My sister, 23, wears makeup to work or dates sometimes. She first started learning how to do makeup through youtube videos, and started investing more on makeup products when she turned 20. Out of curiosity, I asked her one day, “Why do you want to wear makeup? Isn’t it troublesome?”
“No, I can do it quite fast these days! And if it makes you feel good, and feel more confident, why not?”
That’s definitely not the first time I’m hearing a statement like that. I’ve heard it from female friends who start using makeup for the very first time, and somehow found a need to justify their switch. I’ve heard it from Youtubers who are directly implicated in the process of transmitting knowledge about makeup as a part of their career. Instead of “Why do you put on makeup?”, the question has evolved into, “How do you put on makeup more skilfully, more quickly?”, as though women’s desire and need to put on make up should be taken for granted.
So I can’t help but notice the irony when these females, who are strong and successful in their careers, the people who advocate that ‘Women can be whoever they want to be’, are the same people who conform to societal’s norms of beauty through makeup, and more strikingly, teach other women how to do so through makeup tutorials or advice.
Again, and again, the implicit message tells us that makeup empowers women. It makes women beautiful, even if they
are think they are not. It lends support to the age old saying that ‘There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.’
Apart from the fact that putting on makeup essentially conforms to society’s ideals of beauty, there are two other reasons why I don’t buy the idea that makeup empowers women. The first one is deceivingly practical. I think putting on makeup is a waste of time, because the time could have been dedicated to my personal growth instead. When my mother or sister asks me why I don’t put on makeup to university or events, I always brush it aside with “Ah, takes up too much time!”. It’s a lovely way to evade the question, really.
But, what they didn’t realise was that I didn’t say that lightly. A sociologist, Susie Orbach, argues that said that an overemphasis on a women’s body size and shape distracts women from achieving higher positions in society. I find that statement resoundingly true, and often understated. From the time females choose to put on makeup, and buy into the idea that their appearances are not good enough as they are, what they invest in is not just the time taken to put on makeup, but also the time spent on using makeup as erroneous solutions to issues arising primarily from low self-esteem.
For instance, a female who had a bad day at work may spend the time wondering if she messed up because she is not beautiful enough. She might try resolving issues by putting on more makeup. Or perhaps, she didn’t think makeup will solve her issues. She simply thought that makeup would make her feel better about herself. All these thoughts emerge because women have been constantly exposed to the idea that when we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, all we need to do is to make changes to our bodies or our faces.
At this point, I want to highlight that this does not necessarily mean that females who do not put on make up have a higher self-esteem than females who do. What I do not agree with is the idea that make up can lead to higher self-esteem amongst women. Makeup can at best be a make-shift measure, but can never truly make a woman feel more confident about herself.
Secondly, I don’t think makeup can empower women because makeup not only reminds women of societal’s ideals of beauty, but routinises it. We’ve all heard of the word ‘makeup routine’. Makeup, something you put on your face, has a direct impact on a female’s body and by extension her identity. When makeup becomes a daily ritual that is performed everyday, it’s not surprising that women purport feeling ‘naked’ when they don’t put on makeup. When makeup has already become a part and parcel of a woman’s life, norms of beauty are naturalised, so much so that they don’t even realise that they are reinforcing gender norms. Well-meaning Youtubers and friends provide advice on makeup, but fail to recognise that in the process of fulfilling their individual preferences, gender inequality is unintentionally reproduced. In Charles Tilly’s words, “The continuity of inequality is a practical accomplishment of everyday life.”
Thus, I reject the idea that makeup empowers women. On the contrary, I would argue that it is not wearing makeup that is a political act. Just recently, Alicia Keys stopped wearing makeup and for a celebrity, that is a powerful statement to make. Regardless of some online comments about how she can afford to do so because her skin is naturally flawless or whatnot, I resonate with her message and am happy because whenever someone asks me to put on makeup, I can now retort with, “But even Alicia Keys doesn’t wear makeup!”
But having mentioned my stance about makeup, I won’t deny that when it comes down to my personal life, I’m not always sure if I can live up to and act according to my beliefs. This is because, I have a hunch that in theory, everyone loves a misfit, but in reality, nobody wants to be with one.
In my previous relationship, my partner asked me on several occasions why I wouldn’t put on perfume, or carry more mature feminine handbags. I have heard a friend telling me that she ‘wants to buy denim skirts because her partner likes to see her wear it’. I have another friend who ‘puts down her fringe because her partner doesn’t like her putting up her fringe’. I have yet another friend who ‘wants to buy a shirt in green, because her partner likes seeing her wear green’.
All these are not directly related to makeup per se, but there is a common thread here. As a partner, I cannot help sticking to my principles, without feeling a certain sense of guilt. This is especially so when a partner’s demands appear so achievable. As my friend said, “If it only takes me a little change to make him happy, I don’t mind doing that.” But to what extent can we compromise without having these seemingly little changes accumulate and ultimately changing who we are as a person? That is a fine balance I find hard to strike.
Now that I’m single again, I also weirdly think about my appearances more than I had when I was in a relationship. I catch myself asking myself questions such as “Should I throw on some makeup? Should I do up my eyebrows? Should I put on braces and straighten my teeth?” more times than I’m proud of. There is a faint but unmistakeable sense of anxiety that I can never be attractive enough to be desired again if I do not make an effort to change my appearances.
The reason for that anxiety has something to do with age as well. Putting on makeup seems to be an unspoken rite of passage for women, a marker that a girl has finally learnt ‘what it means to be a woman’. I feel it most strongly when my mother exclaims in frustration, “你会不会做女人的！” (Do you know how to be a woman?!), often in the context of me forgetting to put on the skincare products she bought (again). I scroll through photos of seniors on facebook and instagram, people I look up to, people whose lives are those I aspire to lead, see them with their perfect makeup and think to myself, “Maybe it’s time for me to grow up – put on some makeup, buy some new clothes?”
All these prove to me again and again that gender is “done”, and choosing how to “do it” day by day is not a simple task, especially when the options don’t seem to be that aplenty in the first place. But nevertheless, when I catch myself wanting to change my appearances for any reason at all, I remind myself with one of the most famous quotes by Roald Dahl.
So when my mother complains about the condition of my sister’s face, and my sister turns to ask me, “Is my face really that bad??”, I always say, “Your face is fine. You are already very very pretty.”