Why Wearing Makeup Is a Feminist Statement
For those of you who weren’t watching the season finale of Game of Thrones, you might’ve caught the MTV Video Music Awards this past Sunday. One of the most talked about moments of the night was when singer Alessia Cara ripped off her wig to reveal her natural curls and took off all her makeup while singing her hit “Scars to Your Beautiful.” Her meta performance was met with a well-deserved standing ovation and praise all over social media.
Celebrities have followed this trend of #nomakeup for quite some time now. They’ll post barefaced selfies on their Instagrams (Gwyneth Paltrow, Gisele Bündchen, Beyoncé, and so many others have all done it). They’ll publicly speak on makeup’s futility (author Zadie Smith told festival goers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that girls were "fools" to waste time on beauty). The #nomakeup movement is alive and well.
It can all be traced back to the summer of 2016 when Alicia Keys announced she was no longer wearing makeup both on the red carpet and in her everyday life. In an essay for Lenny Letter, Keys wrote about the struggles women have to go through to act and look perfect. After she was convinced by a photographer to be shot barefaced for a shoot, she wrote, “I swear it is the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt.”
But what if I feel my most beautiful when I wear makeup? Am I playing into patriarchal standards of beauty when I conceal the bags under my eyes or hide a pimple? Am I not being my most authentic self when I contour to fake the appearance of cheekbones? What does my love for makeup say about me?
Keys did tweet, “Y’all, me choosing to be makeup free doesn’t mean I’m anti-makeup. Do you!” And so much respect goes out to her and other women who choose to go down this no-makeup route: It is not easy to bare it all for everyone to judge. It takes a very strong person to be able to take the criticism and not care.
But there’s something to be said about the woman who can rock a bright bold lip or a killer monochromatic eye look; there’s something special about that type of confidence. There's a transcendent energy that is unique to the feeling of loving the makeup you're wearing. In fact, I believe wearing makeup is just as big of a feminist statement as not wearing makeup is.
Am I playing into patriarchal standards of beauty when I conceal the bags under my eyes or hide a pimple? Am I not being my most authentic self when I contour to fake the appearance of cheekbones? What does my love for makeup say about me?
“Makeup is armor,” says Sir John, L'Oréal Paris celebrity makeup artist. “It’s a woman’s right to have these things; it’s a woman’s right to want to change her appearance and go into a telephone booth to turn into Superwoman."
Sir John, for those of you who might not know, works with some of today's most powerful and influential women (name dropping a few here: Beyoncé, Serena Williams, and Priyanka Chopra). “What I’ve learned from all these women is this: Don’t let anyone put you in a box.”
In response to Smith's comments on makeup (she won't let her daughter apply makeup if the routine takes more than 15 minutes because her brother doesn't have to waste time doing that), he simply disagrees. “Don’t put your daughter in a box. You’re doing the same thing you don’t want society to do to her. The fact she has multiple eyeliners to choose from or three different lip kits—those are options for her and in a way her armor.”
Makeup is armor. It’s a woman’s right to have these things; it’s a woman’s right to want to change her appearance and go into a telephone booth to turn into Superwoman.
There is power in makeup; it has evolved into something so much more than a tool to make someone look “pretty.” To illustrate his point, Sir John tells me this story about when he was an assistant on set, where he witnessed hairstylist Eugene Souleiman's assistant getting yelled at by his boss. "It was uncalled for. A lot of women can relate to when people demean them in public," he says.
But instead of staying silent and cowering in the corner, she did a remarkable thing. "She went into her purse and grabbed a very dark, merlot red lipstick. She starts putting it on and I was looking at her like What is she doing?" he says. "When I asked her if she was okay, she said, 'I’m fine. I’m going to talk to him, and I want him to feel everything that’s coming out of my mouth. I want him to feel my words.'"
“In that moment, I thought Wow, this lipstick is war paint for her. She is going to defend herself and be her own champion. She’s using this lipstick to convey her emotion, to convey her strength. It isn’t using a blush to hide behind; she’s using lipstick to one up a man," he says. "I walked away from that having a totally different respect for her but also for lipstick and makeup in general.”
In any fight, there will be people who champion for you. It’s important that the majority champions the causes of women, people of color, and those unlike them.
Makeup is also an art; makeup artists break through normal conventions of beauty all the time and start hard-to-have-conversations about race and gender fluidity with daring looks they create. There are even studies that claim makeup application can be therapeutic and calm down anxiety. If makeup helps boost your confidence and makes you feel good, that isn’t a bad thing; if something makes you feel good on the inside, it will always show on the outside.
“Makeup [can] give you that confidence. So when someone tells you that lipstick is feminine, or doing your lashes and watching these contour tutorials are frivolous, challenge them and say: No this is the new way X-Men are created. This is X-Women,” he says.
But what does Sir John, a man, know about feminism and our struggle? He grew up with a single mom, so women’s issues are very important to him. And he recognizes the importance of adding a voice to the movement. "In any fight, there will be people who champion for you," he says. "It’s important that the majority champions the causes of women, people of color, and those unlike them."
It isn’t about going barefaced when you go out so that you go against the norm or perfecting a smoky eye right before an interview because an article told you that will help you get the job; it’s about changing the way we talk about beauty in general. We’re not telling women to look a certain way or telling women they have to get a certain procedure or treatment done if they want to be seen as beautiful. We should be presenting women with all the options out there so that they can define beauty how they want to define it. Makeup, when used the right way, is used to highlight the features that are unique to you and make those features beautiful.
“The new feminist is a woman who is in complete charge of who she is. She knows how to give herself individual lashes and how to contour very quickly, but still wants to know what’s happening on CNN. She is very tuned into Byrdie and what Maxine Waters said last week—the two aren’t mutually exclusive anymore," he says. "These women know they can have it all—be in charge of [their] look [without sacrificing their] opinion, causes, or what [they] want to fight for.”
There’s a saying that goes that women don’t dress for men; they dress for other women. So let’s take back the notion that wearing makeup is used to impress men or live up to the impossible standards of beauty set by the misogynists out there. Let’s use makeup to empower each other and show the world just how powerful we are.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.