Tirade about makeup

Over two decades later, my mom still tells people the story of how I told her (this was back when I was a wee child) she wasn’t a “real woman” like her sister because my mom didn’t wear makeup or paint her nails. My mom has a habit of rubbing in my face stuff I said when I was younger that I no longer believe. But back then I fell for society’s message that gets hammered into both little boys and little girls: real women wear makeup.

Well, it didn’t take me very long to grow to detest makeup, especially as I embraced feminism and even more so after reading Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity. What surprised me, though, was how many women (even feminists) seemed to like makeup—not just tolerate it or indulge in it every now and then as a guilty pleasure. Every woman I’ve talked to about makeup has unequivocally defended her decision to wear it (as Charlotte from Sex and the City would say, “I choose my choice. I choose my choice!”).

I remember one time I was shocked to encounter a makeup defender I thought didn’t even wear makeup. She said, “All women wear makeup. Sometimes it’s just a little bit. Sometimes you can’t tell, but all women wear it.” I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it. All women wear makeup? Of course, what she said can’t literally be true. There have to be some women who don’t wear makeup, even if they’re only three out of three billion. But I’ve generally found she’s right.

My wife is a feminist and a strong one at that, but she wears makeup, too. Sometimes she wears it. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she doesn’t wear much. Sometimes she wears a lot. I always tell her she looks better without makeup, which is true. As Harry Connick, Jr. says in “Just Kiss Me”:

Don’t worry with your lipstick. I’m going to kiss it all away. Throw away your lipstick. That’s not your color anyway. My lips are your color, so lips, stick with me.

Nevertheless, like all the other feminists I know, she still wears makeup.

I just don’t get it, on several levels. First of all, jewelry, clothes, shoes, hats, and bags are all adornment. They drape or hang. They are not plastered on you. Your face is who you are. Your face is how people identify you. How can you do that to your face? Secondly, when I’ve seen my wife without makeup, she always looks much better than when she has makeup on, and I’m sure she’s not the only one for whom this is true. Thirdly, most women put on too much makeup. If you put on so little makeup that other people can’t even tell you’re wearing makeup, maybe you’ve gotten away with it—maybe that’s the whole point of makeup, to fool people into thinking you don’t look like yourself. But for a lot of women I’ve seen, I can tell you’re wearing makeup, you’re wearing too much makeup, and not only does it not make you look more beautiful than you normally do—it makes you look terrible.

This is particularly true at events, fancy dinners and such. That’s when women who ordinarily wear so little makeup as not to be noticed (or no makeup at all, if that’s possible) will cake it on and look terrible while their friends tell them, “Oh, you look amazing!” (which I translate to mean, “You ordinarily look terrible. Good thing that makeup is all over your face to hide what you really look like,” but somehow that’s a compliment, I guess).

In my mind, makeup is designed to accentuate facial features. Thus, its ideal applications are for situations in which people will see you from far, far away (say, 50 feet away) or for situations in which you are in a photo shoot/movie set with very careful lighting and expert makeup artists. Neither of those situations is a fancy dinner party, where most people will be seeing you from two or three feet away.

Even though most of my friends are women, and I generally identify with women in most things in life, makeup is just one of those things I could never understand. And if there are any feminist women (or even non-feminist women) who don’t wear makeup, feel free to pipe up here. It’d be great to know you exist.


  1. I also find it pointless why women spend all that time getting “dolled up.” I think part of the reason they need to do cover themselves up is most people have a harsh opinion of themselves.

  2. Yup. A lot of women do wear makeup. However, I’m not one of those women. I also know quite a few women who either rarely wear makeup or don’t bother at all.

    Many of my friends who could be described as earthy or hippy in their tastes tend to wear a lot less makeup. Also, it’s not uncommon to find women in the queer community who never wear makeup.

    Makeup use is waaaaaay more common among straight women—feminist or not. It seems that the ideals surrounding beauty and attractiveness are very different in the queer women’s community. I’m thankful for that, given that I’m a lesbian and I think makeup can look pretty ridiculous if applied too heavily… and of course, I hate wearing the stuff.

  3. That’s odd that it would be more common among straight women, as most straight women I know seem to care more what their girl friends think of their appearance than what guys do. Thanks for the added perspective, though.

  4. I could see how that might be confusing.

    I’ve witnessed a far more even distribution of gender expression among queer women. I’ve seen a wide spread of women ranging from masculine to androgynous to feminine. (Try googling butch femme dichotomy.)

    That’s not to say that there isn’t a wide range of gender expression among straight women, too. However, it’s far more common to find masculine (butch) or androgynous women among the queer populace.

    Generally speaking, butch/masculine and androgynous women tend to avoid using makeup. Hence, there tends to be more queer women forgoing the use of makeup than straight women.

  5. I’m a straight woman who wears no makeup most days, and very little for special occasions (a hint of eyeliner and maybe a little powder, and very sheer lip color — as much for moisture as for color).

    Of course, down south there were plenty of straight women who thought I was a lesbian (I also don’t do the frou frou thing in my dress, though I do love funky jewelry). And I don’t mind getting dirty and sweaty in the garden. And I know how to use power tools.

    A straight woman has to be willing to go against the norm to eschew makeup…has to be willing to have her sexual orientation questioned, even. (I’ve never minded having folks think me strange…Emerson said, “A wise [wo]man lives independent of the good opinion of others.”) You’re right, though, that a lot of makeup looks horrible. Thankfully, my own kids enjoy my being different from most other mothers. It was a little awkward, though, when they were very young. Once, a saleswoman with caked-on mascara leaned down to talk to my son when we were shopping for him, and he made a comment about something being wrong with her face. Eek!

  6. I found this interesting; in the past 2 weeks, I have bought and moved into a condo in downtown St. Paul. My girlfriend, who made the move with me, was at work talking to a coworker about this, and the coworker asked whether her girlfriend was going to be living with her. Turns out if you don’t wear makeup people assume you’re lesbian, no questions asked!

  7. Thanks for your makeup tirade ubuntucat. It reminded me of a very heated discussion from my advanced feminist theory seminar last semester. Of the 14 feminists, only two consistently wore makeup. On the day we discussed makeup in relation to Sandra Lee Bartky’s arguments (“Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”) most students were very anti-makeup and saw it as self-subjugation.

    I am like your wife I guess – I wear it sometimes and sometimes I don’t. I have always loved it — probably because my mom was a makeup junkie and playing in her makeup drawer was a fave childhood activity.

    I am not anti-makeup and I think if people want to wear it, they should. I feel being anti-makeup is no better than insisting all women should wear makeup. Feminism is about choice, but conscious choice. So I think whether you wear it or don’t, you should examine why.

    I am feminist professor and admit my love for makeup/fashion — this seems to surprise students as they have a stereotype that all feminists hate makeup, etc.

    I struggle with my consumerist streaks as I wish I didn’t have them, but I find making-up (when I feel like it) enjoyable. Thus, I disagree with Bartky that one is always giving in to patriarchy if they wear makeup.

    In regards to the lesbian/makeup discussion above, are lesbians who choose to wear makeup somehow ‘less enlightened’ as are the feminists who do? I think not – bodily adornment is one of the performances of identity that we all play into (ala Butler) and insisting that others perform in certain ways is not very feminist in my book.

  8. Exactly! I’m a feminist myself, and I don’t work outside of the home. Some feminists might insist that I’m subjugating myself to a traditional gender role, but the fact is that this is the choice I prefer, for personal reasons. It’s about the freedom to choose, not a particular lifestyle (or appearance) being more “feminist” than another.

  9. Hey, even Susan Brownmiller wore make-up. It’s not a crime to wear make-up, and I’m not going to say you’re not a feminist if you wear make-up (after all, my wife is an ardent feminist, and she wears make-up).

    But one must understand that choices aren’t made in a vacuum. There are cultural forces at work. After all, do women who “choose” to lose weight to make “themselves” feel better really believe that society constantly bombarding them with messages of “You’re too fat. You need to be skinny” has nothing to do with their desire to lose weight? Funny how I rarely run into people who choose to gain weight to make themselves feel better.

    People don’t just pick up make-up out of the blue. They’re taught to wear make-up.

    I’ve written more on this subject (beyond make-up) in these posts:
    Feminism and Free Software
    Individual Choice

  10. Actually, I choose to keep lean because it’s much easier on my bones (I have arthritis) not to carry extra weight.

    (There is a world of difference, of course, between keeping ones body fat low and being “skinny.”)

  11. Thanks for your comment, honestpoet. Obviously, there are many reasons to be on the lighter side of things and also various definitions of “skinny.” I’m talking about a very particular context (and, yes, these women in question are usually already skinny to begin with… at least by my standards).

  12. I generally don’t like makeup, but I wear makeup for work. When I was a student, I almost never wore makeup except for special occasions.

    I wear makeup for work because it has some SPF protection, and I prefer my makeup to oily facial creams with SPF. I use i.d. bare Minerals makeup, but when I had the ‘regular’ kind of foundation, I used to hate it so much, even the feel of it on my face.

    I guess there isn’t really a need to wear makeup at work, as I have a techie job and people dress casually.

  13. I don’t wear makeup. I started experimenting with it when I was in my early teens, but I just never really took to it. I didn’t incorporate it into my morning routine; I wasn’t interested in buying it at the mall. It just wasn’t “me.” The only time I ever really wore makeup was to school dances. Once I graduated high school, I didn’t wear makeup again until my wedding… and then I haven’t worn it since. It’s largely not a conscious decision on my part not to wear makeup; it just isn’t something I think about very often.

    Occasionally, a person and/or society gets to me, and I start to feel really inadequate. Then I *do* have to make a conscious decision about makeup. So far, every time I’ve given thought to the matter, I’ve chosen not to wear makeup on a daily basis.

    What bothers me is that there seems to be this prevailing belief that unless a woman “accentuates her best features” with makeup and/or provocative clothing, that she doesn’t care how she looks. I *do* care about how I look; I want people to think I’m pretty; I just don’t think that I should have to wear makeup in order to accomplish that.

    I appreciate your blog entry; it was a source of encouragement for me.

  14. Thanks for weighing in, Beth. I’m glad you found my post encouraging. I think your comment definitely caught the main point of my entry. I’m not really about poo-pooing people who do wear makeup, but I do think people should have their natural beauty appreciated.

  15. All these comments seem strange to me – I’m a woman, I wear makeup only very rarely and yet no one has ever commented on it in my hearing or thought I was a lesbian because of it. Perhaps this is because I’m not from the US.
    However, I think using makeup – occasionally – is fun; like dressing up in a costume. As long as I don’t have to do it regularly, it’s something I can enjoy. I’ve never felt obligated or pressured to use it.

  16. The thing about makeup is that for a woman, it makes things a lot easier. And while I don’t wear makeup often, I understand and don’t judge the women who do. I was told I couldn’t get the job at an interview, and while I was walking out, the man who was conducting the interview told me that I might have “impressed him” more by wearing makeup. You’re called a lesbian if you don’t wear makeup. People think you don’t care about your appearance, that you’re lazy. Girls are taught from childhood that you’re not pretty unless you wear makeup. Getting your parents to let you wear makeup is seen as a rite of passage, one of those things you Must Do in order to be a grown-up.

    And, honestly, maybe some or many women who wear makeup just don’t want to deal with what happens when they take it off. And as frustrating as it gets, I can’t really blame them. I have strong convictions and random skin allergies to back me up. Why should women who don’t have these things give up their advantage, especially if they really need that job?

  17. i dislike it when a woman wears makeup or alot just to look pretty.do they think there not look pretty without it..a little is ok but i like a woman for who she is in the inside and physically.and make up only lasts one day but its her face under all it that will last for the rest of her life.i would rather to get into bed with a woman that is what i see her as,and not a clown.natural woman are best.be yourself,not someone you see on tv please!!!!

  18. I am a married, heterosexual woman who works outside of the home and very rarely wears makeup. I wear makeup for those social engagements for which I feel I *must* do so and for those work related situations in which I want to impress someone; otherwise, it’s not part of my routine. There are a few reasons for my lack of makeup:
    1.) I went to a women’s college. In the absence of men, I realized that I had only worn makeup because I had wanted to attract men. That became less important to me as time passed — not only because I secured a mate and did not want to appear attractive to the opposite sex, but also because men paid attention to me whether I wore makeup or not.
    2.) I just plain don’t like makeup. It takes a long time for me to put on. I’m color blind and I am incredibly near-sighted, so I have to get so close to the mirror that I have been known to accidentally smudge my face up against it. Maybe this is a fun process for women who can see, but for me, it’s just kind of an annoying waste of time.
    3.) Make-up is expensive! Forget the investment of time; it takes some serious dough to wear cosmetics on a daily basis. I choose to spend my moolah on things that I actually enjoy.

    All of that said, Jess is right; a stigma is applied to women who don’t wear makeup. People make assumptions. They assume any number of things from sexual orientation to mental health status to laziness. Generally, these assumptions are negative. Sometimes, they’re even true. When I do wear makeup, I do it because the social pressure to do so in those circumstances outweighs my personal dislike of makeup. Ultimately, we’re all free to choose whether or not to wear makeup, but other people are free to make assumptions based on that choice. Sometimes, I find it in my best interest to wake up early and slap some expensive gunk onto my face. Other times, I feel uncomfortable in a given situation and wish that I had worn some makeup. At its core, I don’t think the question of whether or not to wear makeup is a solely feminist one; I think it’s a personal and daily decision that depends on a woman’s goals and priorities.

  19. Queer women have a brain like straight males.
    Gay men have a brain like straight women

    That and gender stereotype and individuality explains that…

    Masculine (jaw/nose/skin/etc) looking women probably want to look as good as feminine looking women. Most men are attracted to feminine features. Masculine featured women have higher testosterone and sleep around more as well. Its all biological…trying to get the best mate imo. And sometimes feminine women do it to dress up and have fun. Which is cool.

    I would expect my wife to wear makeup on the wedding day and at other peoples weddings. Thats it.

    Makeup makes ppl treat you based on how you look rather than who you are. Same with dressing like a slut. Especially women judging women based on whether they wear it or not.

    Feminists are ok. Feminazis are evil.

  20. I briefly tried makeup but do not see the point. I personally think it is a waste of time. All the men I have personally dealt with that are straight , are always looking at other women anyway. i think straight women cater too much as it is and i think this is why men treat them like doormats. I live for myself and the people I can help along the way. I wish I could re-wire Men and Women differently because it seems to me it is a never ending viscous circle of B.S.. Like a Merry -Go- Round of the ridiculous roles. Make-up is another chore i refuse to do. Like marriage to me is a thankless chore I have watched others do in total dismay.

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