It is a common sentiment that ‘women should be able to wear whatever, and however, much makeup they want’. I argue, however, that for many women, makeup is actually not a choice. It is fascinating to think about the ‘choices’ that we make within a system which directly influences what we feel and desire – a system that dictates whether or not our choices are a true “fuck you” to society.
Throughout my teenage years, I possessed a lot of internalised misogyny and so I solidly rejected femininity. Girls were vapid, shallow, superficial, catty and skanky. I wore baggy shirts, cargo shorts and sneakers. I abhorred dresses and makeup.
In hindsight I now see that I was performing for society, and in a way, for myself. ‘I am better than normal girls’ I would think to myself, while inside, I was deeply envious of how pretty other girls were, and of the attention they would get. It was very easy to blame my envy and insecurities on them.
I started wearing makeup for two main reasons. The first was that I had discovered third wave feminism, preaching the celebration of femininity as being powerful – because girls are powerful. The second was that I was regaining control over my appearance from a heavily conservative, possessive and controlling boyfriend. He did not approve of clothing he deemed “too revealing”, he liked a “natural look”, and he did not like how “extreme” my monolid eyes looked in winged eyeliner. Makeup was a liberating and empowering thing for me, and I started wearing thick winged eyeliner, lip product, concealer and BB cream every day.
I was showcasing my femininity loud and clear. I was rejecting the men who had tried to control me. “I am a girl and I am powerful – I choose to be powerful,” I would think to myself.
But what is powerful about worrying how dark and tired my under-eyes look? Worrying whether my outfit is cute enough to impress friends and potential partners? It may be a different sort of performance, but it was the same societal audience dictating how I looked.
After I ended that relationship, the break up and post-abuse depression led me back to wearing slacks and going out tired and barefaced – but I found people were still attracted to me. I’m still feminine, even though I don’t wear makeup every day anymore. I still have people pursue me and tell me how beautiful I am. My past insecurities about my appearance and likability have largely subsided, but I think it’s easier being comfortable in your own skin when you are conventionally attractive.
After all of this time, the basis for my decisions still boils down to a societal expectation that I should desire, want and value physical beauty. I used to be a defiant and misogynist cargo wearing teenager, then I became a conforming makeup wearing feminist, and now I gain self-confidence because of the random combination of genes and DNA my parents made me with.
At the time I thought I was making my own choices, but which one was my choice? When do we stop performing?