Unmasking my battle with makeup, femininity, and gender


Raccoon eyes were not the look I was going for.

I started out feeling empowered as I swiped on a new shade of lipstick and made my eyes catlike. The feelings I got while watching an expert apply their makeup and the reality of trying to recreate the look made me realize that I have a love/hate relationship with cosmetics. I love makeup when I first put it on, but it never lasts through the day. When I mess up and have to redo it, I can’t help but feel bad about myself.

I love the look of makeup, but I hate how it feels on my skin. I love that makeup makes me feel perfect, but I hate that I don’t feel like myself without it.

When I let makeup become part of my daily routine, it became my new normal.  If I go one day without makeup, my skin feels translucent, letting every flaw through. I notice the patchiness of my eyebrows, the blotchiness of my skin, the smallness of my eyes, and my planet-sized pimple eclipses any hope of me liking the way my face looks that day.

It is this pressure to be perfect, to put on a mask to perform for the day, that many radical feminists object to. They call attention to the internalized need for women to feminize and sexualize themselves in all contexts.

This perspective stuck strongly in my head. It started to feel wrong to cover my face up. I asked myself why I was spending so much time, effort, and money on makeup since I did not enjoy the actual feeling of cosmetics on my face. So I gave it up, feeling quite proud of myself for making my bare face the new normal.

Being makeup-free instantly simplified my life.

I no longer had to worry about lining my eyes in the morning or making sure my foundation matched my skin tone. I did not have to pay for a new lipstick or anything that Sephora deemed necessary for a girl to have. My look became one of utility.

It also became sort of boring. It was nice having a minimalist mentality for a while, as it helped me focus on the important things in life. But I did not forget the bliss I felt when lining my eyes and feeling like a true artist, or the joy of picking up a new lipstick as I was partaking in makeup culture. I needed a way to express myself again.

The liberal feminist argument then came to me: the idea that makeup was OK as long as it is your choice to wear it. But how do you dissect the need to wear makeup from the want to wear makeup when it is part and parcel of a gendered concept that is deeply embedded in how you see the world and yourself?

The gender binary tells us you can either model yourself in the image of a man or a woman. We all have the picture of the perfect person in our heads that society tells us we should strive to look like. It becomes an almost involuntary action of mentally checking and rechecking how your body fits into the perfect image.

Textbook femininity can really mess with your head

I had a picture-perfect feminine face pinned in my mind when I try to apply makeup, but it seems unattainable when I notice my hair or pores or blotches. Any kind of body policing — be it for or against makeup — is unwelcome and unacceptable.   

Staring down the barrel of my mascara tube, I realized that makeup is not inherently a patriarchal tool; rather, it is a tool of self-expression. Makeup should become ungendered so that both men and women can choose to express themselves with it. Especially in the university environment, where we are in between the suffocating high school pressures and the work world dress code, we should be able to use makeup to curate our own image.

My raccoon eyes are now a look in themselves, evidence that I alone can choose how I want to look.