Friday, 16 May 2014

Why is being photographed without makeup the bravest thing a woman can do?

Looking a little shinier than usual without makeup.  I'm a great fan of the mirror selfie as I'm more used to seeing my face that way, so I'm less likely to hate the photo

The notion of a no-makeup selfie is an odd one.  Let's face it, the notion of a selfie is an odd one - in the many thousands of photographs taken during my childhood and teenage years, not one of them involved the person behind the camera taking a picture of themselves.  But mobile phones and digital cameras have made the term 'selfie' a standard part of our vernacular, and perhaps none more so than the no-makeup selfie.

I deliberately didn't participate in the recent spate of no make-up photographs being shared across social media: I still texted to donate to Cancer Research, of course, but I was uncomfortable with a few aspects of the trend, not least the idea that it was being done to 'raise awareness of cancer', as if cancer is something people are unaware about.  I questioned why awareness couldn't have been raised in more constructive ways: photos of women checking their breasts for abnormalities, for example (although if that had been the meme, Facebook would have banned it in a heartbeat, because from the amount of breast-feeding photographs they've censored, their attitude it clearly no boobs portrayed in a non-sexual way). 

More pertinently, I didn't like the way in which taking a selfie without makeup on was somehow seen as terribly brave: "look how far we'll go to help battle cancer".  This is not to demean the efforts of all those women who participated with the best intentions, who together managed to raise £8m for Cancer Research in a matter of days.  Rather, it's a criticism of the way in which the meme perpetuated the myth that a makeup free woman is somehow unnatural, and that being photographed - shock horror - without makeup is the bravest thing one can do. 

Although I've written at length about body positivity and acceptance, I have never managed to extend my positive attitude to my face. Put simply, I've never felt attractive or pretty and I've always focused on my flaws; the exact opposite approach I take with the rest of my body.  Because of this, I am almost never without a full face of makeup.  I honestly can't think of a time in the past 20 years when I've left the house bare-faced.  For a long time I suffered from acne, which I felt a need to cover up, and over time wearing makeup became a habit that I have never broken.  From foundation to even out my skin tone, to eyeshadow and liquid eyeliner flicks, I make myself up every morning and I take it all off every night, but I am becoming increasingly keen to examine the politics behind my choices.

There exists within our culture a set of gender norms, ones which have, if anything, become more entrenched in recent years.  Primped and perfect versions of womanhood are sold to us through the mainstream media.  From the surgery-enhanced charms of Kim Kardashian to willowy Hollywood stars, magazines tell us that 'real women' are hairless, poreless, blank and beautiful.  My generation of feminists, while eager to acknowledge that fat is a feminist issue and carrying out some powerful activism around fat acceptance and body positivity, seem less likely to accept that beauty can also a feminist issue.  Perhaps keen to distance ourselves from the 'hairy legs and dungaress' stereotypes, instead an aesthetic influenced by burlesque and pin-up girls - eyeliner, red lipstick, vintage dresses -has become a popular one with many young feminists, me included.

I am glad that feminism has moved beyond the debates of the 70s and 80s, about whether you can be a 'good' feminist and wear makeup or high heels, but I sometimes wonder if we now go too far in the opposite direction and enact gender norms without question.  I've recently read a number of interesting pieces by young feminists arguing - powerfully and persuasively - that their choice to wear makeup or wax their bodies is as valid a choice as the one to allow pubic hair to run free or go barefaced in public.  And, as someone who chooses not to wax but does wear makeup, I'm totally on board with that.  But it's also essential to recognise that whatever choices we make are made within a fiercely patriarchal society, and that wearing what we want is not an inherently feminist act.  I believe that we should perhaps think more critically about how our freedom to choose what to do with our bodies takes place within that society, with all of the limits it inevitably imposes, and to question why the choices we make (seemingly freely) so often seem to be ones that happen to perpetuate traditional gender norms.


  1. Very thought provoking piece. I have no answers to the questions you raise but do agree that these choices are not made in a vacuum and are quite probably influenced by the world we live in and cultural norms. I know I felt this very keenly at one point and less so now but it is still a massive influence, even if/when it is something I am kicking against.

  2. GREAT post. I (also) don't have answers. I rarely wear make up but that's because I'm lazy and I have good skin rather than to make a point; I didn't participate in the no make up selfies because, for me, there was nothing brave about it. I did see an article talking about how Movember was originally all about being daft and looking ridiculous and having a laugh rather than "being brave" and it suggested women do the equivalent - but the more I thought about it, the more I failed to come up with a female equivalent; we accept some really bizarre looks as "fashionable" and we accept such strict norms with regards body hair, make up etc, that anything we chose to do for a month would either be brave or trendy.

    (of course, Movember is trendy now, but that's a whole other story...)

    1. I think the key thing is that, for women, looking looking daft or ridiculous is also seen as brave, because it's so far removed from the perfect visions of womenhood we're meant to be. So even if we did something supposedly silly-looking, we'd be brave for making ourselves look daft.

  3. I've often felt embarrassed at my reliance on make-up, because I somehow felt it was anti-feminist. I wear make-up every single day, even if I know i'm not leaving the house. It's not that I think I look bad without it - I look ok, maybe a bit tired, and my skin is pretty good - but I just don't feel 'finished' without it. I absolutely hated the whole 'no make-up selfie' thing, which I felt kind of bad about, but I just couldn't get with it at all. The misconception that it was brave really bugged me - even moreso a comment I read somewhere in which someone (I forget who) compared women baring their make-up free faces as showing a vulnerability similar to that shown by cancer patients. WTF???!!

    Your final comment is so spot-on. I like to think of feminism as being more about choice than about equality, but with the assumption that choices bring equality, if you know what I mean. A woman has a right to choose to wear make-up or not (as should a man, for that matter) and its the fact we have that choice which is important. I do many things that would be classed as feminist and many things that would be classed as anti-feminism, but the world isn't that black and white. I guess its more about looking at our reasons for making the choices we make.

  4. The importance of raising £ for the cause aside, I thought this was a bit of a silly campaign. I almost never wear makeup (if I'm going to a wedding or something I will, or maybe on holiday, and then it's just foundation/eye shadow/mascara) so pretty much every picture of me is makeup free. Wow! I'm so brave! *sarcasm* Also, I don't wear it for the same reason most women do - I know I'm not pretty, so it'd be like trying to polish a turd (not that I think it's like polishing a turd when other women wear it, just me! I'd never judge anyone the way I judge myself). I've long given up on trying to fit into the beauty standard, I never will, so why try? I guess it takes confidence in not giving a shit what people think to get to this point, though.

  5. I never wear make-up and never have. I don't have great skin and am not a natural beauty,but cannot stand the feeling of makeup on my face. I also have no idea how to do it properly.