War on makeup: Feminist empowerment or surrender to patriarchy?
Ask a group of women why they wear makeup and you’ll receive myriad responses. Some will say it makes them feel more confident, that they don’t feel complete without it; others will say they love experimenting with looks and colors as a way of expressing themselves, that there’s a fun, theatrical element to face paint that allows them to channel different personalities and aesthetics.
But just as there are women and girls who wear makeup completely for themselves, there are those who wear makeup for the perceived benefit of others, or who feel as though they are unacceptable without it.
Makeup can be a mask you hide behind that gets you ready to face the world, or something you deploy as a weapon to attract a partner, to intimidate, shock, and amaze. It is used as part of religious or cultural rituals, or to align yourself with a subculture. It can mask your insecurities or be used to enhance the bits you love the most.
Makeup is so ubiquitous in our society that for a woman to go without it has become, in some cases, a statement – the “no makeup selfie” being a case in point. Perhaps, then, the more useful question to ask is not “Why do women wear makeup?” but “Why do women wear makeup when most men don’t?”
For some feminists, the question can be answered by simply muttering “patriarchy” and dusting off their hands before heading to the bar. Certainly, women receive messages from an early age that encourage us to believe that one of our primary functions is to be decorative and therefore appealing to men.
Go into any newsagent and you’ll see little girls’ magazines that come with free gifts of lipgloss and nail polish. Parents buy their daughters strange, disembodied dolls’ heads to practise on. The Disney princesses so many little girls model themselves on wear eyeliner, mascara, and eyeshadow, and have perfectly plucked eyebrows. Considering the extent to which makeup is viewed as a process of adornment used for attracting a mate, to foist it upon girls so young is arguably more than a little creepy.
Psychologists have it that, as with so many things, makeup comes down to sex. Women tend to have darker eyes and lips than men, and makeup enhances those sex differences. Furthermore, the desirable qualities a man looks for in a woman – largely related to reproductive fitness – are said to be amplified by makeup.
Beauty ideals vary from culture to culture, but there are some universal markers of attractiveness. Facial symmetry and an even skin tone imply good health, while youthfulness denotes fertility. Plump lips and flushed cheeks, meanwhile, are signs of sexual arousal, so your scarlet lipstick and pink blusher might just be giving that random man in the bar the subconscious signal that you’re ready for a night of passion.
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When the vision of beauty you are presented with is largely homogeneous, it’s only natural that you might resort to makeup as an attempt to “blend in” or to “pass”. But, as often with trappings of femininity, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Studies repeatedly tell us that men are more attracted to women who wear makeup. We’re encouraged to aspire to a kind of unnatural natural beauty, as captured by the immortal words of Calvin Klein, who said, helpfully: “The best thing is to look natural, but it takes makeup to look natural.”
A study last year at Bangor and Aberdeen universities found that both men and women thought women with some – but not too much – makeup were most attractive. According to the study’s abstract, “these findings suggest that attractiveness perceptions with cosmetics are a form of pluralistic ignorance, whereby women tailor their cosmetics preferences to an inaccurate perception of others’ preferences.”
Perhaps, then, when it comes to makeup, we are our own worst enemies, believing that the world wants to see us in a certain way when in actual fact we’re fine the way we are. Why do women wear makeup? You could say it’s a pinch of patriarchy, a dusting of sex, a smattering of fun, and a whole, caked-on layer of misplaced insecurity.