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What makes up a feminist? Why criticising cosmetic-wearers is a reductive approach

What makes up a feminist?

DID YOU KNOW that if you utter the words ‘I’m a feminist’ through lips traced in lipstick, it has the potential to render the sentiment null and void?


No? Well, maybe that’s because you don’t subscribe to the same school of thought as Julie Bindel, a well-known British journalist, who recently proclaimed that ‘ditching the makeup bag’ was a more radical statement than ‘burning your bra’.

In a recent piece for The Independent, Julie, co-founder of Justice for Women, extolled the virtues of the fresh-faced aesethetic, writing: “I  have only worn makeup twice in my life – to a goth concert aged 15, and once for journalistic research.”

My morning beauty routine is very quick and simple. The only thing that goes on my face after my shower is unperfumed moisturiser; within 20 minutes from waking up, I am ready to leave the house.

Wonderful; I too know many women who happily choose the same route, but where they differ from Julie is that they don’t tend to pass judgement on the women who opt for another approach.

“Vast numbers of women endure the daily routine of applying makeup,” Julie laments, clearly neglecting to acknowledge the fact that for a great many women, their beauty routine is not something to be endured, but enjoyed.

“Women are even supposed to wear this hideous gunk when keeping fit,” Julie continues.

Are we supposed to? That’s news to me. Julie’s evidence for this appears to be based solely on the fact she ‘came across’ an article that offered advice on how to avoid skin damage if sweat and cosmetics combine.

Word to the wise; a woman’s routine may dictate that she will attend an exercise class or gym session while wearing make-up, but I have yet to encounter any literature that states a make-up free face eliminates you from participation.

And then things take a turn for the particularly condemnatory.

Women who wear makeup spend an average of nine whole days every year of their lives applying it. I have chosen to use that time campaigning against sexist stereotypes, such as the notion that women look better with makeup.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, and while that may indeed be the case, Julie is – yet again – neglecting to take the individual woman’s perspective and, indeed, agency into account.

shutterstock_1093816328 Source: Shutterstock/Sorbis

While referencing Drop-Dead Gorgeous by Kim Erickson which states ‘that women expose themselves to more than 200 synthetic chemicals during their “beauty” regime’, Julie fails to acknowledge how many women have familiarised themselves with the beauty industry, and in turn educated themselves on the various alternatives available.

Conscious of their cosmetic consumption, more and more women are opting for natural alternatives, cruelty-free brands and ethical ranges thereby negating Julie’s point that the matters raised in Drop-Dead Gorgeous have been ‘largely ignored’.

While her substantial body of work over the last three decades points to the contrary, in this instance Julie appears to believe that the concept of feminism hangs in the balance every time a compact is whipped from a handbag.

A free choice to wear makeup only exists if not wearing makeup is not a stigmatised option. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told how “lovely” I would look if I covered my face in slap. 

Here’s the thing though; it works both ways.

Women who favour a full face are regularly criticised by both men and women alike. In fact, you’re equally as likely to happen across a narrative demeaning women who wear ‘too much’ make up as you will about those who choose to forego it entirely, if not more.

Like many aspects of womanhood, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

“Do yourself a favour, and throw your makeup in the bin. It would be a much more revolutionary act than burning your bra,” Julie urges anyone who considers themselves a feminist.

If makeup is one of your biggest concerns when it comes to feminism, it’s worth consoling yourself with the fact that historians won’t know or care whether the women at the forefront of feminist movements were wearing eyeliner or not.

Julie’s stance is reductive on many levels; implying that women who choose to wear make-up are unable to critique and assess the beauty industry with the same astuteness as those who eschew cosmetics, in addition to suggesting that its use acts in opposition to a feminist outlook.

Julie may be well-intentioned, but if her motivation was to simply remind women that make-up is not a prerequisite when it comes to womanhood, she went the wrong way about it.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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