Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to email@example.com and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.
This week's question:
"I very strongly believe in challenging traditional gender roles. Recently at a pre-drinks event, I was putting make-up on and a guy who had previously received my opinion on something to do with gender jumped at the chance to ask why I was doing that - and why I would conform to such gender stereotypes as being interested in wearing make-up. Aside from telling him that I do exactly whatever the hell I want with my body, how can I explain wanting to look nice while maintaining my refusal to conform to what a man wants me to be?"
Feminist Anna-Marie Crowhurst says:
Was this guy wearing a dress and carrying a handbag when he asked you about conforming to gender stereotypes, hmm? *twiddles bowtie*
You see my point. But do you have to explain this - or anything?
I get what you’re saying; you want to give someone who seems curious about gender issues (obviously a bonus) a considered response - but really, why should you have to justify your choice to do anything? It’s just what you choose to do. Who cares what he or anyone else thinks? Tell him to swivel, as we say in Berkshire.*
The old arguments about makeup run thus: Are we being objectified and/or sexualised when we wear it? Are we subconsciously slathering it on to attract men? Are we trying to keep up with impossible patriarchal standards of beauty? Have we been brainwashed to think it’s good?
Would it not be more freeing and brave to go bare-faced into the world and cry “I AM WOMAN (WITH AN UNEVEN SKIN TONE, SPARSE, UNEVEN EYEBROWS AND VERY TINY EYES)”?
But I do know that when I personally cake it on, I’m not thinking about the male gaze, I’m thinking about things like: how can I look more like Debbie Harry circa 1978 (= lipgloss + very, very dim lighting)? And how can I disguise the fact that I’m hungover, have had five hours sleep and possibly just threw up in my bin (eyeliner + blusher)?
(As an aside, here is the greatest parody of beauty double standards ever).
If you want to give what you’re doing a name, you could tell fellow-me-lad about “lipstick feminism” - that’s the official (but admittedly not great) term for third-wave feminists (that’d be us) who think wearing a bit of slap and/or embracing traditionally feminine stuff, including sex positivity (reclaiming the word “slut” for example, as on the 2011 global wave of Slutwalks) is like, “a thing”.
Or you could say that to you, make-up is a form of self expression that allows you to be creative, and express who you are, and is basically an art whose practitioners should be praised and admired (ref Japanese Kabuki theatre, the New Romantic movement and fierce drag queens everywhere).
Viewed differently (or done differently) makeup can be rebellious. It can be transformative, part of a movement. Rather than conformity, it can be an act of defiance.
*No one has said this since 1987.
What do you think? Is a love of make-up on some level bound up with a need to please men - or can we reclaim it under the terms of third-wave feminism? And is it possible to re-frame the whole thing as a rebellious act of self-expression - as Anna-Marie suggests? Let us know your thoughts, below.