Should women wear make up? Yeah, I’m asking you.

Should women wear make up?

It was the title of a feature published a few weeks ago.  After a few comments on Twitter, I got into a mini-debate with Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes over whether it was a reasonable question or not. She said it was patronising, I said I thought questioning why you wear make-up was perfectly valid.

Naturally the question is incendiary, it was no doubt designed to be so. And no one likes a question with the word ‘should’ in it. ‘Should’ immediately implies judgement and few of us like being judged, whether it’s on our political affiliations or our brand of lipstick. ‘Should women’ is even more provocative but it’s all just syntax at the end of the day. My main concern was that she thought the question itself wasn’t even worth asking.

I haven’t actually read the feature in question. I searched for it and couldn’t find it but I found enough similar features to know that it’s a question that gets asked a lot, mostly of women, by women. It’s a feminist issue as old as the consumer conscience and the basic argument goes as follows:

For: Yes! Women have the right to express their identity however they wish. It’s all part and parcel of sexual liberation. Make-up is fun, it’s harmless, it’s normal to enjoy making yourself look attractive (and by the way it isn’t just for men, it’s to make myself feel good). And frankly people who don’t wear it look like they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort – rude!

Against: No! You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s harmless. The reason you feel good in make-up is because you’ve been conditioned by a patriarchal society to believe that your worth lies in your aesthetic. Even if you’re not doing directly to please a man you are doing it to satisfy The Man’s culturally sanctioned norms of beauty.

The question is old, I admit. It’s tired. We already know the answers. But do we know our own answer? It might be irrelevant and patronising to Sali Hughes who arguably has made her peace with (and you might say has a vested interest in) the beauty industry but I don’t think there’s a problem with asking the question. As new generations of young women grow up, they will need to work out how they marry their love of mascara with their feminism. And I have a confession. I still don’t know if I have. In fact, the question, should I wear make-up? runs through my mind at least every few days, usually as I’m hauling myself out of bed a whole hour before either of my two flatmates in order to be thoroughly groomed before leaving the house for work.

Yep, that’s right. I don’t leave the house without make-up on. Well, ok if I’m just nipping out to get a paper then fine. And clearly I don’t wear make-up to the gym. But if I’m going out for the day, either to work or at the weekend then yes, I will be wearing make-up. And the thing is, you can point all you like to people like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj who embrace the theatricality of make-up, who actively challenge beauty norms through their creative (and colourful) use of cosmetics, but the majority of us do not seek to reinvent aesthetic ideals, we seek merely to look presentable.

[Interestingly, I don’t feel this way about fashion. My attitude to fashion is completely different to my attitude it beauty. But I will write about that another time. For now suffice it to say that I approach fashion, or more broadly attire, as a creative process while I approach makeup and cosmetics as tools I require to negotiate everyday life.]

That’s not to say I never enjoy wearing make-up. I do. I love exploring new looks and trying new products. I adore the way thick black kohl on the insides of my eyes makes me feel like a proper punk bitch despite the fact that I live in a quite-nice flat and pay my taxes with alarming enthusiasm, while bronzed cheeks and nude eyes put me in mind of a barefoot afternoon around a beach campfire even if the most I’ve done that day is pop to Sainsburys for some loo roll. I’ve even been known to rock a Bowie bolt on occasion. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the make-up I wear every day. Not because I’m expressing myself, not because it’s fun (in fact it’s often a chore – the “third shift” as Naomi Wolf would have it) and certainly not because I think it’s some sort of right as a liberated woman.

Here is my make up bag:

Tinted moisturiser, blusher, concealer, powder, eyeliner, mascara: these are not artist’s tools. There are no creative statements happening here. This is the make-up I put on simply to look acceptable.

I debated whether to put up a picture of myself but I have decided that to do so would only attract comments on whether I do or do not need make-up. And that is exactly the point. The question should women wear makeup? is all-too-often answered with a critique of the writer or subject’s ‘need’ for make-up when what we really need to talk about is where this ‘need’ comes from.

I wear this make-up in order to conceal blemishes, disguise marks that might indicate illness, fatigue or age and to enhance my features. I am naturally fair-haired so mascara is essential to help my eyes stand out but I have full lips so on a day-to-day basis I eschew lipstick. But why do I do this? Even now I am pointing out to you my ‘good’ features and my beauty ‘achievements’ because I have been taught by my culture that some (if not all) of my value lies in the way I look. And not only do I know it but I subscribe to it. Sure, I want to be valued for my intelligence, for my social skills, for my ability to string a sentence together (the latter pays the bills so we’re talking real monetary value, here) but I also want people to think I’m pretty. There, I said it.

I should probably mention at this point that I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with appreciating the aesthetic. Without a love for and desire to create and reproduce beauty the world would be several artistic movements the poorer. It’s okay to want things to be visually pleasing. The problem comes when beauty is valued above all else or when the lack of beauty denotes a lack of value; when beauty is the overriding aspect on which something is judged. And nowhere do these scenarios play out more forcefully than in the lives of women.

I know that my beauty is not my only value. I know that, for the most part, the people I know and work with judge me by my words and actions, not my looks. I’m glad of this. But the fact remains that my perceived beauty is part of my value in a way that is not true for my male flatmate or my boyfriend. And instead of protesting about it, I seek to capitalise on it.

How can I be okay with that?

So yeah, I’m going to keep asking the question, should women wear make-up? because I for one have not yet made peace with it. And if you think it’s irrelevant or patronising and that make-up is just a bit of harmless fun, let me put it to you this way:

Do men worry about whether they should wear make-up? Does society question their use of it or draw attention to what they might be able to achieve if they wore more, less, or applied it differently. Do they consider it ill-mannered to step out into the world with imperfect skin or unenhanced eyes? Do they worry about being ignored or even derided because they are not beautiful? No. No, they don’t. Because men do not wear make-up. Though I often wonder how different the world might be if they did.


3 thoughts on “Should women wear make up? Yeah, I’m asking you.

  1. “The problem comes when beauty is valued above all else or when the lack of beauty denotes a lack of value; when beauty is the overriding aspect on which something is judged. And nowhere do these scenarios play out more forcefully than in the lives of women.” I think many gay men would beg to differ. All the way back to Michelangelo, the greatest artist and aesthete of the last 2000 years!

    • Hmm. But was Michelangelo merely adhering to cultural pressures or was he doing it out of a genuine love and belief in the value of beauty?

      I’m not saying beauty has no value, I’m saying there’s a difference between creating it and conforming to it. I originally had a sentence in there which said “if something can only be said to be beautiful, it may well have value solely on account of this beauty” but I took it out because it wasn’t my intention to get into a discussion of aesthetics vs feminism.

      That is a discussion I’d like to have because I think that in suggesting we reject ‘beauty conformity’, there is a danger of suggesting we reject beauty completely (and this has been a criticism of some second-wave feminism). That said, how I balance my aesthetic sensibilities with my feminism is something I definitely struggle with. I DO place value on the way things look and it would be ridiculous to suggest that physical appearance bore no impact on the way we interact with each other or that the visual judgements we make are somehow less valid than other kinds of judgements. However, I was at risk of going off on a very large tangent if I got into it here so I am saving all this for a separate post. My main concern here was that somebody told me it was irrelevant for women to question their relationship with the beauty industry and I very strongly disagreed.

      I’m not sure how gay men come into it though… ?

  2. Q: Should women wear make up?
    A: I don’t think it matters either way, as long as they’ve thought about the answer.

    – a guy who’s never thought about why he doesn’t wear make-up. You can find me in the dictionary under double-standards.


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