Whatever suits your (makeup) palette: the complexities of makeup and gender

makeup being empowering and degrading
For most makeup wearers, there are complex connotations of their identity that they must struggle with on a daily basis.

Managing Mosaic Editor

For most American women, makeup is highly ingrained in the culture of their growth and development. Vague memories of standing in front of a mother, aunt or older sibling’s bathroom mirror, smearing their red lipstick across their face come to mind; most can remember their first, usually unfortunate, encounter with eyeshadow and eyeliner in middle school. Among American women, makeup has become the language of beauty and even professionalism; we hardly take a moment to account for the intersections between gender, makeup and even race that are encountered with every swipe of eyeliner.

Although doing makeup has been designated as a “female” activity by society, according to Joe Kim, a junior human services major and the Director of Diversity and Education for the Lavender Programming Board, many of the trends in modern makeup began with black drag queens during the twentieth century. Makeup is highly intertwined with the historical origins of drag, with many early black drag queens adopting the art form to create a sense of community and challenge norms and restrictions surrounding ideas of gender.

Kim says that the dramatic makeup that characterizes drag has also made its impact in the contemporary beauty scene, with both positive and negative effects.

“When a really extravagant idea comes into the mainstream, it becomes something that people want to do in a more palatable way,” Kim says. “What we see in makeup tutorials and trends nowadays are definitely from drag roots. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s always important to remember where it comes from.”

In spite of its drag origins, makeup has been consistently marketed in the mainstream as a female activity. According to Abigail Cottrill, a first year graduate student in the Sociology and Criminology Program who analyzes gender from a cultural lense, the female origins of drag are equally as complex as the intersection with makeup and other genders.

“What I think is interesting is this cycle we are in as women in particular,” Cottrill says. “Even when we say it’s for our own expression and it’s for artistic value, it’s still a way of being suppressed because we’re told what we’re expected to look like. Even when we try to climb out of that oppression, it’s still being shoved back down.”

While Cottrill acknowledges that makeup can be empowering to women because of its artistic value and the agency it gives women — they can choose what they want to accentuate — what is viewed as beautiful is typically dictated by patriarchal and Eurocentric values. Additionally, she believes that these values have historically made makeup inaccessible to men, due to the connotations of femininity surrounding makeup.

Cottrill believes that with male “makeup gurus” like James Charles and Manny MUA, makeup is gradually moving out of its “feminine” boundaries.

“Luckily we’re starting to move away from that [idea that makeup is only for women] with the expansion of the beauty industries,” Cottrill says. “[But] I feel like a lot of things are also made for women in the makeup industry. There’s not a lot to cover up five o’clock shadows yet, but there’s stuff to cover up blemishes and bumps.”

While makeup plays an instrumental role in the identities of men and women, it also is significant to non-binary individuals. Kim, who identifies as non-binary, uses makeup to present themself as however they identify on a given day, in order to help others understand their gender identity.

“It was very liberating to be able to have small, cheap avenues of doing stuff to my face and it was also a very grounding, meditative experience,” Kim says. “It’s hard to want to be more present in yourself and it’s hard to want to look at your face when you’re going through so much gender confusion.”

For many, makeup is also directly tied to race. Kim, who is South Korean, has personally observed that “ideal” makeup usually sells an idea of “whiteness,” meaning lighter skin, and more Eurocentric facial structures and features.

“In South Korean circles, the paler you are, the more beautiful you are, and that is a very colonized idea,” Kim says. “There is something about makeup being a colonizer’s tool to a marketable community of people [that] sucks and feels really disgusting.”

Still, Cottrill and Kim both believe that makeup has the potential to be an empowering, complex, moral and political tool for individuals of different gender identities, sexualities and races.

“I believe that people should do whatever they can to feel empowered, especially if they’re reclaiming something that has been a restrictive idea,” Kim says. “They should seek out any avenue that makes them comfortable, especially an avenue where they can challenge the ideas that they grew up with.”

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