I used to love to wear makeup. My mother (Goddess rest her wonderful soul) wore a ton of makeup; she was known as a beauty – compared by friends and acquaintances to Elizabeth Taylor her entire life. So when I neared puberty, I happily reached for the mascara, eyeshadow, and lipstick, assuming this was just a natural and fun part of growing up. It being the 80’s, eye shadow was plentiful… much of it blue.
I got better at making my painted face look more “natural” throughout the 90’s, but I still wore makeup almost every day, as a routine part of getting dressed. It seemed fun, but harmless. Then, and he encouraged (pressured, shamed) me to wear yet more makeup, in much more dramatic (sleazy) styles. To please (appease, placate) him, I was soon sporting shiny red lipstick, long red-polished fingernails, high spiky heels, bleached hair, and tiny dresses from the Frederik’s of Hollywood catalog. And lots, and lots of makeup. I perfected the posture of chin down, eyes looking up through my lashes, dainty steps and swaying hips, voice soft and high pitched. I knew at the time that he demanded I look and act that way for two reasons:
- he was wracked with terrible insecurity and self-loathing; whenever he could win the prize for “best trophy girlfriend,” it soothed his terrible fears of his own inadequacy and failed manhood
- he demanded what porn had taught him to seek, so that he could mimic pornographic sex (and, of course, rape) in the bedroom (again, to soothe his deep and abiding fears of inadequacy as a male)
When I left him, I gradually shed that pornified skin. It took time to escape those many shackles, because he (and, of course, patriarchy) had trained me so effectively to believe that I was not truly human, and my main value in society was gratifying the male gaze. Over time, as my healing journey progressed, my clothes became less exhibitionist, my makeup became less frequent and less disfiguring, my chin lifted, my stride lengthened, and my ability to see myself as human grew stronger.
But I still found it reassuring, when heading out to a social event, to add that touch of mascara so that the big eyes all my partners had admired would look more doe-like, and that bit of lipstick so my lips would look a bit lush. Reassuring to camouflage any “unsightly blemishes” with a dab of concealer, to erase or minimize “flaws” and “inadequacies.” Reassuring to know I would be admired as “pretty.” Reassuring to know I looked “my best.”
But… then I became pregnant with my first child. Trembling, I checked the pregnancy test, my heart racing as the positive result appeared. Full of joy, I sprinted through my morning routine, eager to leap into this blessed, exciting, wonderful day of new beginnings! I automatically reached for my makeup kit. My hand paused, screeching to a halt of its own volition, inches above the cute little bag.
I stared at myself, stunned. What was I doing? What message was I sending my child? My child, whom I wanted to raise to love h/erself with total compassion and unconditional embrace, to see through the lies of patriarchal misogyny… was I really going to teach h/er that I needed to disfigure my face in order to please the misogynist male gaze? That I should hide my true appearance in order to gain anyone’s approval? Was I really going to model self-rejection, self-negation, and a definition of beauty as sexual submissiveness? In that moment, gazing into the mirror, eyes puffy with morning grogginess and recent tears of joy, I realized that I had never truly understood love or beauty or liberation before.
If I wanted my precious, precious child to believe s/he was inherently worthy of love… I needed to believe I was inherently worthy of love, too.
It’s amazing how easy it was after that moment, never to wear makeup again. It wasn’t/isn’t always easy to think affirming thoughts when I look in the mirror or at photos… billions of dollars and the foundation of patriarchy depend on convincing me that I look all wrong. Sometimes that’s a painful experience. But I’m never tempted. When I look at a mascara wand, or a tube of lipstick, all I see is a sword in the hand of patriarchy, meant to murder the self-worth, confidence and sacred dignity of females.
Because – what does makeup do, in the overwhelming majority of cases? Answer: it tries to make females look babyish and sexually aroused/available. Let’s break it down:
- Eye makeup: makes eyes look bigger, like a baby animal, nonthreatening, non-aggressive, powerless, supplicating, defenseless, childlike
- Lipstick (etc): makes lips look fuller and redder, to signal sexual arousal, sexual availability, the mouth as an inherently, constantly sexual organ
- Concealer/foundation/etc: hides wrinkles, scars, lines, age spots, and any sign of puberty or agedness, trying to achieve the most smooth, babyish skin possible: soft, sensitive, weak, childlike
- Hair removal of various kinds: remove facial hairs, thick eyebrows, or any other sign of post-pubescent strength and maturity, especially when those particular signs are used by patriarchy to symbolize male strength/dominance… to look childlike.
What have I forgotten? It’s been so long since I wore any makeup, and I avoid misogynist “fashion” magazines so assiduously, that I’m sure our culture has invented countless more ways to torture and disempower females by disfiguring us. Just as the vast majority of pornography depicts men degrading and abusing women and girls, makeup reinforces the message that females exist as chattel to be used for perverted male gratification.
To be clear: I am not shaming women who wear makeup. As I said at the beginning, my own beloved mother wore lots of makeup, and I wore it for decades, as well. Also, our sexist culture tries to make wearing makeup seem like a female requirement in many settings. I am pointing out a system, analyzing at the level of class-based oppression. Females, as a class, are conditioned by patriarchy to submit to and even embrace our own disempowerment in many ways. This is one such way.
But I want to end with a message of gratitude. First, I am grateful to the lesbians I have known, especially the butch lesbians, who showed me that to be female does not have anything to do with makeup, with looking disempowered and sexually available (a.k.a. “feminine”), with hair length or uncomfortable clothes, with pornified degrading sleaze, or with giving any fucks whatsoever about pleasing the male gaze or pleasing any men whatsoever. I have known quite a number of truly wonderful, powerful butch lesbians, and they have my eternal gratitude for modeling liberation to me, even to this day.
And second, I am grateful to my two daughters, who even as I birthed them, they birthed me into a far more brave, honest, and authentic female self. As I have written before, vaginas are incredibly powerful… and we never, ever need apologize for who we are. Imagine if women and girls everywhere all tossed out the makeup, and tossed the vaginoplasty and labiaplasty, too! No misogynist disfigurements. Imagine if we understood, truly understood: we vaginas are gloriously, divinely powerful, perfect, and worthy of true, reverent, sacred, joyful love. Goddess doesn’t wear makeup… or any other shackles. She offers us freedom. We don’t need to try to look like Goddess; that’s the Grace of being born in her divine image… we just do.
 Some women (for example in goth subcultures) use makeup differently, in an attempt at subversiveness, trying to achieve a more formidable appearance. I understand that this topic has nuance that can’t be squeezed into a short blog post. Let’s keep talking.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.