It seems that in recent years, makeup has been elevated to an art form. From runway makeup artists like Pat McGrath to YouTube beauty gurus like James Charles, people use makeup to create unique looks that many people consider high art. More than ever, makeup is more than just a beauty routine: it’s a means of self-expression, even challenging typical beauty standards in the process.
Makeup should not be discounted as an art form—particularly since as a stereotypically “feminine” activity, it’s liable for such reduction. However, respecting makeup as art does not mean we should exempt it from criticism; instead, we must look more closely at makeup culture itself, and how it affects everyday women.
It appears that beauty companies recently shifted much of their marketing focus from where it was decades ago. Like many other industries, they’ve taken a turn for the “feminist,” expanding the diversity of their models and offerings. Rather than advertising products that help a woman “appeal to a man,” makeup is now often marketed as something women—and anyone else who chooses to wear makeup—wear to “empower” ourselves. Many young women reject the idea that we wear makeup to please others. Instead, we say we wear it because we want to and it makes us feel good.
Certainly this is true when it comes to green lipstick or purple eyeliner. But too many of us deny the more insidious side of makeup culture: that women often don’t truly “choose” to wear makeup for ourselves. The reality is that women and girls face intense, constant pressure to alter our natural features in order to fit narrow heteronormative, Eurocentric beauty standards. We say we wear makeup to feel good about ourselves and be “empowered.” But do we ever consider where the need to feel better about ourselves comes from? Why do we feel as though our natural faces are deficient?
While wearing makeup might make us feel “empowered,” we have to realize that often the reason we feel the urge to in the first place is because many sectors of society—including beauty companies—tell us that the way we look is not good enough. Beauty companies do not care why you buy makeup—they only care that you do. I would be surprised to find that the sudden increase in “feminist” beauty companies is truly about anything other than exploiting feminism for profit because it’s “trendy.”
That is not to say that the increased diversity in makeup offerings aren’t meaningful or important. Rather, it’s a reminder that beauty companies don’t exist to help us feel “empowered.” They exist to make money, and will continue pressuring us to wear makeup in order to do so.
This is also certainly not intended to judge or criticize women who wear makeup. Makeup culture is so embedded within us that it is often difficult to realize how much it affects our daily lives. For example, for much of my life, I have hesitated to leave my home without wearing at least concealer. I fear that if I skip makeup, the world will see me as less “professional,” less attractive, and therefore less worthy. I make the “choice” to wear makeup, but not because it makes me feel “empowered.” I often wear makeup because I want to feel more accepted into a society that tells women that our natural form is inadequate. Sometimes I wonder how many hours, days, weeks of my life have I wasted painting my face with toxins. To be clear, I’m not referring to wearing sparkly eyeshadow for a party. I’m talking about many women feeling the need to “fix” and cover-up our natural features every day of our lives.
Makeup can be fun, creative, and even high art. Increased diversity in the makeup industry is also a positive and much-needed change. However, it is crucial that we recognize where the supposed feeling of “empowerment” from makeup stems from, and how for many women, wearing makeup is not really a choice at all. Makeup can be fun. It is also a crushing social norm that insists that women spend hundreds of dollars “fixing” themselves in order to be deemed acceptable, worthwhile beings. We must continue to promote the fun, artistic side of makeup culture—one that explores the limits of creativity and challenges social norms—while simultaneously dismantling the idea that women without it are somehow inferior.