I never really thought about the social implications of makeup in college. I would wear a little to job and internship interviews, just to look a little older and more “put together.”
To be honest, most of the time, I was more self-conscious about what to do with my hair. I’m black and I tend to wear my hair natural, but the impulse to give into societal pressures and press my hair before interviews was strong. Finally, I decided that I didn’t want to work anywhere where my curly fro would pose a problem and began to rebelliously show up with my curls popping. You don’t like it? Cool. I’d rather work for someone who is more concerned with what’s in my head than what’s on it.
But soon, showing up with a naked face started to feel…off. I thought that I looked like a teenager and was afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, so I started perfecting my “no makeup” makeup look. It takes about 10 minutes to finish my full face and I wear it like a shield. I’m competent. I’m an adult. I can do this job and will do it well. Look, I have the perfectly applied, nude lipstick to prove it.
Earlier this month, HuffPost Women posted “a makeup tutorial with a delightfully feminist twist” on Facebook. In the video, a woman breaks down her “go-to look for when [she] wants to have any power as a woman in society.” It’s a humorous — if depressing — takedown of how women are expected to try their best to look “polished” in order to get basic levels of respect from anyone, from bartenders to coworkers.
From the carefully applied eyeliner that helps prevent your boss from passing you up for a promotion because you “look pretty tired already” to the deceptive “natural” look that helps you get with a man who lives in a “culture that tells men to only desire women who look unnaturally beautiful but also to find it gross when they wear a lot of makeup…” she covers it all. Then, viewers are invited to visit her channel for more tips on “costly, time-sucking practices that oppress women.”
Too often, feminist critiques of makeup culture and the beauty industry focus on shaming women that wear makeup, instead of focusing on the flawed power structure that makes it seem “unacceptable” for women to be out in public with their natural faces on display.
I’m sure that some other viewers might disagree, but I felt that this clip did what all makeup culture critiques should do: focus on the fact that wearing makeup is sometimes treated like something that women have to do in order to live up to societal standards. Women are told that we need to work extremely hard and spend excessive amounts of money in order to meet ever-shifting beauty standards. We are taught that we constantly need to “fix” ourselves. Sometimes, when I think about how much time, money, energy and tears I’ve spent on hair removal…my goodness.
Playing in makeup can be fun. Wearing it because you want to can be empowering. Knowing how to disguise a zit or, ahem, a hickey, can be useful. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving makeup and, as a lipstick hoarder and avid watcher of YouTube beauty vlogs, I am personally offended whenever anyone is dismissive of women who love makeup.
The problem is that women are often taught that they don’t have any choice in the matter. For many of us, makeup is something that you’re just supposed to “do.” Hiding your very human imperfections is something that is required of you each day. The idea that we have to engage in “costly and time-sucking practices” in order to perform femininity “correctly” is offensive and that kind of thinking is the exact reason why I stopped regularly straightening my hair.
When I was about 12 or so, I began to get my hair professionally done. I come from a “hair family.” My maternal grandparents owned a beauty/barber shop together (their 50+ year marriage is the definition of “relationship goals” in so many ways). Healthy, pretty hair is still an obsession for me. In my hometown of Atlanta, it borders on a religion. In fact, I used to joke that there is a church and hair salon on every street in the Atlanta area. It’s only a slight exaggeration.
Getting my hair straightened was a rite of passage and I took it seriously. Many critics accuse black women with chemically or thermally straightened hair of self-hatred, but for me – and many others, I’m sure – it was something completely different. I wanted to straighten my hair because my mother, sisters, aunts and teachers did. Atlanta has a large black community and frankly, I didn’t know many non-black people until middle and high school. I liked the look of black hair that was straightened, which looks completely different from naturally straight hair. I wasn’t trying to be someone I’m not or subscribing to anyone’s Eurocentric beauty standards. Straight hair equaled “grown.”
The only issue? I began to feel like my hair was unacceptable if it wasn’t straight. My curls are rebellious and my hair would begin to “go back” about a week after it was done. I found myself living in the hair salon, spending long hours under the dryer and thousands of dollars a year. I was living and dying by the hot comb and I hated it. Between flat iron burns on my ear and my perpetual fear of rain… I couldn’t take it anymore.
It was being chained to the practice that made me resent it. Learning how to take care of my natural hair has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life, thus far. Women with kinky or curly hair should not be treated like a problem that you have to “fix.” Women who want to straighten their natural coils should be able to. No one else’s opinions should matter. No one’s opinions about whether or not you contour your face should matter, either.
If I choose to leave the house with a full face of makeup and a devastating smoky eye, so be it. If I’d rather save myself the time and energy, that’s fine, too. As my best friend likes to say, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”