Over my desk I have three photographs, all of which capture great memories for me: a picture with my sorority sisters at our chapter house, a spontaneous selfie with a university friend in the library, and one of myself with my sister and Carrie Fisher at a fan expo. I look happy in each of these photos – I was happy. In a couple of them, I was wearing a full face of makeup, but in one, my face is completely makeup-free. And when I look at these photos, I realize how much it doesn’t matter to me which photos I tried to look nice for, and the ones I didn’t.
I started wearing makeup pretty late. Apart from messing around with orange eye shadow and lip smackers in grade six and seven, I didn’t really wear makeup until university. Even then, it was mainly because I wanted to look like I had eyelashes when I was onstage for a cappella concerts (I’m very pale and looked kinda scary under the lights). But at some point, my desire to have a visible face onstage bled into the rest of my life, and I developed a serious obsession with all types of makeup.
For a while, it was an unquestioned interest, something I never unpacked or considered. But around a year ago, I began asking myself, why? Who do I wear makeup for? Who even told me to?
I know that I don’t wear makeup for male attention, and many women say they wear makeup for each other – I’m not sure it’s that either, although being complimented on my lipstick is nice. Many people also say makeup makes them feel empowered – I don’t think it’s that either, but I have more to say about empowerment later.
I make these comments as someone who feels more like herself in Kat Von Dee’s Ink Liner than without. But I’ve begun asking myself why something outside of myself is so necessary to looking (and feeling) like myself. When did a $25 dollar tube of pigment start to be as important as putting on my glasses and combing my bangs every morning? I have created an image of myself, with big glasses (which I need to see) and a hairstyle I’ve barely changed since high school, and the makeup I wear is part of that image. So why is black eyeliner so important to me? Why is covering up a zit necessary when we all have imperfect skin anyway?
Makeup companies are owned by people who don’t care about me, or my friends. They don’t really care if I’m happy or not – they just care that I’m uncomfortable enough to keep putting money in their pockets. Women have been pressured into wearing makeup for centuries, and the pressure is all implicit. But it matters. In a study from 2011, researchers at Boston University found that wearing makeup makes women seem more trustworthy, and another study suggested that women are more likely to get hired and advance in careers when they wear makeup.
While many feminists today embrace makeup as an “empowered choice”, it’s a little ignorant to reduce it to a choice. When makeup affects how others perceive us in professional settings, when companies like Sephora profit from our insecurity and obsession, when applying makeup together is part of female social interactions, it is not such an easy choice. The choice exists – but what exactly is behind that choice?