‘Eyeliner, rose hips and lip gloss, such fun’: an exploration of make-up’s tempestuous relationship with feminine expression

“It don’t matter what you wear / They’re checking out your savoir faire / And it don’t matter what you do / ‘Cause everything looks good on you” – the inimitable Ru Paul

Cleopatra’s iconic look has never gone out of fashion; Elizabeth I had an infamous beauty regime; Twiggy’s drawn-on bottom eyelashes are still captivating: the world’s fascination with make-up is not new. It has been a part of cultures, femininity, costumes and self-expression for thousands of years, spawning entire industries and responsible for heated debates around the world. Available in infinite colours, packaging and brands, make-up is more readily accessible now than ever. Make-up is heralded by millions of ladies all over the world as an absolute essential but dependence can cause lasting issues. While it is – thankfully – starting to become somewhat disentangled from such purposes as covering ‘imperfections’ and serving the male gaze, these ideologies are still present. Whether you’re being told you’re wearing too much make-up or criticised for not wearing enough, if any at all, there’s an age-old double standard attached to make-up. This roughly translates as: if you wear make-up you can’t call yourself a feminist, but if you don’t, you aren’t perceived as feminine. Well I say ‘bollocks’ to all that, and with this article I hope to encourage positivity towards diversity. I must stress that this is not a piece to advocate the wearing of make-up or vice-versa. Whether it’s going beautifully bare, layering on a hundred layers or experimenting with wildly colourful eyeshadows, people can – and should – make their own choices without pressure from external influences.

Personally, I adore make-up. I take enormous pleasure in lathering on my thick eyeliner and trying new styles. My experimentation with it is purely for my own amusement, and I never wear it for anyone but myself – it makes me feel good. My philosophy is that make-up is an art form. Even if you just slick on a quick eyeliner wing and a dash of lippy, you are still effectively creating. Adopting this perspective could help some people shrug off their insecurities about how much they wear. It’s such a broad issue, and I don’t pretend to know much about it; I certainly won’t pretend to speak for every woman. I mainly want to evoke questions.

I’ve always been endlessly inspired by females in music, as a music-lover and musician. Not just by their songs, but by their self-expression, through fashion and all its facets, including make-up. New iconic women crop up every few years, from Patti Smith to Peaches to St. Vincent. These ladies all explode the confines of ‘conventional’ femininity with their music and diverse aesthetics. I’ll never forget when my dad showed me the cover of Patti Smith’s album Easter, where Smith is make-up-free, arms lifted so her underarm pubic hair and nipples are visible. Smith was one of the first women in music to challenge prescribed notions of what femininity meant. It’s alarming just how early gender conditioning creeps in, though; when I was really little I used to wonder why Smith never wore make-up, not in a judgemental way, but because it seemed unusual. And then when I got to about eight or nine I realised it was because it doesn’t fucking matter. She is often described as ‘crow-like’, but that’s only because she doesn’t brush her hair and make herself up. That doesn’t make her unfeminine – that makes her another part of the infinitely complex and ever-changing tapestry of femininity.

Possibly the most relevant reason why this make-up/feminism double-standard is so outdated is that recently, make-up’s role has shifted. Nowadays it isn’t always associated with femininity. People use it as a form of self-expression which has manifested itself in art, performance, drag culture, club culture, fashion, and so on. Of course there have been people championing this attitude for decades, but it has recently come to the fore of public conversation, due to the growing voice of the LGBT+ community and the drag movement, and the demand for a dialogue about gender identity. The use of make-up can be experimentation with, an accentuation, a warping, or an enhancement of the facial features – it’s not solely tied to femininity anymore.

Despite all this, it is disheartening that so many people still believe that professional women should wear tasteful make-up in the workplace to prove they ‘make an effort’. The experiment by Loose Women, where they removed their make-up on live TV, demonstrates the tensions in this. It’s the only all-female panel show on television and while it showed viewers that you can be professional without make-up, it was annoying that such a huge deal was made out of it, as if it was a shocking and ballsy move.

What I worry about most is the effect on young impressionable girls. There’s so much pressure for them to splash out on extortionate brands for the sake of owning the current fad. I’ve also heard girls say their mums don’t let them go out without make up on. I understand the notion of ‘making an effort’ – but conditioning our girls to think they look unacceptable without makeup can be devastating to their mental health and confidence. There’s no swanky concealer or corrective pens for damaged self-worth.

In a very roundabout way, I’ve tried to emphasise that your appearance is your personal preference – a statement that, while sounding obvious, is something that many people have yet to grasp. I’m not trying to say things like ‘don’t wear make-up on a night out because you should feel just as gorgeous without it’; I know how great it feels to get ready with your gals and get dolled up. I’m saying that your make-up choices should not be a crutch, or a way of hiding. If you’re reading this and feel you’re not confident to venture out without make-up, I hope you find the will to realise that you are more than your looks. If you’re reading this and adore make-up, I hope you continue to be passionate about it, and do so without influencing anyone else’s choices. If you’re reading this and you hate make-up, I hope you will not judge those who wear it. You are unique, talented, and diverse; you have individual quirks, influences, and tastes. Be your own version of feminine, be unfeminine. Be androgynous, masculine, alien – whatever makes you feel stunning on the inside. Every woman should be proud to be one, and should never feel obliged to shoehorn themselves. The same of course applies to anyone who identifies as female, or guys who just love to wear make-up, and gals who don’t love to wear it. Everyone is just fucking great with or without cosmetics. After all, you are the only person who has to live as you, so you must love who you are, whoever you are. And ladies, keep bigging each other up: it’s healthy.

Zia Larty-Healy

Art by Jess Brown

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