How Makeup Is Empowering, Subjugating, and Exclusionary All at Once

We’re fascinated with makeup. In 2020, the global makeup market was 34.38 billion dollars. Makeup is different things to different people – a fun exploration, a daily necessity like tooth brushing, an addiction with an insatiable hunger. As society heads further down the path into a need for constant newness, makeup products are one of the ways to fulfill this. Every season, there’s a swarm of new palettes with whimsical names that tempt us. That’s not a bad thing. But makeup is a source of controversy, a deeply polarized topic that can swing from the wonderful to the dangerous.

On the positive pole, makeup is a tool for creative expression. The face is a canvas, and it begs to be celebrated by the inner artist. From the playful to the dramatic, the subtly nuanced to the rockin’ bold, there is no limit to the permutations. And colors make a statement. Want to exude confidence and power? A bold lip can get you there. Sultry with a dash of moodiness tossed in? The right eyeshadow does the trick. Kindness and innocence? That’s what nudes and neutrals are made for.

When makeup is at its best, it’s a way for us to go deeper into our exploration of ourselves. We unearth facets that we didn’t know where there and polish them until them gleam. Makeup, in helping us express our deepest truths, can give us the courage to find our voices. It’s a step to the end goal – self-actualization.

But makeup isn’t all rosy. It can be used to keep women in their place, to remind them that they are ornamental showpieces. It’s a not-so-subtle innuendo that women exist so that men can be pleased by their appearance. That’s where makeup turns toxic. When a woman isn’t a woman without it. How often has a woman been told that she would “look so much prettier” with a hint of blush or a swipe of lipstick.

Inherent in that message is that makeup masks what it mediocre. That women need makeup to be attractive. In telling this to our wives, sisters, friends, and daughters, we are perpetuating a story that is way past its sell date.

The narrative of makeup continues to evolve and with it has come a new opportunity and challenge – the erasure of the gender binary. Men, intersex, and non-binary people are challenging the notion that makeup is a province only for women. They’ve tapped into the constructive aspect of makeup, where inner truth can be made manifest.

But there’s an exclusionary viewpoint that’s emerged alongside. A position firmly entrenched in the heteronormative. That the gender binary should remain a binary, and that people who don’t fit neatly into it are not normal. That people should be marginalized, ridiculed, and forced to conform to outdated societal thought patterns. The thing is that what’s normal one year is anathema the next. At various times in history, men and women proudly wore makeup in tandem.

Makeup isn’t new. Six thousand years ago in ancient Egypt makeup was already in use (yep, the ingredients were poisonous). By the Middle Ages, makeup had become a devil of sorts, linked to immoral behavior, and banned by the Church. By the 1700s, men and women were both back in makeup, only for the pendulum to swing back towards women in the centuries to come.

Maybe the lesson is that makeup is a tool, not a problem. It matters why we’re using that tool. If we’re doing it for our own enjoyment, deepening our understanding of ourselves, or showing the world who we are, then that tool is being put to brilliant use. But when it stops becoming a choice, then it’s part of the problem. Because the right to choose should be inalienable.

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Pierce Mattie

Pierce Mattie is a full-service marketing agency that interacts with consumers and key stakeholders at every stage of the journey. With a focus in beauty, health and wellness, we are immersed in the marketing landscape, able to powerfully communicate a brand’s point of difference to acquire and maintaining customers. The content team is obsessed with what's trending in the digital world, and how it intersects with consumer behavior. We are passionate about the changing landscape of the world, including how emergent technologies affect brand attachment, how diversity and inclusivity are critical to success, and where humans fit into the equation.

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