I Love Makeup: Does That Make Me A Bad Feminist?

with and without makeup

Here I am, both without and with makeup. I really could go either way.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much I dislike the way that beauty products are exploitatively marketed toward women. This is especially true of advertising about cosmetics, which preys on manufactured insecurities and purposefully-manifested low self-esteem. And while the expectation or assumption that women must wear oodles of unhealthy, pore-clogging, lead-filled makeup to look and feel beautiful and confident is certainly absurd and needs to be shaken apart, I am torn…because  there’s still a part of me that that just loves makeup. Like a frilly, dress-wearing, PMS-blaming, gender-norm-loving, Lilly-Ledbetter-denying traitor.

I didn’t say that I require makeup. Or that I won’t leave the house without it, agree with the horrible practice of animal testing, or think women are more powerful when painted. Hell, I’ve personally called out organizations that use makeup as a way to falsely equate strength with beauty because I think it’s problematic, constricting, gender-biased (and binary) and generally misguided.

But I also don’t shun the idea of cosmetics entirely. I believe that people of all genders should be able to wear makeup if they so choose. As a young teen, I pored over books by the late Kevyn Aucoin, whose work with faces was truly, truly artistic. I think, perhaps, regardless of my gender, I would be interested in makeup, because it falls in line with other interests of mine; I like beautiful articles of clothing and fantastically designed furniture and exquisite works of visual art, whether they be in a gallery or on the side of a boxcar.

Which is not to say that I think women are objects like a dress or a chair, because clearly, we are not. But it is to say that there are times (many times) when I look in the mirror and see that my face, aside from being my face (which I like quite a bit and wouldn’t change), is also a super-fun grown-up playground, where I, as a liberated adult woman who works and votes and volunteers and demands equal pay (with or without makeup, damnit), can use colors and brushes and tools (that are eco-friendly, not tested on animals, and not filled with toxins) for my own delight.

I enjoy makeup. If you don’t, that’s fine. If you do, isn’t that fine, too?

When I use makeup (which isn’t every day), I’m not trying to cover things up. I’m not trying to dramatically change my appearance. I’m not trying to please anyone. I’m not even trying to make myself look better–I’m just trying to make myself look a little different, depending on my mood. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with individuals who do use makeup to make themselves look better. If it works for you, who is anyone else to judge it?

What I am against is the predatory way that advertisers and media outlets and the various industries (tv, film, fashion, etc.) have made women feel like they only have one choice: Wear makeup, because you’re less human/pretty/smart/confident without it. I take issue with the idea in general, and the fact that it’s become so normalized and pervasive. So normalized that many of us are unfazed when commercials tell us that we even need products to make our armpits look beautiful. That’s what’s wrong. Not my own enjoyment of liquid eyeliner because, let’s be real, that stuff looks pretty cool.

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    • Rebecca

      When I put on my makeup, I use a brush for everything–even foundation. I can’t paint on a canvas, but my make-up is my daily art. I always keep it pretty simple and natural. I don’t wear make-up everyday, but on the days when I feel particularly tired or blotchy or just all over ick (as a grad student, I suffer from chronic sleep deprivation and stress overload), I wear make-up because it makes me feel fresh.

    • Maggie

      I think this all depends on what your definition of “feminist” is. There are so many different varieties of feminists representing different facets of women’s culture, it’s hard to define what makes a “good” feminist or a “bad” one. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “bad” feminist. Liking make-up is nothing to be ashamed of; I consider myself a feminist and I adore makeup! I wear it every day and love playing around with different colors and products. My aunt, who is a hardcore 2nd wave feminist, calls makeup her “war paint.” I see it as something that we choose to wear if we want to; I consider it a part of my femininity. So Hannah, if you love makeup, slather that ish on and keep being an awesome feminist!

    • Lilac

      I could barely see a difference in these two pictures of with and without makeup. Since you look so similar I don’t think the make up really takes away from being a feminist.

      • Briana Rognlin

        I agree that her made up look isn’t extreme, but…would it take away from her being a feminist if she WERE a lot more made up? Does this mean that certain amounts of makeup are ok, but not others?

    • Cee

      This reminds me of another similar, yet different argument that I have with the lgbt community. I am a femme (very feminine who has a preference for masculineish butch). I love make up, dresses, heels and many other girly things. Because of this, I am often shunned by some of the gay community (and to some extent so is my gf) because, to them, I am conforming to a stereotypical hetero role.
      But, am I supposed to give up the things that I love and give up the things I feel empower me ( and NO I don’t need to list them out to every single member of the lgbt community) to satisfy a group of people? Am I supposed to trade one so called stereotype for another?

      Same goes here. I understand some feminist arguments, but I do not understand this fervent need to have all women remove everything they see as a patriarchal dominance when not all women may view it that way, when wearing make up, heels or whatever is something that they WANT. I don’t understand feminist viewing feminine women as brainless, follow the crowd movement. Wouldn’t doing what a group of women tell you to do also be brainless and joining the crowd? Wouldn’t it remove the freedom of having the choice to look the way you want? Is it different because it is a group of women telling you what you want or should be doing?

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Ah! Thank you for pointing out your own struggle in the LGBT community. That’s a really great parallel.

    • LCT

      Preach it sister! I’m the same way!

      Reminds me of the time one of my fellow art department students told me that I couldn’t be a punk because I wasn’t dressed like one. I said, “So there’s a ‘non-conformist’ standard of dress to conform to?” :)

    • KN

      Does liking makeup make you a bad feminist? Probably not. No offense but asking the question may make you a so-so feminist. A real grown-up feminist wouldn’t ask. She’d follow her instincts and do what she enjoys. After all, she controls herself, no?

    • Lo

      I use makeup as clothing for my face. That doesn’t mean that I spackle on a thick mask every morning, but it does mean that I can go out feeling unexposed and even a bit decorated, from the neck up.

      I have to stress that this is me as an individual. I’m never going to tell other people to put on any level of makeup to avoid being ‘underdressed’. This is just what makeup feels like to me – a way to cover up some bits (hello dodgy skin) and show others off, same as clothing. I wouldn’t want it to be at all linked to gender – it’s insane that women are encouraged to wear makeup, and men discouraged.

    • Gena

      Oh, Hanna. I do NOT think that wearing makeup makes you a bad feminist. To me, the essence of feminism is freedom and equality and rejecting gender conventions that are designed to disempower us. Nowhere in that set of priorities is written “you cannot attempt to play with your own aesthetics.” Let’s try to remember that men attempt to beautify themselves in various ways, too, and that it is natural both to want to be aesthetically playful AND to want to attract sexual partners. Yes, this can become problematic when we wage war upon our own bodies in an attempt to be attractive, or forget our own definition of beauty so that we can bow to mens’ definitions of beauty, but I don’t think it’s inherently sinful from a feminist perspective to try on aesthetics that appeal to you. Indeed, it’s part of your personhood.

    • Markus

      I’m a guy (more or less) and I love makeup. The way it feels, smells and the way you can create art with it. What does that make me?