Does makeup make me less feminist?

It’s a question I think most young woman-identified feminists now deal with, but I’ve decided to have a serious thought process on it now because of an article I read in the New York Times1 about makeup, motherhood, and feminist guilt. It’s definitely worth a read, though with a critical eye.

Both men and women are participate in constant body work. However, I’d argue that for women, the work required in order to be an accepted member of society is a much more rigid, unyielding version. Michel Foucault once spoke of the process in which individuals become objects, or docile bodies, through processes of self-surveillance based on discourses of what is considered normal and abnormal2. Feminism critiques Foucault’s gender-neutral version of docile bodies, as women’s bodies are expected to be more docile.

Modern femininity is linked with three restrictions of the body which modern masculinity is not. First, femininity is characterised by smallness of body. Women are not meant to take up more space than required, therefore women who do not conform to this are chastised, if not by people around her then by the rest of society. Second, femininity entails a certain reluctance in gesture, movement, and posture. The final way, and the way I’ll actually be discussing, is by the necessity of ornamentation. This includes the pressure to wear makeup, have good skin care, have good hair care, and get rid of body hair3.

Makeup, therefore, is politicised by the feminist movement. The daily process of makeup is expensive, time consuming, and probably unhealthy. It perpetuates the idea that in order to be desired, a woman must be made up. Even now a lot of men say they prefer women without makeup, but I wonder how many of them are tricked into believing ‘no makeup-makeup’ is actually a clean face. Slightly deceitful, and raises the bar too high.


I wear makeup. And I love makeup. And sometimes that comes with a bit of guilt. Mostly it comes with an empty wallet. Yes, I have a problem, and I’m taking steps to fix it. However I don’t honestly think that wearing makeup makes a person any less feminist, even if the makeup process is oppressive. I’m not going to sit here and say I freely choose to wear makeup. I don’t think I do. But when reading on other people’s opinions about feminism and makeup I found this:

You can’t socialize someone into liking something and then ostracize them for liking it. 4

Obviously feminists understand that gender roles and the gender binary are socially constructed (Some people don’t like the idea that gender itself is socially constructed, though I would argue that it is. I think a lot of people who disagree probably haven’t studied too much sociology. Maybe I’ll write about it another time.). It is immensely important to understand the process by which this happens, and I believe many feminists take the work into trying to piece it together. It is also so important to challenge these norms and to create dialogue about why we do and think certain things. It’s SO important, as a feminist, to critically examine your reason for doing certain things. I wear makeup because I was socialised to. I was socialised to enjoy the ritual, and I do enjoy it. I haven’t gotten to the point of self-love where I’ve been able to fully forgo my foundation and mascara.

It is fundamentally and horribly wrong to criticise any woman for wearing makeup or for not wearing makeup. We need to criticise our own choices and be real with ourselves. I could sit here and say I choose makeup freely because I know the negatives and do it anyway, but by saying that I believe we’re trying to differentiate ourselves from non-feminist identifying women who wear makeup. By othering non-feminist women, we’re saying they’re under a false consciousness (which they may well be), when one never knows whether that person does think about the negatives but still chooses it. For all anyone knows, our thought processes are similar.

We need to teach radical self-love, and there is a conflict when the person teaching it has perfectly coifed hair and a beautifully made up face. But we shouldn’t blame women for wanting these things when we’ve been told to want them from the moment the doctor looked between our legs at birth. Feminism should not succumb to self-righteousness, but embrace sympathy and empathy and keep teaching informed analysis.


1 Makeup, and Feminist Guilt, at 13
2 Nash, K. (2010) Contemporary Political Sociology. p22-23.
3 Bartky, S.L. (1988) ‘Foucault, Femininity, and Patriarchal Power’ in Diamond, I. and Quinby, L. (eds) Feminism and Foucault. p.65-71.
4 Warning: Feminist Wearing Makeup Ahead. Look Both Ways Before Crossing.


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8 responses to “Does makeup make me less feminist?”

  1. heyshaye says :

    Interesting! Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad I found your blog.

  2. masquerade21 says :

    I really like this post and agree with what you said about us needing to look critically at our own choices. It ismportant to recognise why we do certain things even if we like doing them. Sorry to toot my own horn but I really think you would be interested in commenting on the big beauty debate I have just posted on my blog and joining the debate , it’s at

    Also from reading your article I think you would be quite interested in my post ‘The Ridiculous Things Women do to look good’ it is about women and high heels and mirrors a lot of your feelings on being socialised to think a certain way and the need to critically reflect on your choices.

    I’d love to read your comments on either x

  3. inmyinternest says :

    Well said! But just to be fair to men, I’d like to point out that they have pressures to be certain size and shape as well. Men are expected to be big – tall and muscular. Small men may suffer for their lack of height, and chubby or skinny men may suffer for the lack of muscle. I don’t think men have it much easier when it comes to body shape, even if they aren’t usually expected to starve themselves to look good.

    But yeah, women face more expectations than the ones about body shape. Most men don’t feel the need to hide the dark circles under their eyes just to step out to buy some milk. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that most men shave their armpits now, though the idea was laughed at ten years ago! Especially the younger guys also shave or wax their chests and sometimes even their legs. I think that’s fantastic! Not that I mind men’s body hair (though I must admit I prefer smooth skin on both sexes) but I’ve always thought it terribly unfair that only women are supposed to be hairless. Now we’re approaching an equal standing in that, too. 🙂

    • angrylittlelion says :

      I 100% agree that men have a really difficult expectation to look big and muscular and it’s really damaging to so many men. My own partner went through bullying in school because he was quite small as a young teenager. Years after leaving secondary school I think he still has some issues with his own masculinity because of being taught that real men could only look a certain way.

      When I say ‘body work’ I basically mean everything from actual body shape to face, hair, and the way we’re supposed to use our bodies. So by body work I’m including the use of makeup, skin care, how we sit on a train (men spread, women shrink), how we outwardly express emotion, etc. Certain ways we work on our bodies are simply different, for example by body shape and emotional control (men cannot express sadness, women cannot express anger), but of course women are expected to take on other forms of body work, which is why I say it’s worse for women.

      I haven’t met too many men who are into removing their body hair, actually, except for my brother, but it’s good that it’s slowly becoming a thing for men 🙂

      • inmyinternest says :

        That’s a really interesting point about the way men and women sit on buses and trains. It’s true – men sit with their legs wide apart and their elbows out, and few of them bother making room when someone sits next to them. Women cross their legs or press them together, and keep their elbows close to their bodies, and try to fit into an even smaller space when someone sits next to them.

        I wonder what would happen if I tried sitting like a man? 🙂

  4. cellardoor790 says :

    Nicole! Wonderful and informed piece. Thanks for writing it.

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