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I enjoy fashion and makeup; I’m still a feminist, right?

April 2, 2010

This post is cross-posted at Beauty Schooled, a blog whose focus is “an investigation of the price we pay for pretty.”

Before I took my first Gender studies class as an undergrad, I always had the image of stereotypical feminists with hairy armpits, a makeup-less face, and wearing no bras. I know, I know–what a faux-pas for such a staunch feminist! But as I grappled with my own definition of “feminism,” I also struggled to find a medium where I could care about my appearance as well as fight for equal rights for all. Many thoughts went through my mind during this time: Does my appearance of wearing make-up and heels coincide with “feminism”? Will I not be considered a feminist if I wear lipstick or if I like to shop for clothes?

One way to look at it–is that liking fashion and make-up may imply that you care too much about your appearance, and therefore that’s all that you care about. That’s a slippery slope to assume–but many people make it, including myself at times.

I wish that these assumptions weren’t made, because I outwardly enjoy fashion and make-up. I wrote a post last year about Lauren Luke, a Youtube-made makeup artist who believes that applying make-up should not be what TV and magazines tell you how and when to apply it, because that’s just “not normal.”

While I do not think appearances are everything, unfortunately they do matter in today’s world. I’m not talking about conforming to beauty standards (which you can read about in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth), but about how you appear in front of other people. One of my good friends in the fashion industry  (whom I frequently ask questions to her such as, “Are leggings appropriate as pants?”) reminded me that appearances, for the most part, are about confidence and how you convey about yourself to other people. If you don’t feel good about yourself and how you look, how will that affect your overall confidence?

How you feel about your body actually affects your self-confidence greatly, many studies have shown. But most of all, it’s okay to wear new fashion trends and red lipstick–because after all, it’s your body and you can wear whatever you want. That’s what I call empowering, and by empowering yourself through the kinds of clothes and makeup you choose to wear, I would say, is “feminism.”

So, whether you choose to wear bright red lipstick,

Image from drugstore.com

Alexander McQueen heels (RIP McQueen),

Image via The Frisky

or wear a sequined tank,

Image via zappos.com

and you’re an unyielding feminist like myself, go for it. The more and more I learn about feminism, I realize (that many of you probably know) that there is no one definition of feminism. My definition of feminism might be different from yours–and that’s okay. More specifically, though, in terms of fashion and beauty, as long as I’ve understood the historical and societal implications of beauty and fashion and how they’ve shaped how women are “supposed” to look, then it’s more than okay for me to wear heels.

16 Comments
  1. April 2, 2010 9:49 am

    I know that just about every female will disagree with me, but I think wearing makeup is unfeminist. Why the heck do women feel the need to

    -make holes in their ears
    -wear uncomfortable shoes
    -slather various compounds to cover up their face
    -adorn themselves with various pieces of metal & stuff
    -heap on other compounds to change the way they smell?

    Personally I think women look and smell nice the way they are.

    I think these trappings are a kind of enslavement.

    But of course that’s just me, and I’m probably the only person in the hemisphere that feels that way.

    But what the heck.

    • Laurie Luxe permalink
      April 4, 2010 5:59 am

      //I know that just about every female will disagree with me, but I think wearing makeup is unfeminist

      who are you to tell me what feminist means? I grow so tired of people judging me for wearing make-up and taking a keen interest in fashion design. I also grow tired of people defining what radical action should mean for me. If I find something empowering, then it is empowering. I don’t need a man (or even another woman) to tell me how I feel or to point out how I am being enslaved. For me, feminism is about people respecting my decisions and my choices – about understanding that I, and other women, are not helpless victims who do not understand what they are doing.

      My use of make-up/fashion/perfume/etc is not as simple as indoctrination – though I do not claim to live in a vacuum. Make-up is something I grew up around – it is something I was introduced to by the women in my family. My sister never got into make-up – she didn’t enjoy using it. Power to her. I did and I still enjoy putting on my make-up, experimenting with different looks or ideas, putting on other people’s make-up, reading about make-up, etc. For me it is an interest like any other interest I have.

      I think part of the issue here is that many people do not actually understand make-up artistry or fashion design. Firstly, These are huge fields that ultimately are not just necessarily about beauty. Women’s participation in make-up/fashion/etc is not necessarily about beauty either. I think commonly held perceptions about appearance-based-art=beauty are incredibly simplistic. You discredit the work of thousands of very talented people by assuming that make-up is about beauty. Perfumery also is a very interesting field. Why are art-forms associated with women dismissed as being frivolous, superficial, etc?

      ALSO *most* men I know use hair products, ‘adorn themselves with various pieces of metal & stuff’ and ‘heap on other compounds to change the way they smell’. Many also ‘make holes in their ears’ and I’d say a lot probably wear uncomfortable shoes from time to time. Yet you obviously don’t consider these things trappings of enslavement. When women do these things we are apparently helpless victims of the patriarchy who are torturing ourselves. When men do they are getting ready to go out. What gives?

  2. April 2, 2010 10:02 am

    Ray, I completely understand your thoughts, and I’ve had those as well. However, I think feminism is about equal rights and empowerment (which may be different from your definition, and that’s okay), and I wear makeup and pretty clothes because I choose to. Not because society or culture says I should or need to. I don’t feel trapped at all.

  3. April 2, 2010 10:10 am

    Emily, I also think feminism is about equal rights and empowerment.

    And obviously wearing makeup does not disqualify one as a feminist.

    But let’s remember that human beings are highly complex creatures who have been subjected to enormous degrees of indoctrination from an early age, so that the question of whether we are “choosing” to do something becomes quite problematic.

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      April 2, 2010 10:28 am

      While, in the over-arching scheme of things I agree with Emily–the right to choose is a key component of feminism–Ray is right about indoctrination and the notion of choice being problematic. I have become more and more comfortable with how I choose to present myself, but I cannot deny the fact that I am being both subconsciously and consciously influenced by contemporary culture when I make my decisions. I, personally, almost never wear heels, but I cannot leave the house without at least a little make-up on and my hair-styled. I find that it because very difficult to define what I do because I want to and what I do because of cultural expectations, but that’s just me!

      • April 2, 2010 11:29 am

        Yes, choice can be a problematic concept, but it’s funny how much quicker we are to realise that when it comes to actions done mostly be women, isn’t it? I mean, why the heck do people feel the need to drive cars and pay all that money into maintaining and insuring them? Haven’t people been indoctrinated since birth to believe that’s better than taking the bus? So isn’t saying people choose to drive wrong? I can’t help but suspect that the reason we’re quicker to recognise that “choice” isn’t the whole story when talking about actions performed primarily by women has something to do with the traditional denial of agency and subjecthood to women.

        The other problem with an approach like Ray’s is that it is prescriptive and assumes that what is empowering will be the same for everyone. I wear heels when giving presentations, for example, so that I can be seen over the podium. Maybe they’re not the most comfortable shoes in the world, but for that purpose, they are empowering.

      • Roxanne Samer permalink*
        April 2, 2010 2:46 pm

        Elizabeth, I completely agree with you! There are comparable choices that men make every day as well as each of us, regardless of gender, including whether to drive a car or ride a bus (which has serious political implications today too). We are indoctrinated into our lifestyle choices in a variety of arenas. I was just raising the question as to whether we can really know, for certain, whether our choices are completely our own or results (partially at least) of cultural indoctrination. While it’s fair to say that we choose consciously to wear make-up or heals on certain occasions, because we want to and/or have valid reason, I think it’s also smart to admit to the influence of peer pressure and mass culture. I also don’t think that admitting this “weakness” makes one any less feminist, just as openly enjoying make-up and fashion doesn’t either.

  4. April 2, 2010 10:23 am

    Men have to engage in certain behaviors to attract mates too. Behaviors that may go against their native temperament may secure more attractive mates. Everybody’s got to make a choice. As long as women CAN achieve what men achieve, I’m OK. I’d just really rather focus on childcare and flexible work. Nursing my babies had far more impact on my sense of self as a woman than any face pigments….

  5. April 2, 2010 10:56 am

    Well I didn’t get lambasted the way I’d expected to be. Whew.

  6. nai permalink
    April 2, 2010 12:11 pm

    let me ask this: would not observing lenten fast automatically exempt one from being catholic?

    perhaps i have a liberal view, but i give a shrew’s patootie if another feminist wears make up or not. a feminist, simply put, is one who believes in equality between men and women and the need to eliminate discrimination, overt and subtle, against women.

    saying women who wear makeup are automatically not feminist is rather like saying someone’s not christian simply because s/he has premarital sex. it’s mostly a way to exclude people who might otherwise be daily, practical contributors to feminism.

  7. Carrie Polansky permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:35 pm

    If you don’t feel good about yourself and how you look, how will that affect your overall confidence?

    I think this is the part that’s key. A lot of the discussion in this thread seems to be about how make up and heels can boost your self-confidence and feel empowering, and I don’t doubt that that’s true for a lot of (and perhaps most) women. Personally, though, it’s not true for me. I never wear make up, I don’t wear heels (the only pair I own were for a Halloween costume, and I don’t think I’ve worn them since), and I don’t spend time thinking about fashion — and that’s fine. I actually feel more self-conscious and anxious about my appearance when I wear make up and high heels than when I don’t. So it really does just come down to how your appearance makes you feel. Neither choice is right or wrong or more feminist — every person and choice is different, and we need to remember that.

  8. Melissa permalink
    April 2, 2010 6:04 pm

    I don’t disagree with the post; of course it’s not inherently unfeminist to wear makeup and participate in all the trappings of fashion and beauty. I understand that there are a lot of people to whom fashion and makeup are art more than anything else–I remember talking to a “shoe-a-holic” who doesn’t even feel like she has to OWN that many shoes, she just likes to look at them and appreciate them as the art they are. And I’ve met a lot of people who like to experiment with makeup colors not because of how it makes them look, but because it’s fun and interesting to play with. I get that.
    I also get that there are a lot of people (actually I’m in this category) who hate fashion and makeup, but participate anyway because…well…it’s a coping skill. If anyone really decided to abide by every single point of a feminist lifestyle, she’d be so ostracized in society that she’d probably be miserable 100% of the time. So, in order to survive in this world, many feminists wear makeup and uncomfortable clothes and get waxed and diet perpetually and take their husbands’ last names and hear rape jokes without speaking up and use the word “bitch” against other women and…I could go on, but I’m just saying that we all make feminist compromises.
    So yeah. There’s nothing inherently unfeminist about wearing makeup because you appreciate it as art, or because you’ve decided it’s an acceptable compromise in order to save yourself from crippling loneliness and depression…but I would be hesitant to say that doing all these things “to take care of your appearance” can be a decision consistent with any form of feminism. Because there’s a difference between hygiene and beauty. Sure, I can agree that taking care of basic hygiene (showering, using soap, brushing your teeth, etc.) is a societal expectation unconnected to gender issues (though sometimes connected to race and class issues), participating in fashion in beauty goes FAR beyond the level of basic hygiene. And since the minimum level of “taking care of your appearance” for a woman is WAY more than the minimum “taking care of your appearance” for a man (because for a man, basic hygiene IS the standard for taking care of appearance)…yeah. I’m really rambling, but the point is…this sentence.

    “I’m not talking about conforming to beauty standards (which you can read about in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth), but about how you appear in front of other people”

    If you’re worried about how you appear in front of other people, and go to lengths beyond the hygiene rules that would be equally applied to a man, then you actually ARE talking about conforming to beauty standards.

    • April 5, 2010 8:09 am

      I’m talking about how you want to present yourself in front of other people; wearing makeup or no makeup, heels or no heels. There are no “hygiene rules” and I’m not talking about beauty standards.

  9. April 10, 2010 4:30 pm

    What I’m more interested in is why more men don’t wear make up? Why they don’t wear crazy uncomfortable shoes but fantastically stylish shoes? There was a time, in my youth in the seventies and eighties when men, even straight men, wore eyeliner, glittery platform shoes and pick sequinned shirts.

    I don’t think it the male lack of glitteriness is innate , I have a toddler boy who loves to dress up and got very upset when he couldn’t choose a pair of sequinned sandals for summer like his sister could.

    Why are men not free to choose make up, that’s what I want to know?!

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