Thursday, November 15, 2012

Can Makeup be Feminist? - In My Head

I came across this fascinating post, that expresses quite a lot of my own sentiments quite eloquently.
I was particularly impressed by this part;

"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."

As I said in my opening rant, feminist=choice for me, always and forever. If you want to wear makeup, wear makeup. If you don't want to, don't. In my idea of an ideal world, it wouldn't make any difference to the way you are perceived. As this blogger points out, there is nothing inherently oppressive about makeup - it's just powders and liquids and chemicals. They are inert. But I do think it's important to be aware of the context in which we use these things, and the contribution that makes to the experience of women as a whole.

There are certain things I do in terms of personal grooming that are very deliberate choices in order to not only contribute to my own comfort, but the comfort of other women.

I shave my legs sometimes, mostly for work, because your average office is not part of my ideal feminist utopia. People will judge me on whether or not I conform to societal ideas of good grooming, and while I wish this wasn't so, I don't feel like I would be proving anything by being unemployed.
But all winter, I don't touch the damn things. I'm lazy, and I hate doing it, and the fur keeps my legs warm, and I live in pants or long socks all winter anyway. Plus, is it just me or are other people capable of shaving the backs of them without cutting yourself? Because I'm really not. I always end up running out the door with a super classy little trickle of blood slowly trailing into my shoes...okay, maybe that part IS just me. So anwyay, by allowing my leg hair it's freedom, I'm contributing to my own comfort.
But I also feel, in some small way, by exposing my boyfriend and my friend and all the people who see my furry legs to the idea that it's not so horrific for a woman to have hair on her legs that I am making a space for other women to make that choice if they want to. I feel like I'm contributing in my own little way to normalising a range of choices for women, by presenting an alternative.

The same thing applies to my pubic hair - sometimes I get it into my head to go and get it all off, because it feels nice and it's an interesting change. But if anyone was to ever try and tell me I didn't have the choice to grow it back again, they would get a faceful of rage. A lot of the time, I refuse to acknowledge the ridiculous notion that pubic hair is gross and somehow "dirty", and I leave it how it's more comfortable for me - totally untouched. Not only is it obviously less work to maintain, and you don't get any nasty little ingrown hairs (which, unlike natural pubes ARE genuinely gross) but I actually really dig playing with the tufts. There's something deeply comforting about wrapping it around your fingers - something like how I imagine holding your balls is for guys. But I also feel that by exposing the people I sleep with to a natural bush, I am little by little exposing people to the idea that's actually okay, and thereby creating a space where other women have the same choice.


I also don't think the women who DO choose to subscribe to these habits for whatever reasons of their own are directly contributing to the ongoing patriarchal oppression. If they do it because it makes them happy, and comfortable, then whatever, it's none of my fucking business. If they're doing it because they feel like they're not attractive unless they do, I feel sad that they don't like themselves more. But making them feel bad about "giving in to oppression" and shaving their legs isn't going to make them feel any better, to my mind. 
At the end of the post I referenced here, there was an anon comment that I thought was quite sad.

"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!"

As usual,someone more eloquent than me has gone and expressed my answer to this plea for insight for me.

"The point of feminism isn’t to proclaim how women should be. In fact, that’s the opposite of feminism. Feminism is about people choosing for themselves, without societal, familial or any other pressures getting in the way."
This is my conclusion - do what makes you happy. If you want to wear makeup, wear it. If you don't, don't. Shave your legs, shave your pubes, shave your hair. It's your body, and you have every right to wear it however you want.
If we all make an effort to unpack our motivations, and then stand by what truly makes us happy, then we open up choices for everyone. Which sounds pretty feminist to me.


  1. Well said. Even if people make their choices for the wrong reasons, they're still THEIR choices. And who among us can say that they've never done somethign for the wrong reason?

  2. I can't help but feel that if a woman is making her choices in a situation where she has many options open to her (the matter of how free our choices actually are is a whole other post), the feminist action is in the choosing, not what you choose.

  3. I am not sure how i feel about choice feminism. of course, i am not against make up as a principle, but if someone chooses to wear make up, then yes, this person contributes to a status quo that is harmful. so I feel conflicted.

    1. It is certainly a thorny, complicated issue - there is no denying that. But if all women must conform to a single idea of femininity, even if that idea is put forward by women, isn't that also a form of oppression?

    2. Well, yes, it's oppression but the question you are faced with is "do i want to look a certain way so people (potentially) will treat me better or do I want to step out of the conformed way and challenge that ideal while taking the risk that people treat me worse?" the same principle goes for beauty surgeory, botox. I can definitely understand why we try to conform to this ideal, I am the same way, I struggle with it. but if someone asked me what i think the right thing would be, I'd always say it's the questioning of my own motifs and not caving in. Then again, when it's the question of mental health vs conformity it gets super tricky...

      To be honest: I do see a difference between make up that just makes you look "normal" and really weird out-there make up that actually does NOT help to make you look generic/acceptable.

  4. But what if you question your motives, and find they aren't actually formed by societal pressure, but by personal aesthetics? I know not all feminists think this is possible when it comes to makeup, but I do.
    However, I am aware that my opinions are very much influenced by the people in my life. As a rather tomboyish girl, I've always had more male friends than female, and as an enormous nerd, they have almost always been nerd boys (of the well read, open minded, thoughtful stripe, not the basement dwelling ones who fear all female). I've also always had a lot of feminist acquaintances and friends, some far more radical than me, some much less. None of the men in my life have ever expressed any opinion about whether I wear makeup or not beyond, "If it makes you happy". This goes for bosses too, with the notable exception of the owners of the brothels I worked at - but that workplace is an exception to many, many rules. The women however, have quite often had very forceful opinions. I was kicked out of the Women's Room in my first year of Uni, when I was much less helpful about expressing myself, for getting into an argument about leg shaving. If my experiences had been different, if the men in my life had been more interested in dictating my choices, then I think I would find it much easier to equate wearing makeup with "giving in." But honestly, no-one has really ever asked me to, let alone told me I had to, apart from women's magazines. No-one has ever told me I wasn't allowed to, apart from other women. It's difficult for me to reject oppression that I honestly don't feel in my day to day life. But I understand that experience shapes opinion, and other women DO face a great deal more direct oppression from men every day, and so I totally respect their need to push back in a more direct way, and fully support them in this.

    Also, I am also really interested in using makeup to reject the mainstream - one of my favourite burlesque performers here in Sydney has a habit of wearing full on drag makeup when she is biologically female, and I just love the head fuck that creates.

  5. I grew up in the 70s. I remember the very first issue of Ms. Magazine. My mother bought it for me. At age 12 I decided not to change my name when I got married even though my family name is long and Eastern European and I lived in a place where everyone was a Jones, a Smith or a Johnson.

    My mother is an original feminist who fought hard to get her PhD in mathematics, who struggled to be respected as a professor, and who (in the process) decided to never wear make-up or dresses ever again. She doesn't wear jewelry either.

    And then there's me. I like glitter. I love pretty things. I paint people for a living. And I'm still a feminist. Because for me, feminism isn't about what you wear or don't wear, or your personal grooming habits, it's about freedom of choices and removal of gender-based limits.

    I am hysterical because something is WRONG, not because I'm having my period. I have opinions and views that deserve equal billing with the views and opinions of my male colleagues. I deserve to get the same pay as a man who has the same qualifications. I do not deserve to be passed up for a promotion just because I might have children and need to have extended amounts of time off. It also means that if a guy wants time off when his wife has children, he should get it.

    Feminism is the strange notion that people deserve to be treated as equals. There is still oppression and inequality even though women can vote, own property and get divorced.

    OK. Enough ranting. Back to my normally docile life...

  6. Haha! Never enough ranting! I'm so pleased to have got you so fired up :)
    I can only imagine the arguments in your house growing up...happily my mother is about as femme as I am now, so we never really clashed over that. My penchant for wearing entirely black my entire adolescence on the other hand...

  7. This is one of the best things I have read about the make-up/grooming = feminism? issue.

    I agree that it comes down to motives, and that if something makes you happier or your life easier then go for it. BUT if it makes your life easier BECAUSE it removes a barrier or makes it easier to overcome a hurdle placed there by the patriarchy then you ought to be aware of that. I.e. shaving your legs can be the right choice because it makes life easier for you by gives the people in your office once less thing to hold against you when they're considering you for a promotion or whatever.

    The thing is it's impossible to tell the difference between a woman wearing make-up because she's insecure/vain because she's bought the lies sold by women's magazines and a woman wearing make-up because she's deliberately playing the system in order to get the best she can out of it while knowing it for the crock of shit it is. Both are externally supporting the oppressive system by participating in it but it's not their fault that they're supporting it by making the best choices they can from the options available to them.

    The best phrase I heard recently was that 'women make free choices within a system of constraints'. They may have chosen freely from the options available to them, but whether the choices available are ones they would have chosen if the system wasn't stacked against them... well.

    Which is why we need people to stand up and work for change in the areas that they can. Go feminism!

    1. "The thing is it's impossible to tell the difference between a woman wearing make-up because she's insecure/vain because she's bought the lies sold by women's magazines and a woman wearing make-up because she's deliberately playing the system in order to get the best she can out of it while knowing it for the crock of shit it is."
      This is a really interesting observation, because it brings up what idea of what the 'best' course of action is when we observe women who have 'bought the lies', as you so eloquently put it. Some feminists believe shaming them is the way to go, and maybe some people do respond to a good hard shaking. But I'm much more comfortable doing my best to make the things I have learned about the beauty industry and perception of beauty vs reality out there for as many people as possible to see, in the hope that maybe it will slip through when they're not paying attention. Increasing pressure creates increasing resistance, but something pressing gently but persistently can get much better results. Or maybe I'm just hopelessly naive :)


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