Recently I saw a very interesting and read-worthy post by Ozy Frantz entitled “Other People’s Makeup Use: None of Your Business” which is itself a response to another article (I strong suggest reading it before you read my response). It got me thinking about the role makeup plays in the socialization of women in our society. On the whole the essay is feminist-leaning, but this quote (which I originally saw in excerpt on Tumblr) struck me:
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.
Back the truck up, we’ve got a word choice issue: “If making your face beautiful is shallow, so is making a canvas beautiful or a block or marble or a hunk of plastic.” This statement presupposes that makeup makes women beautiful and thus implies that women are less beautiful when they are not wearing makeup. This might seem relatively innocuous so let’s re-figure it in terms of race: “If making your [hair] beautiful [by straightening it] is shallow, so is making a canvas beautiful” &c. (see also Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” for a primer on the hair straightening industry). The statement is not so harmless now, is it? Now we are arguing women’s right to be less beautiful instead of the destructiveness of the dominant paradigm of beauty that exists in our society. We’re taking the wrong fork in the road and are looping back, we are making our case solidly within the paradigm, when instead we should be rejecting the paradigm outright.
Here I will say that I do not think Frantz meant us to take their statement that way at all, I believe s/he meant to imply that makeup, like art, is a form of self-expression and because of that should not be condemned just because it has some negative aspects … like body shaming, perpetuation of agism, and the proliferation of wide spread animal cruelty. S/he concludes the essay stating that “if makeup is so damn empowering men should have a chance to put it on too,” a statement which I applaud. I think a more productive step would be to allow (all) people to feel free of an obligation to wear makeup at all. That is the place where we need to get to next and from there we can talk about the empowering effects of makeup for those who choose to wear it because then the power of makeup will not stem from its “ability” to “enhance beauty.”
Now it’s anecdote time! A few months ago I was running late for work and decided not to wear a full face of makeup, just sunscreen and the tinted SPF powder I wear every day. No eyeshadow, no eyeliner, no lip color, no blush, and no under eye concealer. When I went into work my boss (who was a 70 year old man) asked me if I had a “rough night” because I “looked like hell.” I was aghast. I also never went in without makeup on again. This was not the only example I have from that job, and I am happy to say that I am not working there anymore, but I do not think that my situation is unique. In part because at my new job my new boss asked me if I didn’t sleep well because of the “dark circles under my eyes.”
When did my face become the property of public comment? Perhaps passing 30 means that men older than me now feel totally comfortable remarking on how I look, but I don’t like it in general, and I hate it at work. The only statement I am okay with in this context is if I am visibly sick and allowed to go home, anything else is unwelcome. If someone on the street said I looked like crap and needed to wear blush they would be greeted with epithets and a single finger, but at work I am in a position of powerlessness and that position is exploited.
I believe that society is largely to blame. Even Frantz, who was clearly thinking about this system, momentarily fell into the conditioned position that makeup = beauty. My employers are participating in of the system of reinforcement the society puts in place. But what about me?
In the essay Frantz states: “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.” Crushed rocks? I wish. Crushed bugs ground together with animal fat is more accurate. Did you know that makeup expires? Find an old bottle of concealer under your sink and give it a sniff, you will detect an undeniable note of putridity. Smashing dead bugs and rotting animals into our pores on a daily basis is horrifying enough, let us not forget that our “beautiful” sisters of yore blinded themselves with Bella Donna. (Then their dilated pupils were considered stunning, now people would assume you just went to the optometrist.) I will not even being to discuss the colossal hammer of disapproval that violently descends on women who dare to wear makeup “improperly.”
So what’s the point of all this? To illustrate that even thoughtful people like Frantz, who are working to critique the system, are also inside the system, and it’s a damn hard system to get out of. I am struggling within this system. I only started wearing makeup at all in my very late 20’s, but thanks to the shaming I’ve received from older men in positions of authority, I am now hesitant not to wear it to job interviews, work, or other places where I want to be perceived as “competent” or be “respected.” For me, however, makeup is always performance, because I am always in costume. My authentic self has neon blue hair. My authentic self is perceived as “unemployable.” Still, I will hesitate as the eyeshadow brush hovers over my eyelid this morning, even if it is framed with sandy blond hair, I have to decide how much I will let society dictate how I look: we all do.