This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Irvine chapter.
How many women do you think look in the mirror with no makeup on and assume that their face is unfit for public viewing?
How many men do you think do the same?
Earlier this year, my relationship with makeup changed. I used to think of makeup as an accessory – something I could adorn if it felt right and leave behind if it didn’t.
Growing up in the era of third-wave feminism, the most dominant perspective I hear in regards to wearing makeup is that it is a politically benign choice that women make for themselves. The widespread success of the Barbie movie is a prime example of this – women embracing traditional femininity (e.g., wearing pink, dresses, and of course, makeup) while still upholding other feminist values like female solidarity and empowering women in the workforce. Recently, though, I’ve started thinking more critically about why so many women wear makeup, and what the cultural practice of wearing it means when considering female socialization as a whole.
Women tend to wear makeup in contexts where there will be many people observing them (e.g., in weddings, in popular media, in photos, etc.). This social expectation is across the board for women of all professions with a media presence and isn’t just reserved for young models. Newscasters on TV, female lawyers on billboards, female politicians (e.g., Kamala Harris, AOC, Nancy Pelosi, etc) – they almost always wear makeup. When female celebrities don’t wear makeup, it makes headlines.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris taking the Oath of Office Jan. 20, 2021.
The social expectation for women to change their appearance when viewed by the public is what I’ve been thinking about recently, and it’s why I’ve ceased wearing makeup altogether. Makeup is often lauded as an art form – a thoughtful and methodical way to “enhance” our features and put ourselves together. Indeed, it takes skill to do symmetrical eyeliner, to learn which color looks most natural on your face, or how to blend eyeshadow on a canvas as delicate as human skin. I do not doubt that makeup is a skill.
I am skeptical of the idea, though, that in the modern day, the cultural practice of wearing makeup comes solely from a place of artistic intrigue. Living in a world where virtually every public-facing woman is wearing some amount of makeup has taught me – and many other women – about what a woman must bein this world. It has taught me that, without makeup, a woman is unfit for public viewing—that a woman’s bare face is unprofessional, underdone, and somehow less “put together” than her made-up face.
Furthermore, living in a world where men are expected to be bare-faced, no matter if they’re rolling out of bed or giving The State of the Union Address, has taught me that there is something about the female face that is regarded much, much differently than the male face. It has taught me that the female face is not acceptable as it is; it must be changed when the world is looking closely.
And what is artistic about that?
I no longer wear makeup because I have decided that my face is no less professional or presentable than that of my male counterparts. When I attend formal events or when I take important photos, I no longer concern myself with the need to cover up the features that make me human, or “enhance” what is already perfectly adequate. I allow myself to show up as I am, in all contexts, just like men are socialized to do. And it is incredibly liberating.
If you are a woman who wears makeup, I encourage you to ask yourself why. Think critically about where you wear makeup when you wear makeup, and how you would feel if you were to stop wearing it altogether. Think about what you sacrifice to put on makeup (e.g., time, money), and what the returns are for you.
You may learn that your relationship with makeup is more complicated than it seems.