Can Putting On Makeup Be A Feminist Act?

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano's new book explores the big questions about beauty.
Can feminism exist in beauty culture?
Can feminism exist in beauty culture?
Thurston Hopkins via Getty Images

"Makeup can help people say, 'This is who I am,'" author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano told The Huffington Post over the phone last week.

As someone who has written about beauty for almost two decades at women's magazines, on her own blog, and most recently, for her book Face Value, Whitefield-Madrano is a bonafide expert on the complexities of beauty, self-image and self-love.

When Whitefield-Madrano spoke with women in her life, she found that many felt an inner conflict about caring about beauty.

"There was this apology that was riding alongside this entirely human desire to look good," she said. "I wanted to untangle that juxtaposition of wanting to look good, but feeling badly about it."

So Whitefield-Madrano started interviewing women. She spoke to all types of women -- a nun, a bodybuilder, a burlesque dancer, a little person, a dominatrix, and more. She wanted to know how beauty shapes women's lives, even women who don't necessarily wear makeup everyday or go to the salon weekly.

She wanted to get answers to big questions: Can putting on makeup be considered a feminist act? Do women-only spaces dedicated to beauty routines foster competition or sisterhood? Can beauty routines be about more than just "looking pretty"? And, is wanting to "look pretty" such a bad thing?

HuffPost spoke to Whitefield-Madrano about beauty culture, feminism and how the two intersect with women's everyday lives.

Why do you think it’s important to discuss the role of beauty in our daily lives?

When I was speaking with women for my book I found that they had this inner conflict and guilt about caring so much about beauty. Certainly there are women who are unabashedly in love with beauty and in love with the products, but I found that a lot of women who consider themselves a little more "serious" -- for lack of a better term -- had guilt about caring about those things. The word that came up a lot was "justify." They would justify why they cared about beauty. There was this apology that was riding alongside this entirely human desire to look good. I wanted to untangle that juxtaposition of wanting to look good, but feeling badly about it.

Before I started speaking with other women, I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I moved to New York to intern at Ms. Magazine and I was in this hot bed of feminism, and then I worked in women's magazines for most of my career. While women's magazines are feminist in their own way, there was this juxtaposition because I thought, "Well I'm the one in this weird conflicted space about beauty." But it wasn't me, it's a lot of women -- most women I would say.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of <em>Face Value. </em>
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value.
Slouxsie Suarez

If women don’t wear makeup, it’s considered "brave." If we wear too much makeup, we’re asking for too much attention or the wrong type of attention. Why do you think beauty and sexism are so intertwined?

I think it's because most of the people wearing makeup are women. Anything that a lot of women do and most men don't automatically becomes tainted. It automatically becomes frivolous or silly. I don't think we're going to see that change until we have a big historical shift back to when men were also dabbling in these things. It wasn't that long ago that men were wearing makeup -- we're talking Aristocratic men. They used to wear makeup in ways that women are now. At one point, the fashion in Europe was for men to wear very over-the-top makeup and women to have much more subtle makeup. Even then, people thought, "Well at least men are owning that they're wearing makeup, whereas women are so deceptive. They want you to think this is what they look like naturally." There's no way for women to win. Any funnel for sexism to come out, I think it finds a way.

“If looking your best -- whatever that might mean for you -- allows you to be able to present yourself to the world in the way that you want to be seen, that's only going to enable you to do better work in the world.”

- Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

What would you say to people who believe that you can’t be a feminist and love makeup?

I would acknowledge, first of all, that there is to some degree an inherent conflict that I don't want to pretend doesn't exist. The fact is is that beauty and beauty routines do cost a lot of time and money -- and that does take away from the larger goals we might have collectively as women. That said, that's almost an ideological point, because when I talked to feminists for my book that's not what they were personally reporting. It was almost like an intellectual quibbling that they were having with themselves. But it's not like these women were like, "I'm spending three hours a day on my makeup but I can't go out there and work for social justice." Again, it's a human desire to want to look good. We've taken it to this extreme and we've definitely slanted it more towards women which is undeniably problematic. But if looking your best -- whatever that might mean for you -- allows you to be able to present yourself to the world in the way that you want to be seen, that's only going to enable you to do better work in the world. A lot of people spoke about beauty in that way, a much more creative way than just, "Well I have to do this because it's expected of me."

It's also a way to express yourself and that in itself can be empowering.

Absolutely. I'm seeing a lot more creativity and play among millennials. That within itself isn't necessarily a feminist act, but I think that it speaks to the fact that makeup can help people say, "This is who I am."

What role does beauty play in female friendships?

By in large, the women that I spoke with didn't treat beauty as grounds for competition or jealousy -- they saw it as a way to communicate with other women. That's part of why beauty salons have such a historical significance; women created bonds at beauty salons. It really is a woman-only space. The easiest way to break the ice with another woman is to compliment her, for better or worse. I don't know how many times I've walked down the street and a woman will say "Great dress!" and it gives me this little boost and it lets me know that we're kind of in this together.

It's definitely this secret space that women don't realize is there until we start speaking about it.

Exactly! I'm even thinking of the relationship between beauty consumers and beauty professionals. I open the book mentioning this makeup artist friend of mine. I was interviewing her for my blog when I first met her and at the end of the interview she invited me over to her house so she could give me a makeover, so I could see what the experience was like. It was like a two-and-a-half hour process, and by the end her hands had been on my face, I felt her breath on my cheek, her body has been against mine -- and that's an intimacy that if you're a heterosexual woman you don't often have with other women. Beauty is a real portal to that. There's an intimacy there that I find really touching.

In your interviews, what role did you see beauty culture play in the lives of women who aren't straight and cisgender?

I interviewed a genderqueer person for my book and she doesn't wear makeup. I don't think she's ever worn makeup but she told me about going to a barbershop with other genderqueer women and what an experience that is, and how it helped her learn to navigate that space. To see her face light up when she was talking about her shared experience with other butch women at the barbershop made me realize, OK this isn't something just for girly-girls. We all can bond in this way. I know that a lot of trans women report in their transition into womanhood that beauty routines and those shared experiences -- and being able to do it openly -- was something they had been looking forward to since they were children.

You interviewed so many women from all types of backgrounds. What were some of the differences in their perceptions of beauty? Were there any common themes?

I went into it a little naively thinking that women who fit that conventional beauty type would have a different experience than those who were more average-looking, like most people. And I didn't find that to be the case at all. It wasn't a simple relationship. It seemed both very individualistic and very collective, all at once.

What I will say is that women of color talked about how the beauty standard for their race in particular had affected them. As women we all have certain standards that we're "supposed" to reach. And then African-American women have another standard that's an umbrella under this larger standard. And white women have theirs, and Latina women have theirs, and so on and so forth. That was the biggest thing that jumped out at me.

There were also differences in age groups. Older women I found -- and this is supported by statistics -- tend to become more comfortable with how they look over time. And that was reflected in the embrace of the juxtapositions that go along with beauty. I found that younger women were still really wrestling with these questions.

It's unfortunate that older women almost become "invisible" as they age in our culture. It's even more unfortunate that I look forward to getting older simply to get a reprieve from our harsh beauty standards.

Yes! And that's what some of the older women I spoke with said. They reported exactly that. That yea it kind of sucks to get older because they didn't even realize the sort of privilege that comes with being a young woman. But there was also a relief that goes along with it. They said to me, "Wait, if I'm finally -- after a lifetime of being judged on how I look -- not being judged on it as much." There's this sense that they can breathe a bit more.

I think it's wonderful when we see older women being celebrated for being beautiful, but at the same time I don't want to the new standard for older women mean that we all need to look like 85-year-old model Carmen Dell'Orefice. That's not the answer to solving the problem that older women become invisible in our culture.

“The message is not only do we have to look beautiful, but we have to feel beautiful. And I find that really problematic.”

- Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

In regards to the media’s recent “femvertising,” such as Dove’s Real Beauty ads, how do you think this type of media affects women’s self-esteem and beauty image?

That's a tough one because I think you can argue both sides. When I first saw the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, it was maybe 12 years ago. The women were in white underwear and they were either lightly retouched or not retouched at all and I was like "Finally!" It felt so great. But as it's become more popular I've become a lot more skeptical. Instead it feels like the message is not only do we have to look beautiful, but we have to feel beautiful. And I find that really problematic. There's been a backlash against that which is really a reflection of how women are affected by it. It's like, wait a second, this is not the answer. The answer to broadening the scope of beauty is not simply saying, "Now you have to feel beautiful and look beautiful!" That said, there's also a huge relief in seeing people who look a little more like you represented in media.

What role do you think social media plays in women’s body image and perceptions of themselves?

Surprise, it's complicated! There's two conflicting theories out there. One is that everyone's posting selfies on social media and many people are using the photo-retouching software and everyone's tagging their selfies with #Flawless or "Feeling great!" And of course that means we're just becoming more and more narcissistic. But the other argument is that it's actually making people feel worse about themselves. I would argue that both of those points are right. I think that with social media you can use it and abuse it.

I've seen a lot of creativity when it comes to self-presentation on social media. I find that really encouraging. That said, I've also seen people posting selfie after selfie and to me the message is really clear that they simply want some affirmation. That's not the end of the world, and it's not a terrible thing -- but I don't want us to fool ourselves into thinking that because there is this positive vibe on social media that it means that we totally love ourselves, and we feel great and beautiful and it's that simple. There's definitely a murkier story there for most people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Simon and Schuster

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