Where does makeup fit into body confidence and feminism?

These days, social media is awash with posts about body confidence. Feeling comfortable in your own skin, rejecting the need to be ‘beach body ready’. Because let’s face it, we’re all beach body ready. There’s a beach, I have a body. I’m ready. Another movement I’m loving is feminism. Women refusing to conform to the societal norms that make life more difficult for us. Hair removal is a great example and it’s wonderful to see women choosing whether to remove bodily hair, rather than feeling that they have to. However there’s one thing that doesn’t sit comfortably with me in all this, and that’s makeup.

XLS Nutrition photoshoot in Manchester. Picture by Dave Thompson/Route One Photography – 07711 459404

Why do women wear makeup?

A Google search doesn’t really give a definitive answer as to why women wear makeup. The Guardian sum it up as a mixture of insecurity, patriarchy, sex and fun. Other publications have similar ideas, mentioning the fact that we treat women differently based on how attractive they are. Certain features are regarded as attractive, so we enhance those features with makeup. Strong makeup causes us to view women as more powerful, leading to them being treated differently in business.

So if wearing makeup is a patriarchal norm and a mask to cover our insecurities, then why is it so frequently glossed over in both the feminist and body confidence movements?

Makeup and body confidence

The body confidence movement is about being happy in your own skin. It is encouraging every one of us to stop judging both others and ourselves on appearances. It’s about wearing what you want, when you want regardless of your size or perceived flaws. It encourages us to stop comparing ourselves to others and to celebrate what our bodies can do rather than beating ourselves up about the way we look. As with all good things, it can go too far. Donna recently wrote about her concerns that she no longer felt comfortable saying she wanted to lose a bit of weight. However, there is rarely any mention of going without makeup in articles about body confidence.

I struggle with this concept. If you were truly confident in your own skin, why would you need to cover up the skin on the part of your body that everybody naturally looks at? How can you put on a bikini and claim to be body confident if you are unable to do so without covering the shape of your face with contouring and painting on bright red lips? If you can accept your mum tum, why not your mum eye bags? If stretch marks are a sign of an amazing body that has carried children, why can’t you accept that your wrinkles are just as much a part of you?

I put hair dye in the same category. Accepting who you are means accepting your age. Growing old gracefully and embracing the grey is a sign of confidence. And yet, women who rarely wear makeup or dye their hair are frequently regarded as having given up on their appearance.

Makeup and feminism

In my research into this, I was heartened to read a piece in the Independent written by Julie Bindel, a woman who is urging feminists to throw away their makeup bags. She cites the fact that women spend on average nine days a year applying makeup. Bindel herself uses that time more wisely, in calling out sexist stereotypes including the notion that women look better if they wear makeup. Bindel also references hair dye as a blow to feminism. Noting that at age 56, she is frequently asked why she doesn’t colour her hair. Her response is that she chooses not to condemn herself to a lifetime of redoing her roots.

I can understand why people wear makeup. It’s an expression of creativity, a confidence boost and a way to be the person you want to be. However, it is also a mask to hide behind. A mask that ensures we are taken seriously because we conform to societal norms. A mask that nets the beauty industry billions of pounds a year and leaves us out of pocket. And yet my biggest concern is the environmental impact of that mask.

The argument in favour of reducing makeup use

I first became interested in the environmental impact of cosmetics when I tried to reduce my palm oil consumption as much as possible. The arguments over palm oil use are intricate and complicated. Whether sustainable palm oil is a viable alternative is equally up for debate. However, it is impossible to deny that the palm oil industry is destroying our rainforests. The hard-hitting Red Ape documentary brought the plight of the Orangutan to the public domain. But did you know that the vast majority of makeup contains palm oil?

Palm oil in cosmetics is often in the form of derivatives. These may be only trace amounts of the substance, but derivatives are frequently from unsustainable sources. I battled to find makeup that doesn’t contain palm oil and the one brand I found later admitted that they did in fact use derivatives. So the stark reality is that for every lipstick, mascara or foundation you buy, you’re contributing to the destruction of rainforest habitat.

Not to mention the chemicals contained in the products. Smothering your face in chemicals is of course personal choice. But be aware that when you wash it off, those chemicals go directly into our waterways. Then there’s the plastic packaging. Need I go on?

An informed decision

In recent years, I have dramatically cut down on the amount of makeup I wear as a direct result of my concerns about its environmental impact. However, I am far from perfect and a few times a month I do feel the need to conform by wearing makeup to go out or attend a work event. Calling out sexist behaviour and body shaming are important. Everybody should have the right to look, act and dress exactly the way they want to without fear of judgement, discrimination or unfair treatment.

However, the world we live in is important too. So if you are making a stand in the name of body confidence or feminism, please consider makeup and hair dye. I appreciate as a feminist or a body confidence warrior, the environment is not your fight. But makeup and hair dye are as much a part of your fight as hair removal and bikinis. And preserving the world for our children and grandchildren is everybody’s battle.

Gorran Haven viewed from coastal path

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  1. I love this post so much! I can’t even begin to comment on what in particular I love about it, because there is so much to think about and reflect on.
    I don’t wear makeup. I don’t even own any (apart from nail varnish, which I do wear). It’s not an environmental or feminist decision, I just can’t be bothered and don’t see a need for it!
    I need to find these people who are OK with body hair! I remove some of my body hair, but not at all of it and I feel almost ashamed to admit that I don’t. I feel like body hair is the last bit of body confidence for society to accept. It is now acceptable to be any shape or size and feel proud, which is a fantastic thing. But none of these women celebrating their size and their bodies seem to have any body hair. Sadly the majority of society still views body hair as ‘disgusting’.

    1. You’re absolutely right Sarah, body hair is generally not accepted in the same way as other things. It’s interesting that you don’t see a need for makeup, I definitely need to take a leaf out of your book on that. I rarely wear it but sometimes feel like I should. Realistically though it’s not necessary, I should definitely embrace that.

  2. I’ve not worn make-up for over 25 years and I have never dyed my hair. I may look older for it. I may look tired sometimes – but that’s the real me who you get and I am grateful (cheesy though it sounds) that I am old enough to have some wrinkles and grey hairs – many women never live to be my age. I dabbled with wearing make-up when I was younger but never got on with it and never really felt comfortable wearing it so I just stopped, only later realising I was also helping the environment!

    1. You’re absolutely right Rosie, ageing is a privilege and I am trying to embrace it too. I rare makeup infrequently but the more I think about it, the more I realise I should stop wearing it all together for so many reasons.

  3. This is a really interesting post, and actually an issue I have been thinking about for a while – that and leg shaving. I always wear make up, it stems from having terrible acne in my teens and having very low confidence, I hate not having it on now – my skin does have some scarring which doesn’t help. BUT, I tell my daughter all the time that she is perfect the way she is, I hate with a passion young children wearing make up. If I truly believe this about my daughter, why can I not about myself. You are right it is a feminist issue. As is leg shaving, I hate doing it and would love to be brave enough to stop doing it. Although I have swapped to washable make up remover pads I haven’t fully looked into the environmental issue either, but of course it’s going to have an impact. Really great and thought provoking post x

    1. Thank you Laura. I agree with you about telling our daughters that they don’t need makeup but continuing to wear it ourselves. I used to think I was letting my daughter down by not making enough of an effort with my appearance but I’ve realised that maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe I should be showing them that I’m happy and confident in the way I look without makeup.

  4. I love this post Nat. I don’t think I really realised until reading it the environmental factor of makeup. But I had found it odd that people talk about body confidence and feminism, baring all on the internet or shouting about not shaving whilst having a full face of makeup on. I have been consciously trying to wear make up less – and I don’t wear it every day anyway. I think for me it’s all about being happy with my face – making peace with it and loving it for what it is. Rather than covering it up and trying to make it what society perceive to be better than what I have already. Sorry for the ramble – thanks for giving me something else to reflect on x

    1. Thanks Donna. I am in a similar position to you in terms of trying to cut back on makeup without stopping wearing it completely. It is difficult to make peace with the way you look having been constantly told that to be beautiful you need to do certain things and look a certain way.

  5. I love make up and wear it every day. For me, I just look better with it on. It isn’t really about anyone else. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to do what others think is right. While you’re saying we’re bowing to the pressure of society and wearing make up. I feel we need to take the pressure off ourselves and do what we want – make up or no make up. It’s an individual decision, but I wouldn’t want to feel pressured into not wearing it for fear it would translate to me not being body confident. I don’t see make up as covering up, but rather enhancing.

    1. Thanks Aby, that’s a really interesting perspective. For me it’s definitely a mask, I feel more confident with it on and I love the idea of feeling just as confident in the way I really look without having to hide behind it.