When charting the progress of female representation in history – women’s suffrage, equal access to institutes of higher education…fast forward to the 21st century and who would have thought women wearing makeup or the lack thereof would have such far-reaching implications for the representation of female-kind.
Particularly for women in the public eye - celebrities, politicians, national athletes, where wearing makeup is considered an industry or professional norm, the conscious decision to not wear makeup is often interpreted as a symbolic move and the conveying of some nuanced stand.
Multiple Grammy award winner, and judge/coach on NBC’s The Voice, Alicia Keys, made international headlines when her decision to eschew makeup while appearing on primetime network television went public. Writing in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, Keys describes her no-makeup revelation as originating from a need to discover ‘the real me’. For Keys, not wearing makeup spoke to a deeper place of self-acceptance and self-actualisation and translated to her ‘finally uncovering just how much I censored myself’.
Alicia Keys going barefaced as judge/coach on Season 11 of NBC’s The Voice (Michael Muller/NBC)
Katy Waldman of Slate further ponders upon the symbolism of not wearing makeup as a plausibly feminist move, and it’s pretty easy to see how one could jump to that convenient conclusion. Considering how we live in a society where the pressure for women to look good percolates from women in the spotlight to the everyday woman going about her daily business, it’s so simple for bystanders to assume that wearing makeup is a cultural norm. By default, not wearing makeup then becomes some form of spirited rebellion against patriarchally enforced cultural standards.
The idea that women are expected to look good and wear makeup is so pervasive and entrenched in society. In fact, during the recent Olympic games in Rio, speakers on Fox’s Sports Court held a six-minute-long debate on why female athletes should be wearing makeup. One of the speakers, Bo Dietl, a former NYPD detective argued, “I think when you see an athlete, why should I have to look at some chick’s zits? Why not a little blush on her lips and cover those zits! I like to see a person who wins that gold medal go up there and look beautiful.”
Apart from being personally infuriating on so many levels, Dietl’s diatribe completely misses the mark on why the Makeup/No Makeup debate has become an increasingly hot button topic in popular culture. Originally published in USA Today as an article on The empowering reasons why female athletes are wearing makeup during the Olympics, the now infamous Sports Court ‘debate’ reduced what should have been an intelligent discussion on how makeup can be a conduit for the expression of self-confidence and empowerment, to a tired, almost sexist commentary on a woman’s appearance.
Shannon Rowbury flying the American flag and colours in bold red lipstick (Shannon Rowbury/Instagram)
As Shannon Rowbury, USA middle-distance runner, so aptly told USA Today, “You can be a strong, athletic, courageous woman and you can wear lipstick…It doesn’t have to be one or the other.” The bottom line is, the decision to wear makeup is a uniquely personal one, and stems from an autonomous place of self-expression not dictated by external cultural pressures.
"You can be a strong, athletic, courageous woman and you can wear lipstick...It doesn't have to be one or the other."
Shannon Rowbury, Olympian
Likewise, the decision to not wear makeup is an equally empowering one. The choice to put on or take off products from your face is a personal one, completely about how it makes you feel, and definitely not about what others think. Writing in Lenny Letter about her personal experience of being photographed without makeup, Alicia Keys describes, “I swear it is the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt.” In the process of moving past her struggles with insecurity, to Keys, taking off her makeup was part of her personal journey towards self-discovery and love.
Alicia Keys, no makeup photo shoot for new song, In Common (Alicia Keys/Twitter)
Both sides of the Makeup/No Makeup debate present equally empowering reasons for why women choose to or choose not to put on makeup. And I feel that both ultimately draw to the same conclusion – it’s your face, your decision, your method of self-expression. In a society where what a woman puts or does not put on her face has as Callie Beusman of Jezebel puts it, “some kind of big hermeneutic repercussion”, more power to you for making your own decisions on what you choose to put or not put on your face.
Where your outward expressions are a reflection of your inward impressions, looking and feeling good share an increasingly symbiotic relationship. So whether you’re wearing or not wearing makeup, if it makes you feel good, you do you.