This article is an op-ed and the views are that of the author.
If you’ve ever bought a shirt, bag, or poster with the popular Pinterest-esque phrase “eyeliner sharp enough to kill a man” printed on it, then this is for you.
As a disclaimer, I’m currently wearing five NYX products on my face. I wear makeup every single day. I have an Ipsy subscription. I spend my money on makeup, and most of that money goes to mainstream brands.
I am a feminist, but wearing makeup is not an act of feminism.
The concept of “empowerment” has been utilized time and time again throughout history by marginalized groups fighting systems of oppression. But, through the sale and glorification of products which are themselves marketed as “empowering,” like tee shirts, tote bags, and other knick knacks, this concept has become popularized and commodified in a way that is so derailing, taking in part in such luxuries is inherently damaging. Consumers are told that simply buying their way into an activist movement via “empowering” commodities, rather than actively challenging systems of oppression, is sufficient enough activist work.
Something rubs me the wrong way when I see women who don’t wear makeup (especially women of color) getting called “brave” for stepping out in public bare-faced, yet taken less seriously at job interviews. It’s uncomfortable getting called “tired” when I choose to go a day without makeup, as if my $50 face is my expected default — or, worse yet, that my social circles genuinely believe my real face looks like my made-up face. It’s upsetting to learn that even makeup-free icons like Alicia Keys are still expected to undergo acupuncture, iced jade rolling, cucumber facials, mattifying creams, faux freckles, tanned serums, and the works just to appear truly bare-faced — as if women are not allowed to put less than hours into their physical appearance every day.
I’m especially cautious when goods are marketed to young women as “feminist,” like the Hot Topic “eyeliner sharp enough to kill a man” merch, yet the profits of which directly benefit male CEOs, and not underserved communities. There is a severe difference between a company simply trying to turn a profit, and a company trying to do so by convincing underserved communities to commodify themselves and their activism. I cannot suspend my disbelief that “lipstick darker than the blood of men” shirts actually contribute to the dismantling of patriarchal control over women’s appearances and not just some old white guy’s wallet. There will always be independent, nonwhite-woman-owned brands to choose from — but all makeup inherently caters to a larger white heteropatriarchal agenda that demands women meet generally Eurocentric beauty standards. Yikes. Crazy that this shit used to be marketed to men too.
Recent defense of makeup mostly comes from the feminist communities which believe we must protect women and men from “makeup-shaming,” any sort of bullying directed at the amount or styles of makeup individuals choose to wear. And, of course, we should strive for this. These communities have responded to criticism beautifully, by asserting that makeup can be a form of art and self-expression, or a powerful tool in gender presentation and confidence-building (especially for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals!). But, more often than not, the structural mechanisms in place to oppress women target those who do not wear makeup rather than those who do. I’m not saying that makeup-shaming isn’t a problem or is too small of a problem to consider, but systematic persecution of women who do not wear makeup takes place at a much higher rate than lame f*ckbois insulting innocent girls on Tinder for contouring.
Much of the commodification of anti-shaming is slathered in manipulative language that is skewed around the idea that you are taking control or “sticking it to the man” by wearing any particular shade of lipstick or eyeshadow. Insert: my issues with murderous eyeliner and gory lipstick. Reclamation is important, sometimes crucial in social resistance movements. Slurs, iconography, notable figures, and fashion trends can all be reclaimed by marginalized communities who have had their cultural symbols stripped from them. But enthusiastically participating in an economy which bullies women into wearing makeup far more often than it bullies women into not wearing it is off-kilter. I believe women who participate in the makeup industry for social and financial survival deserve basic respect, but I do not believe eyeliner needs reclaiming.
I am a feminist. I am a gender studies major with honors. I am queer. I am anti-capitalist.
I wear makeup. I do so to get taken seriously and seem “put together.” I participate in an inherently destructive industry that works against women all the time, every time.
I am working to reconcile the two, but that starts with an acknowledgement: Wearing makeup is not a feminist statement.