I have a love-hate relationship with makeup. These days it’s more hate than love, but the dichotomy is there. On the one hand, I know that it’s completely unnecessary. Nobody needs it; it’s just stuff you put on your face, and a lot of it is stuff invented by the beauty industry to correct flaws you didn’t even know you had (read: flaws they also invented). The beauty industry is so successful, at least in part, because it is fantastic at making women feel insecure about their natural states, and then offering the perfect (and expensive!) solutions to all their problems. Which kinda sucks when you think about it, right?
But at the same time, I love makeup. One of my favourite parts of any night out is getting to take a long time putting on my makeup, dolling up so that I feel really freaking good about myself. Even on an average day, if I’m feeling tired or my skin’s looking a bit rough, putting on a bit of foundation and concealer can make me feel so much more confident when I go out into the world. Also, I’m a creative soul and makeup is an art, and so I really love experimenting with all the different ways it can change my face and I’ll take any opportunity I can to hone my skills a little more.
I haven’t always worn makeup. Apart from an embarrassing period during my early teen years when I was obsessed with heavy kohl, I didn’t wear makeup at all until I was around 17 years old, when I first got my makeup done at the Mac counter. Up until then I didn’t have an appreciation of how skilled makeup artistry could actually be. The Mac session took a full hour, and as the makeup artist explained to me every product she was using and what it did, I remember thinking ‘this is just like painting a picture, but on my face’.
That was my first time wearing a full face of makeup. Prior to that I had always been critical of makeup and the makeup industry, believing it to be unnecessary and a waste of time. Throughout most of my teenage years I was also weirdly uncomfortable with femininity – not in an I-wish-I-were-a-man way, but looking back I realised it had a lot to do with the fact that I equated femininity with stupidity. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘girly’ because to me, girly pursuits weren’t valuable – a classic case of internalized sexism (even today, society needs to devalue stereotypically ‘feminine’ pursuits, such as fashion and makeup artistry, due to their inherent association with the female gender). But my visit to the Mac counter shone a different light on the world of makeup for me. I realised it was something I could very well be interested in, and throughout my last year of high school I began experimenting more and more with makeup.
When I went away to university I became increasingly comfortable with this side of myself. It helped that I was living in a hall with 300 other people, a lot of whom were girls and a lot of whom were very good at the makeups. I realised that I could wear makeup, and be proud of that, and still not lose anything of who I was. I could be Beth and I could be feminine, and there was actually nothing wrong with the latter at all. Now I’m 21 and to me, makeup is empowering. It’s a tool I can use to alter my appearance until I feel satisfied and comfortable. Obviously I appreciate it when other people notice the hard work I’ve put in, but makeup is primarily something I do for me, and not for anyone else. It’s something I enjoy, and I’m finally comfortable with admitting that.
So that’s my story. But the world of makeup is a lot bigger than one girl trying to figure out why she likes it/if that’s okay/what it means in terms of her identity. I want to dig a bit deeper than ‘I like mascara cos it makes my eyelashes all big and pretty‘ and examine three questions which will hopefully lead to some understanding of what makeup means beyond the physical. Because if two years of media studies has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always something going on under the surface of things, and that something is often more complex than can be summed up in a 2000-word blog post, but I’m going to take my best run at it anyway.
What is makeup?
As you may or may not be aware, humans have been enhancing their natural features since time immemorial. In the ancient civilization of Sumer, people used crushed gemstones to add colour to their lips and eyes; at around 5000 years ago, this is one of the earliest known uses of lipstick. The practise of applying pigmentation to the skin predates even this example, however, perhaps by thousands of years. There are some who believe, according to Wikipedia, that “cosmetic body art was the earliest form of ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago from the African Middle Stone Age“.
Men and women in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome all used cosmetics; for example, ancient Egyptians are well-known for their use of kohl to line their eyes. Pale skin was highly valued during the European Middle Ages, due to its association with status. Poorer classes tended to have darker, weathered skin due to outdoor labour, whereas the higher classes had plenty of leisure time to spend inside, and remained white as a result. Both men and women sought after pale skin, with some using white lead paint – which is actually poisonous, l0l – to achieve this aesthetic. Elizabeth I of England (who, incidentally, is one of my faves) was known to use this technique. Not that she needed it to appear classier, cos she was the freaking queen.
The makeup industry as we know it today has only been around for about 100 years. Some of the biggest names in the makeup industry, such as Chanel, L’Oréal and Elizabeth Arden, were founded in the late 1900s and early 1910s. The use of makeup was popularized by the Hollywood entertainment industry in the 1920s; prior to this, wearing a lot of makeup was generally considered promiscuous and inappropriate. Since the end of World War II, the makeup industry has been growing and growing, and in modern Western societies many women tend to wear makeup regularly, if not on an everyday basis.
If you’re interested in the history of makeup, this Buzzfeed video visits some popular makeup trends throughout history. I’m a history major as well as an amateur makeup enthusiast, so I love it.
So basically what we’ve learned from this is that makeup is just stuff people use to alter their facial appearance. The notion of “beauty” is one that is constantly changing; as such, popular makeup products and techniques can look completely different in as little as one decade (and it’s important to remember that “beauty” and these beauty standards are entirely subjective). Cut Video has a series of videos called 100 Years of Beauty, which I love and which illustrates this perfectly. You can watch the first one below; I highly recommend checking the rest of them out here.
Is makeup dishonest?
This is an opinion thing more than anything else. There are many people who would emphatically argue that yes, if you wear makeup you’re lying! And it’s not hard, when you look at what makeup can do, to see why they might feel “duped” by someone who wears a lot of makeup all the time. For example, here’s some side-by-side pictures of me with no makeup [on left] and a buttonne of makeup [on right].
These two images look pretty different. However, they don’t look so different that you can’t tell it’s the same person in both of them. So in a sense you could say that makeup is dishonest, in that it’s altering your appearance. Products such as concealer and foundation can be used to hide blemishes, red patches and dark under-eye circles; bronzer to accentuate cheekbones and give the illusion of a more hollowed-out face, and mascara and eyeliner to make the eyes appear bigger. But we know all that. Even if you have little experience with makeup, generally you can tell when someone’s wearing it. You might know what they look like without makeup, you might not. But how much does it really matter?
I’d like you to consider this video by beauty blogger Em Ford, who runs the YouTube channel My Pale Skin.
We live in a world where people with acne, especially severe acne, are considered “ugly”, “gross”, “dirty” and so on. Kids and teenagers are often teased and bullied about their skin, and develop self-esteem issues which persist well into adulthood. We’re bombarded with images of beauty in the media, and that ideal is of perfectly smooth, clear skin. Em Ford is a talented individual who has figured out how to conceal her acne with makeup. She doesn’t need to – she does it because she wants to, and because maybe it helps her find the confidence she needs to face the harsh and judgemental side of modern everyday life.
However, Ford’s video showed that the cruel comments on her pictures didn’t stop once she’d put on makeup. Comments such as “this is false advertising” and “trust no fucking bitch with makeup” reveal that, as a modern woman faced with the choice of do I wear makeup?, it’s very much a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So you know what? Screw it. Makeup is a form of self-expression, the same as clothing, jewellery and hairstyles. It’s a personal choice, and anyone who wants to criticize someone for wearing makeup can fuck right off. Do what you want, wear what you want and have fun with it. It is my opinion that makeup is neither inherently honest nor dishonest – it’s just something we do to our appearance, to express who we are and to negotiate the entirely unreasonable standards of beauty our society seems to uphold.
Is makeup a gendered experience?
The short answer is that yes, it is, but it hasn’t always been this way. Historically, both men and women have worn cosmetics to enhance their appearances in different cultures around the world. Makeup’s association with femininity is, as far as I am aware, a relatively recent one. For girls, this means a whole lot of things – pressure to live up to the aforementioned crazy beauty ideals, an expectation to wear it and simultaneous judgement that can occur (like, “she wears too much makeup, what a slut”), and dropping a whole lot of dollars on the many and varied expensive products they’re supposed to put on their faces just to get the “natural look”.
Men don’t get away scot-free either. For the males of the Western world, it means they’re expected not to wear it, and it’s problematic if they do – because anything feminine is shameful and doesn’t have any value or place in the world of men. This construction of femininity as inherently less valuable, which I mentioned earlier on, leads to men believing they can’t do anything which others would perceive as feminine, lest their manliness come under question from their peers, especially those whose respect they want to keep or earn.
For more on the sexism surrounding makeup, I’d recommend watching the following video by YouTuber and sex educator Laci Green.
To wrap things up, I feel like I personally am coming to a really cool place in terms of my interest in makeup and my understanding of what makeup means to me and to society at large (because it all comes back to that big s-word, amirite?). I used to be kind of ashamed of the fact that I liked makeup so much. I used to think that makeup was sexist and dumb, but I’m glad to say that I now know that it’s actually neither of those things! I still get kinda blushy when anyone sees that I’ve been watching a million different beauty gurus on my YouTube history, but I’m trying to train myself out of referring to that as my “guilty pleasure” because what they do is really cool and takes a lot of skill and practise, and I don’t wanna feel ashamed about enjoying that.
I think it’s really cool that I now have an understanding of why I had (have? I’m still figuring things out here, let’s be real) that love-hate relationship with the world of makeup. I think it’s really cool that now I get to embrace my love of makeup and am no longer afraid of expressing it. I think that doing my makeup is empowering – I get to control how I look, and I think that’s pretty cool. It’s a form of self-expression and a form of self-care. The way I see it, if no-one gets hurt and you still get all your shit done, there’s no harm in spending twenty extra minutes in front of the mirror everyday putting on your makeup. If it makes you feel good about yourself, if it makes you feel like you’re taking care of yourself, then why not? Importantly, I wear makeup for my own enjoyment, not for anyone else’s.
You can wear makeup. You can not wear makeup. Regardless of who you are, how you identify, or what you’ve got going on downstairs, you should feel free to explore makeup in any way you want. It’s not lame. It’s fucking awesome. It’s an art.