The Great Face-Paint Debate
Recently, the Internet (especially its feminist and feminist-flavored corners) has exploded over the topic of makeup. For many, the personal became political and vice versa. The aspect of the debate that seemed to have been missed by many in both the pro- and anti- makeup crowds is the variation in perceived cultural pressure regarding feminine conformity, including makeup.
In other words, that some women don’t feel forced to wear makeup doesn’t mean that others can’t feel that way.
A while back, Natalie wrote an eye-opening post about femmephobia. Why indeed did everyone make a huge fuss over others’ decisions to watch the once-every-few-decades Royal Wedding while there is little to no outrage over the annual Super Bowl (some wedding-watching bloggers directly made the connection)? Why is spending lots of time and money on the styling of a car seen as superior to doing the same with your attire? Why is Twilight considered a horrendous abomination to humankind while similarly “trashy” movies that are perceived as more male-oriented are given a free pass as harmless “summer blockbusters” or “popcorn movies?” Why is there outrage over the lack of creativity and the obvious masturbatory appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey while “porn parodies” of famous movies are viewed as silly fun*? Why else is painting tiny details onto your fingernails derided as a waste of time while doing the same with, say, a grain of rice, considered cool and interesting art?
Over a year later, when the anti-makeup pieces emerged, the gut reaction of many femmes was along the lines of “Keep your femmephobia out of my fashion!” I counted myself in that number. Many of the women I know and love use cosmetics as an act of self-love and care and are far from promoters of sexism. My defensiveness was tempered when I remembered context. The primary form of sexism foisted upon me was one where I was punished for appearing at all attractive or appealing** rather than for appearing unattractive. This continued into young adulthood, where I found myself firmly ensconced in geek culture.
The anti-”superficiality” thread in geek culture promotes often veers into femmephobic territory. Spending $30 on a single t-shirt with a particular geek darling’s logo emblazoned on it is considered admirable, while spending $30 on an entire outfit that reads “fancy” or “overdressed” (i.e. coordinated and feminine) is unthinkable. Through the lens of femmephobia, the latter is read as inherently more “frivolous” than the former. A similar disdain contributes to the infamous “fake geek girl” fauxnomenon. The fact that well-done and accurate cosplay requires creativity, dedication, and attention to detail is often eclipsed by the fact that, among geeks, a woman caring about clothes is automatically perceived as “shallow” (though the tangible increase in geeky women is changing this).
Geek culture was not the only thing that colored my perception that women are discouraged rather than forced to wear makeup. Women who don’t fit the social standards of “hot” are derided for paying attention to their hair, skin, and nails, i.e. their “visible protein ends,” rather than on making their bodies conform. This also applies to women with skin conditions and a host of other factors that might make them appear non-normative in some way.
Whether or not a woman feels pressure to wear makeup, then, varies wildly based on the subcultures she chooses and/or in which she finds herself. Non-geek culture lauds women who “take care of themselves” (which is a euphemism for appearing more “feminine” but not “too done up” by patriarchal norms), which bleeds into non-geek professional culture, where studies show that makeup is associated with competence in women. In that context, feeling that makeup is at least somewhat sexist at its core is unsurprising and understandable.
Furthermore, even within mainstream culture, looking “natural” is what is rewarded and praised, not the appearance of having put effort into one’s appearance. Women are supposed to magically appear beautiful according to social standards, not to call any sort of attention to the hard work that goes into conforming to such narrow norms (famous women making a show of eating, anyone?). Women who actually want to dress up can find themselves the objects of condescension and derision (although nowhere near as much as men who do). Because precious few women “naturally” look anything like what the beauty ideal promotes as attractive, the pressure to not admit to or show that you wear cosmetics can be quite oppressive.
Devaluing other women’s experiences does nothing to combat the femmephobia that forces women to walk such a narrow line and men to remain confined in a rather tiny gender box. Recognizing that you can’t decide what a woman’s attire and styling means to her, on the other hand, does.
As for me? Although I readily raise a painted middle finger in solidarity with Amanda Marcotte, I’ve learned to recognize that what is one lady’s liberation can easily be another’s oppression.
* There are plenty of people who are highly critical of porn, but none who specifically target “This Ain’t [Insert Movie Here]” et. al. for their derivative, wank-fodder nature in the way that E.L. James’s trilogy of books often is.
** My choice to wear dark brown eyeliner led to concerned figures in my life to consult with a local religious authority. All that fuss didn’t change the fact that no one but the adult in question and myself really noticed the chocolate-colored pigment on my skin.