Feminine or Feminist?

24th February 2017

We’re bombarded with images of intimidatingly perfect women.

As International Women’s Day (8 March) beckons, Lisa Botwright reflects on our female preoccupation with makeup. Is it harmless, creative fun or – as one feminist writer argues – part of a more sinister ‘political sedative’?

I found the process of research for our recent feature about the history of makeup (Political to Pretty; issue 612) utterly compelling. As a beauty writer, I’m amused by the idea that Victorian women, keen to be seen as respectable, virtuous and above such vulgar fripperies, would still sneak hints of rouge or lip balm onto their face. I’m heartened by how, later, beauty products became synonymous with independence and liberation. Sales of makeup rocketed as women became increasingly emancipated after the Great War. During the 1940s, rationing meant that makeup was hard to get hold of, but it was worn with pride and became a symbol of the will to win. ‘Put your best face forward,’ encouraged a Yardley ad in Churchillian tones. I know that I’d have been one of those women using tea bags to paint my legs in lieu of stockings and eking out the very last drops of my precious Victory Red lipstick from its tube.

However, I also came across a great deal of information that made me feel uncomfortable – from the amusing, but patronising, tone of post-war ads, designed to entice women back into the home (such as Palmolive’s unsubtle exhortation for women to get their priorities right: ‘Most Men Ask If She’s Pretty, Not If She’s Clever’) to the costly and often dangerous convolutions of modern beauty (botox, plastic surgery etc).

Beauty is, in fact, one of the world’s most flourishing, recession-proof industries, worth £17 billion in the UK alone. In studying a little bit of its history, I’ve become even more motivated to understand why women invest so much money and time in the desire to look good. Is it vanity or is it social pressure? Is it an inevitable part of human nature, or are women the unwitting victims of clever marketing? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all of these things?

I’m also intrigued by the discordant attitudes towards makeup: the idea that ‘feminine’ can conflict with ‘feminist’, that strong and successful women somehow need to ‘justify’ their love of a good lipstick. The difference between vanity, or narcissism in its extreme form, and its counter-cousin – self-esteem – is significant. While vanity is often based on deep-seated insecurity and underlying feelings of inadequacy, self-esteem represents an attitude built on a sense of purposefulness and of being appreciated. In other words, there’s a big difference between a confident woman using makeup to look and feel better, and an insecure woman risking her health to meet unrealistic social ideals.

Naomi Wolf’s powerful book The Beauty Myth supports this, but argues that it’s the latter that’s much more prevalent in today’s society – that the beauty industry specifically sets out to target and exploit female insecurity. Our modern preoccupation with beauty, she says, is a way of using up intelligent women’s time, like needlework in Victorian times, or housework in the 1950s. Since we’re no longer seduced by ads for perfect, sparkling kitchens, designed to validate us as housewives, we’re now bombarded with images of intimidatingly perfect women instead. She believes that since women became stronger materially, we are being weakened psychologically by a ‘barrage of millions of images of the current ideal… summoned out of political fear on the part of male dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom.’ This may sound far-fetched and possibly a little paranoid… until we concede that yes, the cosmetics, cosmetic-surgery and diet industries are hugely powerful and influential, and that, sadly, mental health/self esteem disorders are inexorably on the rise. It would be helpful if we had role models to counter the unrealistic ideals (fashion models weigh on average 23% less than ‘normal’ women, for example) – but where are they? Certainly not in the media – not even in ‘serious’ media where female newscasters must be young and slender, alongside their middle aged, male colleagues. It would also explain why, according to Naomi Wolf, there are some women who spend up to a third of their income on beauty maintenance, considering it an essential expenditure.

However, in her book Face Value, journalist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano argues that ‘so much of the serious talk about women and beauty focuses on the negative stuff: the never-ending pressure of the beauty standard, and the ways that shapes our self-image for the worse.’ Although she is keen to recognise and reflect on these concerns, she brings a much more positive view of makeup. ‘I’m always trying to find a peaceable resolution between feminism and beauty,’ she says.

Unsurprisingly, to the legions of women who love lotions and potions, Autumn argues that ‘wearing makeup can actually relax you, that you can convince people you’re better looking just by tweaking your personality.’ She believes that beauty can be a powerful tool of connection among women.

And there’s the rub. Lots of women – and I wholeheartedly include myself in this – really love those lotions and potions. I wake up in the morning, look at my pale face, and think ‘thank goodness for tinted moisturiser’. When I go out in the evening, it is the ritual of applying layers of creamy, powdery concoctions –  music on, glass of wine on the side, and especially alongside girlfriends – that can sometimes be more fun than the main event.

So can we wear lipstick without feeling guilty? Even Naomi Wolf admits that it’s ‘okay to take sensual pleasure in feminine textures and colour’– but surely this isn’t an innately female thing. Both sexes want to look ‘nice’, to wear nice clothes – to smell nice. It’s a biological imperative for us all to make ourselves as attractive as possible in order to seek out a similarly attractive-looking mate – because, biologically speaking, beauty equals health. In the past, men have worn makeup too – from ancient Egyptian royalty to eighteenth century fops – and also donned outlandish, restrictive costumes. This leads us back to the ever-present ‘nature versus nurture’ argument… there’s a popular social media meme that asks ‘Why do boys look good without makeup?’ and answers ‘Because society hasn’t told them they look bad without makeup.’ Attractiveness is whatever the social zeitgeist tells us is acceptable at that time.

As Naomi Wolf has shown, the pressure specifically levelled on women to spend so much unnecessary time grooming, arguably comes from sinister men in suits. It certainly starts with the ubiquitously attractive, narrow ideals of beauty that persist in the public domain. But women themselves perpetuate the pressure. Sadly, in today’s ‘lookist’ society, women can be horribly judgmental to each other, as anyone who has ever bought Heat magazine or clicked on bitchy Mailonline links can attest.

Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue, reinforces this idea when asked why she doesn’t put pictures of ‘ordinary’ women on the cover of her magazine. Her answer is that it simply wouldn’t sell. “Readers do not want to see the same thing they do when they look in the mirror on the front of the aspirational title.”

I was more surprised to see a female doctor in psychology, writing for Psychology Today magazine (replying to an email on the question of excessive pressure on women to look a certain way to succeed) observe unsympathetically that ‘every woman should care about how she looks if she wants to realise a comfortable level of success and self-sufficiency.’ Although the writer of the email highlights the deep insecurity of her teenage daughter, the doctor replies brusquely ‘no matter how shallow and unfair it is, attractiveness factors into most parts of our lives, including hiring and promotion decisions’.

Perhaps – in the same way that Emma Watson champions in her HeForShe campaign – the answer lies in diminishing the disparity between genders. The modern metrosexual man already takes a keener interest than ever in fragrance and skincare – figures show that beauty and personal care launches specifically targeted at men have increased globally by 70% over the past six years… but is there a future in male makeup? Prominent male vlogger Georgie Aldous thinks so and describes eloquently how makeup is an outlet for his creativity: ‘I see makeup as art, my paintbrush is my makeup brush and my paint is my makeup palettes.’ (Go Georgie – I know how you feel.) Cover Girl, the magazine that celebrates all things beauty related, was in the news recently for putting the first ever (fully made-up) man on its cover, makeup artist James Charles. High street giants Superdrug have recently launched a range of male specific cosmetics including ‘guyliner’ – which is thicker than normal eyeliner to make it easier for men to grip [bless their chunky male hands], along with ‘manscara’. They wouldn’t be giving them shelf space unless there was demand. The company’s director of trading, Jeff Wemyss, insists that the makeup is not for drag acts, but for masculine men who want to enhance their features. “These days you can be macho and wear makeup. Men are more obsessed with their appearance than ever before. There is no longer any pain in being seen to be vain.”

I will forever be fascinated with beautiful things, and that includes the magic that can be conjured from those tantalising bottles, tubes, jars and vials that grace the beauty counters of every department store on every high street in every corner of the globe. However, I also believe that beauty comes from the inside – that feeling your best and facing the world acceptably groomed are entirely different from chasing your tail in obsessing over unrealistic expectations.

I honestly don’t mind the lines under my eyes that are just an inevitable part of ageing. I do mind, however (and this echoes the pragmatic psychologist), if my nail varnish is chipped or my dark roots are growing out, as these are things that I can do something about – and things that make a real difference in how I present myself.

But the most important, the most valuable things a woman can arm herself with – red lipstick aside – are self-esteem and a positive outlook. Read books, argue about politics, take an interest in the world – but if you want to enjoy wearing makeup while you’re doing so, then hey … you and me both.

Naomi Wolf speaking at a press conference in New York in 2012; photo by Sunset Parkerpix.

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