Damn. I suddenly felt a bit wobbly in my heels—but thankful to God that I’d dolled myself up and not lost control of my motor skills. After we got over our shock at the strange coincidence, we […]

  12. Katherine says:

    I guarantee you I would not have gotten the job I have now if I had not played the dress up game. Not that the wage that I'm making covers the extra expenses of making myself go through the arduous routine each morning, but having a job is much preferred to not having one. Having a job where I have to "pretty up" is also preferred to having a job where they just treat everyone like a slave.

  13. Fern says:

    … it seems, Diana, that a LOT of people are missing your "point", and being… defensive? Do they think you're chiding them for wearing make-up… as you intimated you do as well? I guess I, too, am missing something…

  14. […] easily we, women, resort to guilt and self-blame when we take care of ourselves. We are supposed to succeed and, thanks to the feminist movement, we […]

  15. littleluce says:

    Of course it is a feminist issue! As today makeup is required for women and many times they are punished if not wearing it. And yes, for me as a feminist this is all heartbreaking issue, the same as for seeing that women who dont shave are punished. It is very very unjust to women….Though I shave, because I feel more comfortable being shaved, I never wear makeup. Even when I dress nicely, wear nice jewellries, neatly combed hair, stilll for some people, Im considered a whore who doesnt care of her the way it is expected. And why? Just because I dont have my face caked. But for Gods sake Im a woman, and not a clown! I hate this double standard put on us women…