Is make-up a tool of oppression or an expressive medium for empowerment?

The “choice” to wear make-up may not be as simple as it seems on the surface

Who is make-up really for anyway? Photo by Andres Charavarriaga/The Peak

By: Encina Roh, Peak Associate, and Yasmin Khalili, SFU Student. Introduction and conclusion by Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

Intro: Make-up is a very political item in society. In an October 2018 article for The Walrus titled “Why wearing lipstick is a small act of joyful resistance,” Erika Thorkelson considers the trajectory of lipstick in particular throughout history, and why women have such a complex relationship with it.

In this informal dialogue, Encina Roh and Yasmin Khalili respond to Thorkelson’s article from their own unique perspectives.

ENCINA: Firstly, I’d like to say we exist in a patriarchy, so I acknowledge most things historically practiced by women cannot be completely divested of their patriarchal roots or undertones. For one of my classes, I studied the works of Simone de Beauvoir, who claimed that the historical existence of “women” is relative to that of men. Women are defined by what we cannot do rather than what we can.

This is why feminism seeks to define women on their own terms. Although make-up might be a product of patriarchal oppression, l think women can redefine what make-up means to them.

In fact, the make-up looks considered conventionally attractive to the male gaze — smokey eyes, tinted lips, fully concealed skin — are quite narrow. I find myself using make-up to purposefully challenge these norms. (I think a really sharp wing and odd-colored lipsticks lend to an unmistakable air of “leave me the fuck alone, I’m a lesbian.”)

Nothing feels more empowering than this: knowing that I wear my make-up the way I want to because it makes me happy, rather than the rest of society.

YASMIN: As The Walrus article mentions, make-up owes much of its popularity to how it changes a woman’s appearance to be more “feminine,” and as a result, more pleasant to men’s eyes. Although make-up could also be used as a powerful tool of individuality, unfortunately many women still use it to cover up their flaws instead of using it to channel their creativity. Many young women I know refuse to leave their rooms without at least a “natural” make-up look, fearing the criticism that could result should they leave their homes bare-faced.

I gave up wearing make-up a long time ago, and I’ve found it empowering to be confident and comfortable in my own bare skin. Although I have received comments in the past from partners about how “great” I would look if I wore a bit of make-up, I have decided that if I ever choose to wear make-up again, it will be for me, not my partner.

ENCINA: I definitely see how the make-up industry can be detrimental to self-esteem, and how it capitalizes off of the unattainability of feminine “perfection.” However, I think we need to be careful about generalizing and not gatekeeping what is empowering for women. While some people might feel empowered with a bare face, some might feel more empowered with a full face of make-up.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that women are able to decide what they want to do with their bodies. Women shouldn’t be pressured to feel they have to act one way or another to be the “right type” of woman.

The issue isn’t make-up. It’s the beauty industry and the patriarchy/system of racialized oppression it operates under, which needs to stop whitewashing models, promoting “pale-skin” beauty products to women of colour, retouching photos, and using rhetoric that promotes the image of flawlessness. As consumers, we should hold the industry accountable rather than attack women who choose to wear make-up.

YASMIN: I agree with a lot of what you have said! It is absolutely true that many women are empowered by make-up, and I have seen how it has started to become a tool of confidence building for some men as well. At the same time, I am all too aware of how many women feel pressured to wear make-up, dress a certain way, and present themselves in ways that are untrue to themselves.

While make-up enables some to feel their best, it may make others unable to appreciate natural beauty. It has caused not only warped perceptions of beauty of ourselves but also unachievable expectations from others.

There have been many times I’ve heard comments such as, “Wow Debbie, you look so tired today! Are you sick or something?” In reality, Debbie wasn’t sick or tried, she just didn’t feel like putting on a full face of make-up.

I am sure make-up is here to stay until the end of time, but I do hope that women will come to see it as an option instead of feeling it is an expectation.

ENCINA: I think once again it comes down to intention and purpose. I don’t think there is an issue with wanting to alter how we naturally look. I don’t think that it’s “unfeminist” to want to wear make-up. Or to wear a certain outfit. I think as long as I want to do what is best for me — what makes me feel confident — and it’s not hurting anyone else, I should be able to do that without other women of all people policing or criticizing my actions.

The patriarchy exists to oppress women and can do so with or without make-up. The antagonist isn’t make-up, it’s the patriarchy itself. It influences some of us to call women who choose to abstain from make-up sloppy or those who choose to wear a full face slutty.

No matter what women do, we will be shamed for it. So I don’t think telling other women to act a certain way with or without make-up does any good. It divides us as a group and makes us feel guilty for our personal choices.

Instead, I think we should stick together to combat the reason we feel like we need to have this discussion in the first place: why women think that they have to dissect their personal choices and seek validation in what’s best for their body from anyone but themselves. It’s honestly kind of alarming.

YASMIN: No matter your personal belief about make-up, the fact of the matter is that while a select few may find empowerment via drawing fake freckles across their faces and perfecting their “glow,” many are also oppressed by make-up and see its usage as a necessity rather than a fun option. No one is “policing” anyone.

I personally couldn’t care less if my peers choose to wear make-up or not. But for those who do so every single day, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really their choice or if they feel like they need to fit in. In the meantime, I’m going to put on my moisturizer and SPF lip balm and enjoy the freedom I feel in my skin. I hope others can find the same freedom in theirs, with whatever they choose to smother it in!

Closing thoughts: In contemporary society, women wear make-up for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with sexuality. Make-up cannot be fully divorced from its roots in patriarchal gender oppression. However, it is important to be mindful that everyone experiences oppression and empowerment in different ways. We need to be respectful of the various ways that all people choose to express themselves, and avoid snap judgments based on exterior presentation.