Most feminists these days are pretty clear: we’re allowed to wear make up now. We’re allowed to shave our legs; we’re allowed to wear dresses; we’re allowed to spend an hour in front of the mirror crafting the perfect milkmaid braid. The idea that any of those things make us less feminist is restrictive; I don’t like being told not to shave any more than I like being told I must shave. I vehemently reserve the right to do whatever I want with my appearance, without in any way diminishing my claim to the term “feminism”. But while that’s the case, I don’t believe that wearing make up is a choice.
In our society, women’s value is inextricably linked to their appearance. This doesn’t just apply to women, of course—our society is appearance-obsessed in general—but for women, it’s essential. We are not just favoured for being beautiful; we are required to be beautiful.
I’m definitely not the first to have noticed that women in films are depicted with picture-perfect make up and hairless underarms even in the most desperate of situations. Being chased by zombies? Tortured for information? Stranded on a desert island? None of those scenarios would make it forgivable for a woman to give up on her beauty routine.
And OK, so movies are unrealistic in a multitude of ways—but these beauty expectations follow on into real life. Harsh red circles on glossy magazine covers point out every way in which we can be a disgrace to our sex: whether it’s failing to lose that baby weight, daring not to disguise our natural blemishes with cover-up, or forgetting one morning to remove the body hair that, for some of us, grows back by lunch time anyway. Leaving the house in our natural state is “awkward”, “embarrassing”, or, by a pretty backhanded compliment, “brave”. Since the moment I learned to read, I’ve seen those words attached to women merely for allowing the world to see them as they really are. So did I ever have a choice?
Of course, wearing make up can be fun. Just like all fashion, it can be empowering; it can be a way to express yourself. It’s not a way of covering yourself up; in fact, it can be quite the opposite. Winged eyeliner is fantastic if you love your eyes; bright red lipstick shows off the lips you think are totally kissable. And a lot of people truly do wear make up for themselves; I have friends who will put on a full face of make up totally alone in the house just because they love it. We tend to roll our eyes and laugh off the criticisms of those magazines because we know that we’re not wearing make up for them. But if those magazines didn’t exist—would we have started wearing it in the first place?
Before the Oscars on Sunday, some A-list celebrities are rumoured to have spent millions of dollars on their outfits, hair, and make up. Whether or not they enjoyed donning their expensive outfits is irrelevant; the point is that I highly doubt any of them casually asked themselves, “Shall I wear make up today or no?” The real question is far more limiting: “Shall I partake in this, or shall I doom myself to ridicule?” (Just look at Jenny Beavan, who won a bloody Oscar for her expertise with costumes, and yet earned eye-rolls instead of applause because she feels comfortable in a less glamorous outfit.)
For something to be a true choice, both options need to be valid. It may feel like a choice to wear make up, but in a world where women are cast straight into the “circle of shame” if they appear without a perfectly made up face—it doesn’t feel like much of a choice not to wear it. It may feel like a choice to shave, but when body hair is considered so unsightly that razor adverts show women shaving an already hairless leg—well, it certainly doesn’t feel like much of a choice to let it grow.
If I go to a party, or a job interview; if I ever achieved my wildest dreams and published a novel and had to have an author photoshoot—I would be expected to wear make up, despite the fact my appearance has literally no relevance to my ability to write. Could I “choose” to skip the beauty routine and show up bare-faced with underarm hair peeking out from my dress? Would that “choice” be treated equally to somebody else’s “choice” to follow societal standards?
Here’s the choice I do have: I can wear make up, or I can be invisible. I can shave my legs, or I can be disgusting. I can maintain a socially acceptable weight, or I can be dismissed.
So here’s my request. By all means, keep wearing make up. I stand by what I said at the beginning: following societal standards of beauty that you’ve been practically forced to accept does not make anybody less of a feminist—and besides, whether we’ve been conditioned to think so or not, make up is fun! But stop proudly declaring that it’s a choice: that dismisses a very real oppression. Stop telling the women who are too afraid to show the world their natural bodies that this is as good as it’s going to get. Stop telling them that this is freedom.
Instead, let’s work towards something better. Let’s talk openly about the effect of the media on the beauty “choices” we make—and let’s look for ways to change these. Let’s campaign against body-shaming magazines, and let’s insist on seeing models with and without make up on their pages. Let’s stop talking about “putting on our faces”—as if our real faces aren’t valid. If we’re feeling brave enough, let’s show the world a new normal: show them unashamed women with unshaved legs and bare, smiling faces. If we’re not feeling brave enough, let’s be compassionate towards ourselves and acknowledge that the world doesn’t make it easy.
Let’s not accept this illusion of “choice”. Let’s fight for a real one.