When I read Emily Hauser’s critical, searching post last week about beauty work she does that she feels is antifeminist, I got all jazz-hands—even more so after reading everyone’s comments and seeing the complexity therein. Since my focus at The Beheld (the blog that brought me to Feministe’s attention) is examining beauty work from a feminist perspective, I couldn’t resist a comment here of my own. Pit-shaving and the patriarchy? Bring it!
I’m a feminist, and I wear makeup and dress in a distinctly feminine manner (which sometimes means a distinctly uncomfortable manner, as with high heels), and try as I might I cannot fully reconcile the two. The feminist arguments I hear in favor of makeup—that it can create a place of play and fantasy, or that it’s okay “as long as you do it for you,” or “as long as it makes you feel good,” or, of course, the infamous “it’s my choice”—don’t cut it for me. Now, I don’t think engaging with traditional femininity can make anyone a “bad feminist.” But I feel a chronic internal conflict about the time, money, and energy I put into my appearance, and while I don’t think that the answer is necessarily to entirely opt out of beauty work, the justifications I come up with to soothe that conflict feel like just that—justifications.
There are some aspects of beauty that I appreciate as a feminist: for one, the bonding opportunities it can create with other women; for another, the human desire to beautify ourselves has, historically speaking, only recently been laser-targeted at women and our bank accounts. (Egyptians didn’t wear kohl eyeliner to appease The Man, after all.) Enhancing ourselves needn’t be inherently anti-feminist or fill us with shame. And even some of the more clichéd pro-makeup feminist responses beg examination, especially “it’s fine if it makes me feel good”: Fact is, beauty work has the power to make me feel absolutely stellar. Walking into a room and hearing the click of my heels, experiencing the sensual pleasure of a well-cut fabric that encases my frame, and knowing that my makeup is done in such a way that I feel brighter and shinier than I do when I’m au naturel—it’s not my only portal to personal pride, but it’s one of them, and I’m in no rush to cut off any port of entry.
But to be a feminist in 21st-century America means that to end the beauty conversation at “it makes me feel good” is disingenuous. If you’re reading this website, you’re probably pretty schooled in the links between beauty norms and the patriarchy, so let me just say: It doesn’t always make us feel good, and it’s not necessarily our choice. As commenter Ruth pointed out in Ms. Hauser’s post last week, “Can we really freely choose to shave our underarms when we know we will be rewarded for it?”
It’s those rewards that are of concern to me here. (Yes, of course I’m concerned about the self-esteem toll that painting over our real faces might have, but others have written about this more extensively and far better than I’m able to do. Indeed, it’s been the locus of much feminist discourse about beauty, but surely we can all agree that Nobody Should Feel Bad About Themselves, right?) Beauty privilege is extraordinarily difficult to willingly forsake, precisely because even as we’re encouraged to exercise it, we never know exactly how much of it we have. It’s a privilege we may long to possess even as we question our right to it, leaving us in flux, never able to fully develop our sea legs and figure out exactly why and how we can reject whatever beauty privilege we might have cultivated. (Women who came to feminism because of a resistance to beauty programming may experience this twofold: Many tales of resistance begin with a tale of strict adherence to the beauty standard, and growth in this area isn’t usually a straightforward progression. So now you’ve got women who actively wish to challenge the beauty standard but who continue to feel both its rewards and its mean pinch—it’s not a comfortable place to be.)
To be clear, I’m not talking about the privilege that comes with being born conventionally beautiful, in part because I’m not particularly qualified to do so (I’m perfectly fine-looking, but wrestling with the burdens of exquisite beauty is a challenge I’ve been spared), and in part because the beauty myth has done a terrific job of ensuring that conventionally beautiful and conventionally homely women alike fall prey to its trappings. I’m talking about the kind of privilege that we opt into because it greases the wheels a little bit, and the kind of signals we send when we play the game of conventional beauty. For when we don a feminized version of ourselves by swiping on face paint, we are playing into ideas of what femininity—and, by extension, womanhood—should be about, as much as we may resist many of those ideas internally. I may think I’m putting on lipstick because I like the thought of it serving as a sort of real-time punctuation to whatever I might be saying—but to anyone watching, I’m wearing lipstick because that’s what ladies do. (Plus, as a recent study indicates, the reasons we wear makeup are more in line with relief from self-dissatisfaction than any actual utilitarian benefit it gives us.)
Add to this the way the beauty industry has capitalized upon the idea of makeup as being “our bodies, our choice”—see also L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” tagline and MAC’s Wonder Woman collection—and it’s clear that even if in some magic fairyland we’re aware of why we make the choices we make, those choices are easily exploitable and not entirely separate from upholding the beauty standard as-is.
So here it is, my miniature thesis on women, cosmetics, and cultivated femininity, in terms as definitive as I can comfortably state:
I do not think using makeup means you are a pawn of the patriarchy. I do not believe that using makeup means you are a bad feminist, or that you can judge a feminist by her level of active complicity to or disregard of conventional beauty standards. I do not think that feminists must have an armor about them that allows them to either disregard the immense societal pressure to look pretty, or to somehow magically be able to determine why we’re wearing makeup—that, say, we use it because it’s our choice, but those poor other nonfeminist women are just bullied into it by the patriarchy. I do not think shaming women for whatever beauty work they do is going to help any of us; I don’t think internalizing guilt is helpful either. And in general, I do not think feminist dogma helps most feminists, and probably prevents more people from joining the club.
But neither do I believe that neglecting to seriously, critically examine our engagement with the beauty privilege certain acts give us is the mark of a responsible feminist. If you’re a 21st-century feminist in western society, your beauty labor means something. We can’t blithely claim that cosmetics use is merely our choice, or that if it makes us feel good then it’s just fine. Feeling good in general is one of the aims of feminism, sure, but getting there through questionable means without, well, asking questions—and aggrandizing our own beauty privilege without closely examining what that means for us and other women—falls short of feminist goals. If we’re going to inhabit the contradictory space of having our feminist critique of the beauty standard while engaging with and benefiting from that standard, we must scrutinize that space with an honest, level eye that gives us grace for our contradictions while not letting us lapse into convenient answers.