The Makeup Conundrum

Makeup is a very fascinating mode of self-expression. It is also a central part of many cultures across the globe. It is beautiful and is respected, but only within certain unspoken limits that are decided by the society in question. 

People often judge one’s personality by the amount and kind of makeup they are wearing. It can be either 'feminine’ and beautiful or unprofessional and frivolous. Not to mention, this is applicable only to one gender and everyone else is expected to not understand anything about it. In fact, they are expected to stay away from makeup, and when they do not follow this rule, they are seen as “unnatural”. 

For Indians, like many other cultures, makeup is auspicious. A specific kind of makeup is reserved for each occasion or milestone in one’s life like engagement or wedding and of course, this varies from culture to culture. If you have, by any chance, come across an Indian TV serial or movie, you will know that more often than not, makeup is used to express certain character traits. 

Generally, the female protagonist, who is shown to be a rather innocent and naive person, characteristics that we see being appreciated in female characters almost globally, has natural makeup on. On the other hand, the female antagonist tends to have very heavy makeup on, often playing with darker shades of red and black. This results in and is born out of an unconscious association of heavy or dark makeup with being promiscuous or a bad person. 

Moral policing in schools, especially in India, where I am from, is not rare. The administration and teachers often question the character of female students who choose to express themselves through different hairstyles or even just a simple eyeliner. It has been so ingrained in our psyche that most of us never even questioned it and in fact, were, to a large extent, in agreement with the policing. Makeup is simply a form of expression and associating it with not being serious about education is simply baseless and a way to control women. If a simple eyeliner is 'disruptive', we are definitely going wrong somewhere in our education system. 

An extension of this is the idea that women wear makeup solely to attract men. In fact, this is often used to shame girls in schools (at least, in India) who are found wearing anything that can be remotely associated with makeup. Honestly, if a little makeup distracts boys and men, they need to be taught to not sexualise anything and everything that is considered 'feminine' by society. Instead, school girls face punishment, sometimes to the extent of getting suspended. 

When someone with authority suspends someone over wearing makeup, with the reason that it deviates attention from what is the main purpose of school, that is education, and more importantly, that it distracts the 'boys', it is a clear proclamation that they are unwilling to put an effort to teach boys to be respectful and are more satisfied with sending the person wearing makeup home, because their education is simply not as important as that of the boys. 

The point of the matter is that makeup is simply a form of art. Neither should it be gendered nor should it be associated with a certain intention or personality trait. Some people wear makeup because of insecurities, some wear it because they enjoy it, some do it as a form of art and expression, some do it because it makes them feel confident - there is a myriad of reasons for wearing makeup. 

This association of makeup with being frivolous or in other words, 'girly', a trait usually seen as negative and associated with not being serious, hardworking or trustworthy, has been around for a while now. In fact, many women who are victims of internalised misogyny fail to notice the problem. 

In 2016, a young graphic designer, Katherine Young re-created the cover of Girls’ Life magazine. The original cover that featured Olivia Holt and articles like ‘Your Dream Hair’ and ‘The ‘New’ Denim Checklist’ changed into one that featured Olivia Hallisey (2015 Google Science Fair winner) and articles like ‘Your Dream Career’ and ‘The ‘New’ Dreamer Checklist’. This was widely appreciated. However, what I don’t understand is this: why can’t a life magazine targeted at young females feature both ends of the spectrum - articles on fashion and makeup, as well as other career choices? 

Secondly, it seems rather demeaning to view a successful actress with perfectly done make-up and a fashion-forward outfit as less accomplished or not symbolic of an empowered woman, than a girl with a successful STEM career. I agree that STEM girls are fewer in number and they do not get as much support, but bringing down one girl to pull up another is a bad strategy. What is required is a balance - women should be represented in all fields and all kinds of interests should be equally catered to and appreciated. 

In some cultures, women are expected to wear heavy makeup to conform to a very restrictive standard of beauty. This is, more often than not, influenced by Western ideals: sharp nose, fair skin, straight hair, oval face, etc. Women face societal pressure to use makeup to live up to these standards, lest they be misunderstood as not being serious or worth listening to or, worst of all, ugly.

In many cultures, women’s worth is defined by how easy it is to “marry her off” and being conventionally pretty helps the process. Yet, when they post their own pictures on social media looking absolutely gorgeous with makeup on, they are swarmed with messages about how she would look prettier without makeup or how a certain person prefers women who don't wear makeup. In male-dominated office spaces, women who dress up or wear makeup often find it difficult to be taken seriously and are repeatedly sexualised - makeup is seen as unprofessional. Yet, when they don’t, they are not seen as well put together or are questioned if they are sick. The double standards are quite frankly, astonishing and hilarious. 

Many of Hollywood’s beloved movies with 'ugly duckling transformation' sequences continue to propagate the idea that someone who isn't wearing makeup, is not really taking care of themselves and so, is not taken seriously. Until of course, the transformation sequence takes place and suddenly, everything she says makes sense and is worth listening to. Yet, the same movie has a jealous female character, portrayed as someone who understands only clothes and makeup, hell-bent upon making the protagonist’s life miserable for no apparent reason. The amount of knowledge concerning makeup makes all the difference in the personalities in these movies.

In South Korea, beauty standards are very strict and this often pushes youngsters to opt for plastic surgery simply to make their lives easier by being able to conform to the unrealistic Korean beauty standards. Over the last couple of years, K-beauty has made a mark on the Western world. However, it is now facing backlash from within Korea’s borders. Influencers and commoners alike want to see a shift in the standards that pressurise women to go to extreme lengths to attain an unrealistic youthful look appreciated by society. 

The Escape the Corset, #metoo and other similar feminist movements have seen Korean women openly expressing their dissatisfaction with the highly unequal and unfair societal norms through demonstrations like cutting their hair short and destroying makeup, among others. In June of 2018, Lina Bae, a former beauty Youtuber, posted a video titled 'I am not pretty'. The video concludes with her asking her audience to not compare themselves to what the media portrays as beautiful because they are special just the way they are. 

This message was appreciated by a large audience and the video went viral and was watched several million times. However, Korean media continues to worship a very specific look, a look that Korean idols continue to feel pressured to starve themselves and go under the knife to achieve. There are very few popular exceptions like Hwasa and Jessi, and they are treated as just that, exceptions in their place because idols are meant to be thin, tall and fair. 

What is more interesting is that society sometimes tends to have different expectations, in terms of beauty, from people of different races or ethnic backgrounds. For example, big lips and dark skin is not appreciated on black girls and yet, that seems to be the most appreciated 'look' on white women. Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner are frequently called out for their choices that are best described as blackfishing or black faces. However, the impact is short lived and the same mistakes are made over and over again. Blackface was a popular form of makeup used by white actors to portray a caricature of a black person for a long time. The portrayals were nowhere near accurate and were primarily meant to dehumanise and make fun of black people. So, you can see why people are not fond of such trends and rightfully so. 

Fox eyes are all the rage right now, with Bella Hadid making several magazine covers and fashion shows with the look, while East Asians, with monolids and natural fox eyes are frequently attacked and criticised for their looks. The 'migraine pose' that these models often use to pull the eyes up to give a fox eye effect is identical to the racially charged gesture made to make fun of East Asians. It is important to remember that this is not a recent issue. 

In the 1930's, Cecil Holland, a Hollywood makeup artist used various techniques to simulate East Asian fox eyes on white actors to portray Asian characters, often villains. This was practised for a very long time and gave us characters like Fu Manchu and I Y Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), both played by white actors. 

When it comes to genders other than cis-females, makeup is treated very differently. It's very clear from Candance Owen’s remarks on Harry Styles’ Vogue cover wearing traditionally feminine garments: “Bring back manly men”, that the conservative world is not very appreciative of makeup on men. They are often victims of homophobic slurs, when love for creative expression through makeup has absolutely nothing to do with one’s sexuality. Drag makeup is often criticised too. 

The disagreement often comes in the form of a claim that makeup was meant to be feminine and thus, should be reserved for women. This is actually objectively false, because it was only in the mid-1800's when makeup started to be associated with a particular gender. Queen Victoria I of Britain and the Church agreed that makeup was an “abomination” resulting in a widespread and long-standing association of it with femininity and the “Devil’s Work”. These ideas were exported with imperialism and colonialism. 

However, prior to that, men were often seen dawning makeup. In ancient Egypt, makeup was an integral part of the culture and had various religious connotations and so, makeup was worn, irrespective of gender. In ancient Rome, men often used makeup to cover up bald spots, lightened their skin using white powder, applied red pigment on their cheeks and so on and so forth. Even in Elizabethan England, makeup was popular among men. The influence of the Victorian age would start dying out only when Hollywood started using makeup on actors. However, they were still not mainstream. In the late 20th century, rock and roll artists started expressing themselves through makeup. Even today, as multiple male makeup gurus dominate the internet, many are wary of men wearing makeup in everyday life. However, this gendered aspect of makeup is clearly very new and for thousands of years, starting around 4000 BC to the mid-1800's, makeup was very common among men. 

Clearly, a lot of associations, often negative, made with makeup are baseless and are only an attempt to control women and demean those who do not agree with the modern societal interpretations of 'femininity' and 'masculinity'. Most of these are a result of internalised misogyny and perception of anything “girly” as frivolous and not serious. These have long-standing consequences in terms of forcing women to opt for extreme measures to adhere to beauty standards and to escape the constant scrutiny based on their looks, and alternatively, toning it down to be taken seriously in certain male-dominated spaces.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.