There’s been a little flurry of discussion in the last few weeks on the “makeup-free” and “natural beauty” movements – my blogging hero Autumn Whitefield-Madrano from The Beheld was over at HuffPost Live sharing some insightful thoughts on the matter, and my journalism hero Clementine Ford has been talking about the same issue over at Daily Life. I’m not really sure what’s really blown it up on this particular occassion, but it’s been an ongoing discussion in lots of feminist circles for a really, really long time now.
If you’ve not heard of these movements before, they’re mostly based around the idea that women are more beautiful (or just as beautiful) without makeup, and that wearing makeup is a shackle imposed on us by a patriarchal society obsessed with female beauty. I don’t think they’re wrong, exactly, but I also have some serious reservations about the movement in general. After coming across a campaign attempting to raise funds for The Butterfly Foundation (who do excellent work supporting people recovering from eating disorders) by getting women to collect sponsorship for going without makeup for a day, I decided to jot down some of my rather complicated feelings about quite a complicated subject. I have a great deal of respect for The Butterfly Foundation and the work they do, but I just can’t get behind this campaign and I wanted to explain why.
Let’s start with the fact I think any situation in which a woman, or anyone for that matter, is REQUIRED to wear makeup outside of a photography studio or a film set is bullshit. Hell, even in front of a camera I think it shouldn’t be a set in stone requirement. The observation that seeing anyone in a media setting, or even on the street without any makeup on at all is unusual FREAKS ME OUT. I honestly wonder if one day we’ll all forget what people actually look like. We’re certainly rapidly forgetting what pores look like, at any rate.
(As a small side note, what the HELL is with the beauty industry’s obsession with pores? I honestly don’t understand. It seems like such a bizarre, minute thing to focus SO MUCH energy on. I don’t, and will never care about my pores)
As much as makeup being a requirement bothers me, it is unfortunately a very common occurrence. There are whole industries like PR, real estate, and retail where women are expected to wear a certain level of makeup at all times. Just try to remember the last time you saw a woman working in a department store, or hell, even a pharmacy, without any makeup on AT ALL. These are instances in which makeup is a shackle being imposed on female employees. The male employees don’t have to wear makeup, but the women do, and that means more of their earnings have to spent on it, and more of their time spent applying it. And just to add a real kick in the guts, women are often getting paid less to do the same job. IT’S BULLSHIT.
But does this mean I think makeup itself is bullshit? Absolutely not. For some people it’s always a shackle, an inconvenience, an imposition. But for me, it can sometimes be a valuable coping mechanism.
A psych once described one of the symptoms of BPD as being “emotionally skinless”, meaning that my emotions react to stimuli the same way a person without skin would react to being touched. Things that don’t bother people with emotional skin bother me, take effort to ignore, exhaust me in high enough doses. Being out of the house, around people, being observed by them, even if I’m not interacting with them, causes emotional friction for me. One of my main challenges with holding down a full time job is not the actual work, but the emotional friction it involves ON TOP of the work load. Sometimes the friction gets too great, and I just can’t deal for a while. This is why I try not to beat myself up too much if I need a mental health day here and there to just stay in my pyjamas all day. I imagine how “normal” people would cope with a full time job if they had a constant itching, or a slight burning on their skin ALL THE TIME, and I realise I’m actually not doing so bad.
Wearing makeup to work is part of how I deal with this emotional skinlessness. It allows me to hide, and create an image for people to observe instead of observing me. Not only does makeup form a physical barrier between my skin and the outside world, it forms an emotional barrier too. Remarks that might otherwise make me sad can literally bounce off the makeup – if someone doesn’t like the way I look that day, I can just blame the makeup. It’s not that I’m ugly, it’s that I put too much/not enough makeup on, my eyeshadow is sitting weirdly, maybe that person just doesn’t like the colour. Whatever. I can allow things to wash over me much more easily when I’m hiding inside a skin of cosmetics. However, it’s not a requirement for me to leave the house – it’s a tool that I sometimes use, nothing more.
However, I’m aware I view makeup in this positive way almost entirely because I have a choice about it. There’s nothing comforting about a forced shell, and the one job I’ve had where I was required to wear makeup I LOATHED it. Now I have a choice again, and it’s wonderful.
Part of this choice comes from the kind of people I hang out with – my friends are almost entirely freaks, geeks, and outcasts of one form or another, who aren’t particularly big on judging a book by it’s cover. There are also a great many of them who don’t fit societal ideals of beauty, and so it doesn’t really have much currency in the circles I run in.
Another huge chunk of what makes makeup a choice for me is the place I work in – having a full time job means I’m at work for two thirds of my waking week, and it’s certainly the place I spend the most time outside my home, so the kind of place I work has a big impact on whether I view makeup as a choice or not. I’m lucky enough to work somewhere I can adjust my makeup however I feel, or not bother at all. On days where I feel like creating a loud, attention getting image, I can put on tons of bright colours and do just that. On days where I need to fade into the background, or when I just couldn’t be bothered, I can show up with no makeup on at all. I’ve done this a couple of times now, because I have a pathological need to test boundaries, and only one person ever made any comment about it – all she said was, “You look a bit tired.” Which is, well, a little upsetting, but hardly the end of the world.
It’s not just my workplace that affords me this freedom though – I also have what one friend describes as “clear skin privilege”. There isn’t really a huge visible difference in my skin with or without foundation, or BB cream, or whatever. I get blackheads sometimes, but I can’t remember my last big honking pimple. My eyes are certainly highlighted by careful eyeshadow application, but they’re not invisible without. I have the beginnings of a teeny tiny blonde mustache on my upper lip, but it’s not particularly noticeable to anyone but me. I have a few little crinkles, but no hugely visible wrinkles (yet). I look okay without makeup. Not as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but not totally societally unacceptable either.
One of my major bugbears with most “makeup free” and “natural beauty” campaigns is that they’re very often fronted by people with even more “clear skin privilege” than me. “Natural beauty” is far from a level playing field, because some people are far more “naturally” beautiful than others. Demi Lovato, and all the other celebrities who’ve joined the bandwagon, are not fucking heroes for publishing a photo of themselves without makeup on, because it’s highly unlikely they are actually going to cop any significant amount of negative feedback for it. This is not to say that they’re not going to get the odd troll jumping in a making unwanted comments – but compared to the amount of flack someone with a skin condition like activist Carly Findlay faces for just walking around? It’s nothing.
To me, bravery requires facing a significant risk of negative consequences, but doing something anyway, and that just doesn’t apply to people like Megan Gale taking off their makeup. And hey, you know what? It doesn’t really apply to me either. I’ve put up pictures here of me without makeup before, and you know what feedback I received? Nada. Which means should I do it again, I couldn’t call that bravery, and I certainly couldn’t ask people to sponsor me for it. I don’t even feel like not wearing makeup in public really contributes much to the encouragement of other women to not feel pressured into wearing makeup, because most of the time the people around me don’t actually really notice the difference.
It makes me sad that other women can’t make the same choices I do without consequence. While I can put slap on, or take it off, with no real consequences either way, some women do live in a situation where there ARE very real consequences. Some women have physical features that are considered to be so aesthetically unpleasant that the people around them expect them to cover them up at all times. Some women work jobs where they will actually be fired for not wearing a specific number of products on their faces at all times when at work. A lot more women simply live in an environment where wearing makeup is an unspoken expectation, a requirement of being a woman in public. The very fact that people are able to gather sponsorship money for being “dared” to take it off just highlights how totally immutable this expectation is in certain parts of society. If it wasn’t a big deal to take your makeup off, then there’s no way someone would give you money to do so. But it is, and they are. I mean, it’s going to a good cause and all, but the whole thing still makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Just to add insult to all these injuries, the fact these celebrity figureheads of the makeup free movement look amazing without makeup also emphasizes the feeling of failure for women without their fantastic bone structure and genetics. Not only are we now supposed to look amazing WITH makeup on, we’re aspiring to look like Megan Gale without it as well? Now there is an unattainable beauty standard. It means the beauty industry doesn’t have to content itself with selling us stuff to cover up our imperfect features – they can sell us a whole OTHER set of things to make sure we look perfect WITHOUT the first set of products too! Wahoo!
And finally, these campaigns also all revolve around the idea that women should aspire to being beautiful at all times. “You’re beautiful EVEN without makeup!” they tell us. Can I be clever, resourceful, or funny instead? Sometimes, I just don’t fucking feel like presenting myself in a way that society finds beautiful. Sometimes I get a great deal of satisfaction out of knowing that someone finds me beautiful, but feeling expected to attempt to be as beautiful as possible ALL THE TIME is no fun at all. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Sometimes I feel like looking weird, unusual, or even confronting – which more or less explains my insistence of wearing too much eyeliner and spiked collars for most of my 20’s. Sometimes I want to look like an exaggerated caricature of femme, which is why I way too much time watching drag makeup tutorials and trying to get up the courage to try them. Sometimes I want to forget I’m trapped in this meat sack at all – I just don’t even want to be aware of it. Sometimes I just feel like being plain ugly, because fuck it. I was really amused by Clementine Ford’s suggestion that the internet needs more deliberately ugly selfies, and I’m inclined to agree.
When it gets down to it, trying to be beautiful, trying to be attractive, being looked at all the time, being AWARE of being looked at all the time is fucking exhausting. A friend and I were discussing just yesterday how delightfully refreshing it is when you realise a stranger isn’t noticing your appearance at all – not making positive observations, not making negative ones, just flat out not noticing. It’s such a fucking relief.
Which brings me to the practical part of this whole diatribe. I don’t like crapping on something without offering an alternative, and I’ve got nothing against The Butterfly Foundation specifically – I just don’t care for the whole makeup free movement in general. I think women (well, anyone really) should be able to wear as much, or as little makeup as they want to, whenever they want to. If you want to put on a full face to have a bubble bath, fucking go for it. If you want to melt down all the cosmetics you own and never get any more, then fucking go for it too. It should be always and forever UP TO YOU.
Personally, I think the only thing that is ever going to change the attitudes pressuring women into making choices they’re not comfortable with is if the people around them can learn to shut their fucking mouths once in a while, and work on trying to disconnect the trigger in their heads that associates “aesthetically pleasing to me” with “more valuable”. That trigger is a bitch to disconnect – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make a million snap judgements walking through a crowd. But at the very least, you can try to stop it influencing important decisions.
How about we start “Give A Woman Who Is Qualified And Otherwise Neatly Presented But Didn’t Wear Makeup To The Interview A Job” Day? Okay, okay, so that’s way too long to go on a shirt. But I was thinking about why I was so totally nonplussed about pictures of me being on the internet for all to see, at my absolute worst, and something interesting occurred to me. As I said, I received absolutely zero feedback about that picture specifically. Lots of people had great things to say about the post itself, and talked about the topics I’d raised, but there wasn’t even a “How brave you are!” comment. While this bothered me a tiny bit for a minute, I realised this silence was actually the most comforting, encouraging response I could have hoped for. Me without makeup wasn’t brave, or extraordinary – it was so incredibly ordinary and normal that no one felt the need to even say anything, even something positive. And this silence is why I have no issue doing it again if it comes up.
So here’s my idea – how about we start Don’t Comment On Women’s Appearance Day? You could put a dollar in a jar every time you find yourself compelled to comment, positively or negatively, on a woman’s appearance. Just THINK of how much money we could raise. And at the same time, it would encourage everyone to have a bit of a think about just how much right they feel they have to comment on women’s appearance, be it positive or negative. It might encourage them to have have a think about how often we just go right ahead and assume that women want our feedback, will be grateful for it, when actually our opinion of what they’re wearing should hold very little weight at all.
Maybe removing external sources of feedback would also encourage women to really have a think who they are actually wearing makeup for. Without external encouragement or discouragement, all you’re left with is how the makeup actually makes you feel, and I think that’s an important thing to consider. Maybe makeup makes you feel amazing, maybe it makes you feel awful – neither is right or wrong, but I think it’s important to put some thought into these sorts of practices. Really consider your motivations, you know? It might not change the way you do anything, but I think it’s important to at least nut out the reasons behind your actions.
It might also encourage women to think about how much stock they put in the comments of others, and consider whether it’s really worth trying to please other people all the time. The equation is likely to be different for everyone – for some people gaining a useful level of approval for their appearance from the people around them is very easy, and for others it’s very difficult. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deriving self esteem from feeling attractive, but I do think it’s an idea that everyone should at least roll around in their brain a bit, take a good look at it, and consider just how much they’re really getting out for what they put in.
Maybe this sort of campaign would be a huge clusterfuck. It’s probably far too philosophically tangled to ever get off the ground. And it’s not something I would want every day – some days I really fucking love feeling beautiful, and it makes me really truly happy to feel pretty. But I think it could, at the very least, stir up some more interesting commentary. So if anyone wants to make that happen, please go right ahead. Meanwhile, I’m going to be making a donation to The Butterfly Foundation instead of taking part in their makeup free day, and if you can afford it, it would be neat if you did too.
What do you think of the makeup free movement? Would you like to post a deliberately ugly selfie?
This post originally appeared here and has been republished with full credit.