"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Friday, May 11, 2007

Feminism Friday: Makeup Intervention

I got rid of my cable plan a few months ago after I started taking classes in addition to working full-time, and until this past weekend, I didn't even have an antenna to get the most basic channels. Needless to say, I have been without a steady supply of pop culture seeping into my pores via television. As I was getting ready for class the other morning, though, it occurred to me that I could now turn the thing on for some background noise. My only options were to watch families destroyed by drug abuse on Dr. Phil, paternity tests on Maury Povich, or a segment about women and their makeup obsessions on Rachael Ray. Intrigued, I chose the makeup story.

In it, Rachael Ray showed a video of women who are so addicted to their makeup, they feel completely naked without it. Paralyzed. Unable to go about their daily lives. One woman said that her now-husband didn't see her once without makeup before they were married, and when he saw her for the first time without it, he barely recognized her. Another said that her best girlfriend has only seen her without makeup once, and that's when she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency C-section. Yet another woman said that when she goes to the hospital for surgery, she ignores the request that the patient wear no makeup, because she is so self-conscious at the thought of the doctor looking down on her face without it. They spoke about how their makeup makes them feel better about themselves. More powerful, more confident, more self-assured. While these stories were not the least bit surprising to me, they were still unsettling. As unsettling as that old expression women use for applying makeup: "putting my face on".

It ended up that the whole point of the segment was to have a makeup artist and designer share tips on how women can use less makeup and still look pretty, rather than an intervention to help them to kick the habit altogether, but it was fascinating all the same. A few of the women from the video came on the show without wearing makeup in order to be "made over", and Rachael tried to reassure them by telling them that they all looked lovely without their usual paint jobs, and how brave they were to appear on television in a state that made them so uncomfortable. Each woman on the show seemed to have the attitude that everyone else looked fine without makeup, but that for her, it was necessary.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not trying to argue that no women should ever wear makeup. I realize that a big part of navigating our way through a patriarchal world involves choosing our battles. It's not the makeup itself I have a problem with. There's nothing inherently oppressive about cosmetics. It's the fact that makeup (along with thinness, hairless bodies, smooth skin, styled hair, fitted clothing, shorter clothing, low-cut clothing, accessories, purses, uncomfortable shoes, etc.) are considered a requirement for women. These are all components of an entrenched system of compulsory femininity for those members of our society who are born without penises.

I also realize that, as women, most of us never frame our choice to wear makeup or to shave our body hair or to wear feminine clothing (or to do more than our fair share of housework or to be the one to stay home with the children or to put our partner's career before our own) as "choosing our battles" or as complying with the system. Instead, we hold firmly that we do these things becuase we derive enjoyment from them. Or, at most, we may regard these choices as necessary evils -- especially when we acknowledge how much valuable time, money, and effort we exhaust in maintaining our feminine look -- but it is rare to hear someone actually question why any of this is necessary in the first place. (And I suppose the whole world would come crashing down if anyone in the mainstream media ever admitted its connection to patriarchy.)

The point of this post is not to criticize women for their choices. But without actual alternatives, "choice" doesn't even exist. It is dangerous for us to vehemently defend our most compliant and normative behaviors as arbitrary "choices" without truly examining our reasons. Doing this perpetuates the false notion that making the opposite choice would be just as easy, and it furthers the "othering" of those who fall outside the norm. If expressing femininity was truly a free choice, how many women do you think would actually do it?


Kate217 said...

I almost never wear makeup. Nobody seems to notice, let alone mind. Of course, that may be because I'm fat, so I don't count anyway...

Tracey said...

I was going to write about how I only wear makeup extremely rarely as well, but I didn't know where to fit it in. I've noticed the same thing -- that no one seems to notice or care much.

It's interesting how many women seem to think that they absolutely need makeup, though, and yet they think others look just fine without it. We just tend to inflict so much self-criticism.

Don't get me started on the weight issue. It's so frustrating how overweight people are both so invisible in our society and yet so mistreated at the same time. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

MAN! My roommate/friend and I have been talking about this all weekend. We both wear makeup all the time (not lots, but we do) and are active radical feminists and activists. We both work at a feminist org. and we understand how fucked up the makeup industry is but we have a really hard time (self-esteem wise) not wearing it. We are trying right now to not wear it and I have to say I havent found much feminist literature on the subject so THANKS so much for your contribution.

ps: Kate, Fat is Beeeeauuutiful.



jenn said...

When the feminist movement bloomed in the early 1900's, so did cosmetics advertising. Wearing make-up to some represented prostitution OR an active independent expression of sexuality. Unfortunately we were lured in by mass marketing. This abuse of our selves will only stop when we agree to stop submitting to it. Our beauty is in how deeply connected we are and how we creatively express it. If makeup is worn to express creative beauty then it is healthy, otherwise it is a burka.....no different the the muslim women.

H.T. said...

Well, I never wore makeup until I hit my twenties. Up till that point I'd had too many skin problems so makeup would just make them worse. It's just that now I've come to feel that I need to cover up the damage from the past to even look attractive.

Anonymous said...

To Nettie(and others) - if you are looking for literature on this topic I suggest starting with 'Beauty and Misogyny' by Sheila Jeffrey's. There is also reference to others who have written on the topic throughout the book.


Katlyn said...

i am 19 and started wearing makeup when i was about 12. scary thought, that 12 year old girls think they need makeup. only recently did i decide to stop wearing it in protest of the twisted belief that women "should" wear makeup. not to mention, the insane amounts of money spent on cosmetics every year in the world and the far more productive things we could be doing with the money when 20 000 children die every day due to hunger. it's really depressing the level of control cosmetics have on some women, myself included. i usually don't worry about how i look without makeup but in some social situations, it makes me very uncomfortable. i encourage all women to force themselves into what might make them nervous so that they can learn that they are perfect in their own pure form, and should only modfiy how they look for themselves and creativity. i wish i knew more people who felt the same way!

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I am so sick of these internet articles that discuss feminism but never give a conclusion! It's like 'Here's our patriarchal problem, but sorry, we don't have an answer for you. Just keep being miserable and confused. Cool.' I need answers! Insight! Something!