When I was a sophomore in high school, I had the somewhat dubious privilege of taking a class called Christian Identity. Billed as a religion course, it was mostly just a lot of group projects about STDs (my group made a poster entitled "Mmm…herpes"), squinty analyses of Disney movies, and tween sex shockumentaries featuring girls blushingly telling the camera, "I'm a virgin -- except in my mouth."
My best friend Jenn and I spent most of that year furious with each other. She was a budding conservative who hated Jane Fonda for her anti-war sentiment in the 70s; I was a judgmental know-it-all who hated Jane Fonda for her workout videos. We spent three weeks not speaking to each other because of an argument about whether anorexia or obesity was a more serious problem in the United States.
And, maybe most damningly, I once told her that her compulsive need to wear mascara every day was an unfeminist act.
I don't remember most of our fights, but I remember this one verbatim. "Beauty magazines are a serious problem in our society," I'd told her loftily one day after a class period of analyzing "Seventeen" for anti-woman sentiment. "They give young girls misconceptions about their looks and makeup and stuff."
"They do not," she said. "I don't even read magazines and I still like to wear makeup."
"They've just permeated your consciousness," I said, patting her on the shoulder.
"I put on my mom's mascara one day and I liked the way it made my eyelashes look!" she said defensively. "No one told me to do it."
"Man, oh, man, do I feel sorry for you," I said. "You're a slave to the power and you can't even tell. You don't even know."
Things got a little hazy around then, but I'm pretty sure she hit me. And if she didn't, she probably should have.
In retrospect, the whole thing plays out like a weird, Samuel-Beckett-meets-Tom-Stoppard metaphor for the Second vs. Third Wave Feminism debate. I'm actually kind of proud of us for getting the jump on the whole "my sexuality is a choice" bandwagon before either of us had even lost our mouth-virginities.
Here's the thing, though. For a pair of 14-year-olds, this kind of black-and-white thinking is kind of excusable. But I'm getting mighty tired of the same debate swooping back twice a year among otherwise rational adults.
It seems like we can't make it through a March without grumping back and forth at each other about whether wearing makeup as women is an expression of badassery or just another way patriarchal society serves to beat us down.
This time around, a writer at Jezebel has gotten us started off by analyzing that same back-and-forth at the New York Times. Her conclusion? That it's impossible for women to wear makeup "for themselves," period.
Part of her argument hinges on the evident equation of makeup with professionalism. And I agree that in a lot of careers, it's considered unacceptable to schlub in the mornings with dark under-eye circles and a freshly picked zit-hole. But barring a few extreme exceptions, I think it's more a question of perceptible effort rather than specific cosmetic decisions that make made-up women appear more competent than their counterparts. I can't imagine, for example, an industry where jeans and a Forever 21 cardigan are acceptable work attire but you have to come in with your lip-liner shield or on it.
Of course, this is coming from someone who regularly has to brush her teeth on the walk to work, so my personal biases may be coming into play. I'm certainly not contesting that for some women, wearing makeup to work is a professional obligation, which can be indicative of an overall societal power imbalance among genders.
But the workplace is not where the entirety of real life takes place. It's not everyone's primary center for self-expression, although it certainly can be. At its mildest, it's a place to sit your ass in a cubicle or behind a counter or wherever else for 10-odd hours and exist in a productive capacity. At its wildest, it's a slack-faced bubble-climate of microaggression where a missing can opener is a perfectly legitimate excuse to conduct a companywide investigation.
Either way, using workplace standards as a synecdoche for the rest of human existence is like deciding jungle behavior based on tigers at the zoo. They may exist in the same universe, but there's no reason they have to play by the same rules.
Because of this, Jezebel's claim that wearing makeup is never a choice falls a little flat:
"As a kind of thought experiment, sure, I can imagine there are women who wear makeup truly and only 'for themselves,' who would continue to do so even absent any the miasma of social programming and cultural pressure to wear makeup, subtle and not-so-subtle, that women face in mainstream contemporary western culture. Maybe there are women who truly indeed wear makeup 'for themselves,' such that if our culture happened to transform overnight into one where the wearing of makeup by women was stigmatized, they'd continue to do it. Because it's their choice! It's just that I don't think I've ever met any of these women."
Hi. Kate Conway. Consider us met. I barely even wear makeup, and I still put on lipstick to scrub my toilet and vacuum the floor because it makes me feel glam as fuck and distracts me from the fact that I'm covered in poop-water.
I frequently stay up way too late at night and decorate my own face with cat eyes like an anime character from the nineties. Lately, I've been really into making every party a theme party, whether the hosts like it or not, and showing up with magical creature eye shadow to match.
For me, this feels like playing sexy dress-up, the same way I'll put on Halloween costumes in July and vogue around my house in a Hello Kitty hat and a bra. And if some women do wear lipstick to make themselves more desirable to others, that doesn't make their decision to do so somehow less valid or admirable than my wacky cosmetic shenanigans.
Automatically dismissing women's aesthetic decisions as symptoms of an oppressive society robs them of agency, too. These attitudes seem to be just another form of the condescension I honed so well as a 14-year-old, like the majority of women wouldn't know they were puppets of the Man unless I personally and benevolently cut the strings for them.
The modern American makeup tradition was rooted in the lipsticks and rouges of the 30s and, in a 1936 survey by "Vogue," it had the honor of being disapproved of by nearly 100% of men. We've reclaimed a hell of a lot of practices and aesthetics that began with far more dubious, misogynistic origins than those -- isn't it about time we reclaimed makeup, too?
Kate is glamming it up on Twitter: @katchatters.