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feminist beauty

Are beauty practices liberating or oppressive?

Still branded as a typically feminine activity, the beauty industry is heavily branded towards women, whilst often rejected by (cis) heterosexual men. Indeed, some feminists consider modern beauty standards as nothing but another projection of patriarchal, heteronormative values, trapping women into an ever-unreachable and suffocating feminine ideal. Though not all feminists agree, with ‘liberal feminists’ and ‘choice feminists’ believing that it can be liberating for women to engage in beauty practices; that it is ultimately their choice to do so and we must remove the misogynistic associations with wearing makeup. Both arguments have valid points, and if you’re like me, you are somewhere slap bang in the middle of the debate. Makeup and beauty practices are a form of identity expression – of free will. Yet at the same time, we cannot deny that its expression is without doubt influenced by the male gaze. Let’s untangle the debate together.

Liberal feminists argue that engaging in beauty practices is a choice. This idea is associated with choice feminism, which argues that the individual decisions women make are inherently feminist because they are made by women themselves and not men. In wearing makeup, for example, women may decide to wear an orange eyeshadow simply because they would like an orange colour on their eye. Or a woman may contour her nose as she prefers it to look slim. Whether a woman chooses to wear just one product or wear a full face of makeup, the act of doing so is an act of free will and therefore empowering. The same idea follows when having plastic surgery, where women can decide if they wish to have lip fillers because it is their decision to do so. For these feminists, women may not feel as though they are necessarily catering to the male gaze, but instead are associating their decision with power and self-agency.  

Kim Kardashian's Contouring Tricks | POPSUGAR Beauty
Kim Kardashian using a nose contour technique.

Another argument is that makeup can be worn by all genders and not just cisgender women. It is true that men and non-binary people too engage in wearing makeup and have plastic surgery (not including gender-affirming surgery). At the same time, it is not only heterosexual women who wear makeup, with much of the  LGBTQ+ community doing so too. As such, beauty products aren’t always used for the approval or perception of other men.

So yes, women wear makeup as a tool for creative freedom. Makeup does not necessarily need to be worn for ‘attractive’ purposes, and people like to have fun with wearing it. Hey, they’re called makeup artists for a reason – makeup is a form of art to many people. There are multiple reasons for wearing makeup, and it may not be for beauty standards at all. 

But we cannot ignore that patriarchal and capitalist values infiltrate the beauty industry to oppress women. Marxist feminists have pointed out how women are exploited economically by the high-profiting beauty world, whilst intersectional feminists highlight the ways in which certain demographics are excluded or disproportionately affected by the industry.  

It is also true that beauty standards have been and continue to be sold to women as a way of catering to the male gaze, where what is considered to be beauty has been historically shaped by what heterosexual (white) men have desired. Shocker. Social media certainly hasn’t helped, with young girls growing up idealising insta-gurus whose bodies are only attainable after plastic surgery or photoshop. Though of course, it is not a bad thing for women to want to change their bodies, we must ask ourselves where the idea of an ideal feminine standard comes from.

Women may perceive wearing lipstick as simply wearing lipstick because they want to, however, it is impossible to ignore the production of why that makeup was sold, how it was marketed, and why it was worn by countless other women. Yes, someone may want to have red lips for the day, but ultimately the ownership of makeup relates to the billion-pound industry which focuses on marketing women’s insecurities to them, with the premise of ‘looking good’ being a selling point.  

Yes, there's such a thing as a 'female gaze.' But it's not what you think.  | by Stefani Forster | Truly. | Medium
Megan Fox in the film ‘Transformers’ as an example of the male gaze.

It all comes back to the male gaze; the act of women being viewed from men’s perspective, and consequently being sexualised and objectified. With makeup and beauty being sold to women to make them more ideally ‘feminine’, or more ‘attractive’, the standards of this are rooted in patriarchal ideas of beauty. Indeed, this also highlights how trans-women wearing makeup can be a way of securing their femininity as a way of surviving as a woman.

When makeup is so rooted in achieving a ‘beautiful’ look, we cannot act as though it is not born from female oppression – what is beautiful, and who is it determined by? The same idea exists for plastic surgery – without the social standards of it would women attempt to change their appearance? 

While women have the choice to engage in beauty practices or not, we cannot ignore the Western Eurocentric standards reflected in beauty standards. We cannot ignore how women of colour are told to look a certain way and then for characteristics they have been stereotyped to be adopted by white women for a ‘trend,’ or that they are consistently excluded from the white-washed industry. Some may simply see excessive lip fillers as ‘just’ being lip fillers, whereas others have resorted to the practice having experienced racism for their looks.  Brands are quite literally making money out of women by selling a desired body/face for a certain time until another one comes along – often bringing with it risky plastic surgery procedures and more economic costs for women.

But wearing makeup can be a creative force for women to express themselves, which leaves us with the dilemma; how do we engage in beauty practices without subscribing to our own oppression?. With makeup-wearing going back centuries across many cultures, sometimes practices are not always focused on social standards but can simply be done for fun. Perhaps our task is more about challenging the existing expectations of beauty standards rather than rejecting it altogether. As a woman who wears makeup, it is difficult to settle on one focus. Not everything that we do as women has to be a stick-it-to-the-patriarchy; let’s face it, it’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want a red lip, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So yes, we must acknowledge the destructive reality of the beauty world on women and how living within the male gaze is an aspect of patriarchal oppression, but we must also acknowledge how some beauty practices can be associated with creative freedom. Above all, we must support and uplift other women in their choices. Your body, your choice.

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