Empowering Women: Does Wearing Makeup Help Or Hurt?

empowering women wearing makeup

Is wearing makeup a valid method for empowering women, or do our actions contradict our words?

I recently got sucked in by a humorous video of three men trying to follow a DIY beauty guru’s tips for a smoky eye tutorial.

What did I get sucked into? The wide wide world of beauty blogs. Shudder.

This video is not representative of the things that I normally watch, but there was something about it that was intriguing. Men wearing makeup–a skill that some women find essential to their everyday existence. The results were, err… well, you can imagine. Fortunately, none of the men poked an eye out.

After watching the video I clicked through to the beauty guru’s site. Her name is Michelle Phan and she has 4.6 million YouTube subscribers; mostly women who want to better their eyeliner application techniques, I would wager to guess. I was disturbed, and yet I couldn’t stop looking.

“I’m passionate about being a makeup artist and teaching others how to look and feel fabulous in their own skin. I believe that lives can be transformed with a single tube of lipstick, and that women have stronger careers, futures and better self-esteem when they feel confident and beautiful,” it said on Phan’s About page.

Wait. Let’s re-read that.

“Look and feel fabulous in their own skin.” She mentions empowering women while at the same time conceding that we need makeup in order to feel comfortable as ourselves.

Watch any of the millions of online beauty tutorials and you’ll quickly see that it has nothing to do empowering women; it has to do with creating a skin that everyone else will think is sexy and beautiful. Forget what you have, with one single pen or tube you can change it all! And when women are spending over $15,000 on makeup in their lifetime, that’s more than a few pens and tubes to reach full empowerment.

There is much discussion when it comes deciding whether makeup is really a method for empowering women. One study showed that makeup makes a woman more likable by her co-workers, while also making them think of her as more trustworthy and competent. In these terms, the act of wearing makeup is a superficial, societal expectation kind of thing that’s not about empowering women. But then there are others that point out that wearing makeup could even be equated to a feminist act, citing historical instances of makeup wearing and the development of the industry:

Much to the chagrin of traditionalists, women began to promote their independence through rouges and lipsticks, bucking the homemaker stereotype in favor of dancing, city life and fashion. Though they continued to live the chaste life expected of them, women began to define their individuality through made-up facades that seemed to reflect a newfound sexual yearning.

This discussion is dangerous and forces us to toe a very fine line. On one hand, doing things that make us feel good as women boosts our self esteem. On the other hand, when people expect us to wear makeup and we’re looked upon as “less” of a woman when we don’t, wearing makeup is less inspired by personal reasons and more social expectation.

But I know a lot of wonderful, independent, powerful women who like to wear makeup. And then I know a lot of the same kind of women who don’t wear any at all. It’s hard to say which group is more focused on empowering women; impossible even.

Ultimately, what scares me is all of these online beauty tutorials that saying that women simply can’t live without petrochemical-infused makeup. In fact we can have a whole other conversation about how not empowering it is to be slathering our faces with products that are known to lead to breast cancer and a whole handful of other things. When most of these companies say “Look good, feel your best”, it’s not about empowering women, but just a marketing line to sell more products.

Women should never feel that going without makeup isn’t an option. Sure, there will be days that you want eyeliner, and days that you don’t. But empowering women shouldn’t be about applying a hoard of products that do our bodies no good, and our self esteem less so.

Work to be appreciated and respected for who you are, not what mascara you have on. Rule a board meeting because you are powerful and confident, not because you wore red lipstick. The personality and charisma should come first, wearing makeup should only accentuate, not replace, the real you.

Because after all, shouldn’t we be having a discussion about the true methods for empowering women? Work, education, and access to birth control? Companies push makeup for girls and yet when a girl gets raped at the age of 14, the judge says it was because she seemed “older than her chronological age;” we live in a twisted day and age.

The reality is that there are a lot of problems in the world today, particularly when it comes to gender issues, and empowering women can’t be accomplished with a stick of eyeliner alone.

Does wearing makeup make you feel empowered? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Related on EcoSalon:

Beautycounter Empowers Women With Safe Cosmetics

High Definition: A Temporary Breakup from Makeup

Image: Greta Cerisini

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.