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.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. I think this is not just and about sub-culture but also geography. I live in Eastern Europe and I had my classmates trying to pester me into wearing make-up and my mum still occasionally pesters me to pluck my eyebrows or wear lipstick.

    I’ve managed to resist all of that kind of stuff, except for the armpit-hair thing. My mum’s shaming really worked on that one, especially since I’ve never seen a woman with hairy armpits in public. And the fact that I’ve caved in on this one thing, made me spend way too much time trying to somehow convince myself that I have completely legit reasons to shave my armpits that have absolutely nothing to do with the society I live in. Fortunately, in the end, I admitted to myself that AM caving-in, and not making any kind of free independent choice.

    I’m not really sure what my point is, but the thing that I’ve thought about lately is that even though my own attempts to fool myself have been unsuccessful, some other women women’s attempts might have succeeded, and posts from women who come from completely different backgrounds and completely different subcultures with completely different pressures might just give them a convenient backdoor out of some useful introspection.

    1. Comfort can be a social form as well physical. You think you’ve caved to peer pressure, and that may be, but perhaps on some level you’re more relaxed to not have that one thing thrown at you as something you “ought” to do? By making that one concession, you might feel vindicated in sticking to your other ideals? Either way, I don’t think you should think any less of yourself for giving in on something. But (obviously) it’s your decision to continue or not. I hope you find a balance, whatever you decide to do (continue or not).


    2. Agreeing with Zylla. We all get to pick our battles and where we just find conforming to our local norms easier. There is a lot of middle ground between the purist individualist-sheep dichotomy, and it’s where most of us live!

    3. Yes to geography. A good friend of mine lived in South Korea for a year and people told her it was insulting to them that she didn’t wear make up. Some said it was okay because “you’re an american foreigener” (She’s German and her father is from Pakistan, but she said most people ignored that when she corrected them…)

  2. I have my preferences and opinions on make-up (and fashion and tattoos and – hello! – pretty much everything), but I would never attempt to tell someone else what they should or should not do in order to make themselves feel good or have fun.

    But I do worry about those attending the Mimi Bobeck school of clown make-up… :)

    1. I kinda wish is was acceptable for straight men to wear makeup. I wear it sometimes, but I wish I could wear it more often without societal backlash.

  3. As a fellow geek gal, I confess an urge to do a cheetah’s tears version sometime soon. Sadly, “soon” would be laundry-and-scrubbing-the-bathroom day, as I don’t want to invite the constant “mrrrrow, baby” hitting on, even at geek culture cons. Experience tells me that 90% of the guys who approach me in anything but a Victorianly-covered-up-and-no-displayed-corset-on-the-outside costume don’t pursue further conversation with me once it’s clear I’m not “on the menu”. That kind of convention day sucks all the fun out of a costume and leaves me tired and angry. But man, that tiger eyes makeup job is fantastic!

    The changeability of bodypainting really speaks to me more than tattoos’ permanency. I hypothesize that tatts are claimed to be all about self-ownership and liberation, but creative bodypaint isn’t accepted that way because even professional-artist-level makeup is a girly thing. It draws others attention either as a primary purpose or a side effect, and somehow that means we -can’t- have done it simply for our own enjoyment to soooo many people.

    *sigh* Why is Halloween only once a year again?

  4. Heina, you remain my favorite feminist author. Your pieces are calm, well-written, recognize that reality is frequently complex, and (most importantly) typically very insightful. Please never stop being amazing. :)

  5. Great article and so well written.

    I think an Anthropologist would have a field day with this. Although rare, there are some tribal cultures where the men, not the women, are expected to don makeup and impress the women with their appearance.

    Men here are expected to groom themselves also. Granted, women are far more pressured to look a certain way and ridiculed if they don’t meet a standard.

    But as long as modern men are pressured to smell nice, “manscape” and keep their haircuts immaculate, I don’t feel so bad that I feel compelled to wear makeup.

    Just to be clear, I enjoy it. And I don’t do it unless I’m going somewhere special. :)

  6. Heina,

    On a not-so-tangential note, what are your thoughts of western women who wear the hijab. I am in a professional medical milieu wherein there are intelligent and progressive muslim women who wear the headscarf. I find it difficult to say that they are conforming to religious patriarchical standards of dress codes as dictated by Islam. Indeed, those friends have explained that they simply want to wear the scarf. But is that want or desire ultimately shaped by patriarchy? And if so, does it matter? If those women are medical professionals saving lives or if a male sikh wears a turban while resecting a brain tumor, who cares?

    1. It would seem to me that they want to identify and feel close to their Muslim culture (and religion).

    2. I used to wear hijab. It was of my own volition and I hated it when people informed me that I was clearly being forced to “wear that thing” or submitting to patriarchal norms by doing so. Indeed, I saw covering up as rebellion from the stringent, sexualized beauty norms of the West. I don’t see it quite the same way now, but I don’t assume what it means to the women who wear it.

  7. I was over makeup a long time ago. It’s too expensive, I have no patience for it, and I really hate the way it feels, and I hate even more having to wash it off. Still, every now and again I’ll wear a little bit. I can’t even remember the last time, though. Hmm…

    I do wax my eyebrows. Does that make me a bad feminist? :)

    (As a side note, I don’t find it torturous. It doesn’t really hurt. But I have a pretty high tolerance for pain.)

  8. And I’ve always been jealous of women who are really good at applying makeup. I have a few girl friends who love make up, and they are really good at applying it. It’s very much an art form, and I can see why some people find it fun, even if I don’t.

  9. Concerning the hijab,

    Maybe this is OT, but I recently saw a young woman in the local mall decked out from head to toe in camouflage hues that matched her camo hijab. While she was covered everywhere but her hands and face, she was wearing a mini skirt (with tights) and high boots. Upon seeing her, I did not think, “That poor oppressed woman”. I thought, “She is kicking some serious ass in that outfit.” I bet she was on her way to go mudd’n with her buddies on a four wheeler, as young folks so often do here.

  10. Heina,

    I’m personally not attracted to women who wear a lot of makeup, so I have a hard time imagining how my wife, assuming I ever get married will fear pressured to wear make up, at least around me. Maybe around other men and perhaps I can imagine why.

  11. Growing up within the riot grrrl movement of punk, there was a lot of crap about makeup. In that circle you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Same goes for shaving. I’m 32 years old and am still worried that someone is going to see my shaved armpits and legs and yell at me for not being a good feminist.

    I agree with “my body my choice” for clothes/makeup/hair as well.

    I wear make up to look a touch more put together at work. I think an even skin tone with some foundation and a bit of bronzer on my cheeks accomplishes this. I’m almost jealous of people who can wear make up more regularly. I am just not into keeping it up all day. Lipstick always cracks into the crevices of my lips, making me look sloppy. I look great with eye makeup, but then it hurts my eyes eventually.

    Just let me do what I want when I want. I get more pissed off that if I do something out of my “normal” then people feel they need to point it out and I hate the attention. “Oh look at you, wearing a SKIRT!” Well, I am not going to do it anymore if it draws extra attention… even if I am super comfortable.

  12. I have multicoloured hair, wear makeup when it suits me that is far from natural & almost exclusively wear clothes I have designed & made myself. I don’t want to look ‘natural’, I want to look like ‘me’ & I look kind of weird. I’m ok with that.

    Also, I’m 43 & have been goth for my entire adult life so, obviously it’s not a phase. Since I work from home, I can afford to be myself & anyone who does not like that? Too bad.

  13. Would this be a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?

    Seems like it.

    A question regarding this:
    >”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?””

    What sort of other “trashy” movies?
    I have my own guesses, but I’d prefer confirmation.

    1. I can’t speak for the person who made this post, but I think any movie that has an explosion in the trailer is trashy. Not that I wouldn’t see this type of movie, but I know what to expect.

  14. Like others have said it people have no right to dictate what others do. I will say that, in my world, there is still a lot of pressure to wear makeup. Even at my workplace, and I’m an engineer, but even more so in my family. My mom is Persian and they are all about the makeup and expensive clothes.

    And don’t even get me started about some of the moms at my son’s school. The other day I attended a fundraising event, and the main topic of conversation was how a certain teacher *really* needed a makeover even if she didn’t want one, and how in the world were they going to trick her into it? I told them it was none of their business and I was basically shut out of the conversation.

    Personally I don’t wear makeup for various reasons (I don’t like the way it feels on my face, don’t enjoy applying it) but I do get my gray hair dyed. I have never had anyone say I should let my hair grow out naturally, but still get comments about how I should wear makeup. And jeez, I’m 44, I think I look good and my hubby thinks I look hot, so why should I change for someone else?

  15. Most of my life I’ve been the girl that doesn’t wear make-up. I lived in jeans and was proud of how few pairs of shoes I owned (which I’ve since come to see as a problematic attitude, since my pride came specifically from being “not girly”, like “girly” was somehow inferior- though I could see being proud of, say, efficiency or extra storage space). This last year I started playing with (and having tons of fun with) makeup, and hair, and nails, and I bought my first real heels. And you know what? One way is not superior to the other.

    Though they can be used to make statements, there’s no inherent value judgement in cloth and color. It’s. Just. Clothing. I cannot fathom how powerfully people will get up in arms over the placement of seams in your daily fabric exoskeleton, or the presence (or lack thereof) of temporary pigment on your skin. I mean, it’s not like it’s THEIR fabric or skin. What harm does it do one person to let another person appear how they want?

    No matter how my self-expression manifests, it’s not anyone else’s business unless I want it to be. That’s the “self” part right there.

  16. Fascinating article. I actually started my blog specifically to explore these issues, because I didn’t really see anyone else doing it on an ongoing basis. My most recent post was all about how makeup has helped me get control of the effect my mental illness has on my life, so those who think there is only one way to view makeup are clearly deluded.

  17. I am not anti make up but I definitely do feel pressured to use make up. I don’t. But in all honesty, if my boyfriend told me he preferred make up (he actually dislikes it) I would probably cave in, since this is the message I get from anyone else. I dont know how often people have told me “Your skin is so nice otherwise, just get a good concealer!!”

    I found what apparently a lot of people want is for your face too look flaw-less and inoffensively beautiful. To use make up but not look painted. Fuck you. I can show my imperfect skin and people are allowed to wear make up 10 shades too dark for their skin tone if they feel like it.

  18. I’m a rainforest ecologist who studies insects, and I think working in this field, which is great and has a lot of amazing women, is also a little bit judgmental about being girly. I love liquid liner, fake lashes and bold lips. I’m also a very capable field ecologist, I have spent extensive time working in the jungle and I wear makeup there too sometimes (waterproof). I have heard some bitchy things said about me like “oh I wonder how she’ll go, she’s not very out-doorsy is she”. I do just fine thank you!

  19. While hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I met a fellow long-distance backpacker who wore eye makeup and clean clothes every day for the 6 months it took her to walk from GA to ME. Shunned by most outdoors enthusiasts, makeup is even more unheard of in the AT hiker subculture where BO, “same shirt, different day”, and scraggly beards are a source of pride. She said it kept the sweat out of her eyes. I rarely wear makeup even when I’m not in the woods, but I really admired her commitment to be herself and maintain the grooming habits that made her happy, regardless of the norms and views of people around her. I think everyone she met came away with a changed view of what bad-ass hikers are “supposed to” look/smell like.

    1. Sometimes I think about doing the trail and I would bathe every damn day. I would carry a gallon of water with me to do a scrub down and a shampoo at the end of each day because having funk on me for 6 months would be completely unacceptable. I’m mentally high fiving that woman.

  20. I wear a shirt/tie/slacks combo to work every day. Many of me peers do jeans/polo, and if that works for them, great. The reason I do it is not some “dress for the job you want”, but it’s a concept of “uniforms” for me. I’m a college-educated engineer (that often makes the joke “If I can’t act professionally, at least I can dress professionally”) and I take great pride in dressing like an absolute slob when I get home at the end of the day because it helps me keep a work/life balance. It works for me. I could probably wear makeup at work (I’m Scandinavian, genetically predisposed to having dark circles around my eyes, and have been accused for years of wearing makeup when I have never), but aside from the idea of protecting the image you portray to the outside world vs. your inner circle, I’m just a dumb man (my words) that has a hard time understanding the expectation. (For what it’s worth, my fiancee rarely wears cosmetics and she is the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. I’m biased.)

  21. I have over 300 different colors of eye shadow. That’s not even getting to my moderate fetish about pink nail polish and red lipstick. I wear makeup maybe a dozen times a year for an actual event or outing of some sort. Sometimes I play around with my giant collection and sometimes other people let me play with their appearance. My mother takes her makeup tips from me and I had to learn to do it all on my own because she never had any idea what she was doing. I feel lucky that I avoided that terrible eyeliner phase that middle/high school American girls seem to go through and went quickly from knowing nothing to fairly advanced skills. I started painting really young which probably helped.

    I’ve never felt pressure to wear makeup but then again I’ve been fat since I was 10 so I guess people around me were more focused on telling me how fat I was and how I should not be fat to tell me to put on makeup. Even with all the “you have such a pretty face!” comments, putting on makeup has rarely been a suggestion given to me. Strangely as a fat woman I’m left out of other easily available fashion expression like, you know, most clothing options, boots that fit over my calves, etc. but makeup doesn’t make me feel more feminine or fashionable. I am really damn good at makeup and I love doing it but even not personally having been really targeted by the makeup police I still feel that not wearing it is like a big fuck you to all the people who give me shit about what I look like. Sometimes followed by an actual fuck you depending on the circumstances. I agree with the derision experiences.

    How I am most comfortable presenting myself is met with really shitty comments. I have several piercings and I like being able to switch up my hair but America is really fucking bad at accepting difference. I’m regularly seen as a decade younger because I think the culture here (and everywhere I’ve lived in this nation) expects me to have grown out of it now that I’m 30. I’m now trending towards a natural but not natural for me hair color because I need a job, because obviously job performance is entirely dependent on appearance. It makes me deeply unhappy that I do not feel I have the freedom to present myself how I’d like to and attain ANY professional goal I have. I doubt merit will ever matter more than appearance, at least in my lifetime.

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