Unraveling The Roots Of Feminism’s Anti-Beauty Bias

Do you ever feel like your feminism conflicts with your interest in beauty?
Publish date:
March 27, 2015
books, natural beauty, feminism, french girl beauty

This book had a profound effect on me. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite--it’s really dense and academic, and there’s huge swathes of it that I don’t even remember reading--but I can’t deny that Fresh Lipstick changed my life. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m an xoVain contributor today.

Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Feminism and Fashion was written by Linda M. Scott, a Women’s Studies and Art and Design professor. The book looks at American feminism’s historical record, and takes the movement to task for its “anti-beauty ideology.”

Fresh Lipstick isn’t an easy read, but it’s worth it, especially if you’re a feminist who likes fashion and beauty (and feels conflicted about it). Scott offers a fascinating look at the origins of some of the assumptions we’ve inherited from feminists who came before us.

One of these assumptions is the idea that “natural beauty” is superior to other, more obvious versions of beauty.

Many feminists--both now and in decades previous--have viewed beauty culture as an oppressive force in the lives of women. Women who enjoy make-up seem suspect: maybe they suffer from low self-esteem, or are duped by advertisers, or are too focussed on male attention.

In mainstream North American culture, serious women are associated with an understated look--nicely groomed, but not overly made-up. In other words, the natural beauty (or French Girl) ideal.

This beauty ideal goes all the way back to feminism’s first wave, in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Feminist reformers, like Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton, were passionate advocates for simple, functional dress. Women who didn’t conform to this standard, like Paulina Wright Davis, were not welcome in the early feminist movement. Through lectures and writing, the early feminists encouraged women to eschew corsets, wear simple, functional clothes, groom themselves well, and avoid the use of cosmetics. This was their ideal of “natural beauty” for all women to aspire to.

Ironically, this ideal was not particularly natural. The look called for clean nails, skin washed with soap, and brushed teeth. However, this level of grooming was not available to most Americans until about 1920. In fact, this “natural” level of grooming only became possible after industrialization. The vast majority of pre-industrial Americans had no plumbing (or servants to carry water), and had filthy nails, clothes, and skin as a result. The “natural ideal” was a paradox. Women were supposed to spend less effort on their dress as it became simpler and more functional, but they had to spend more time grooming themselves.

Scott goes on to explain that the early feminists came from a specific subculture. They were descended from two groups: the Puritans who founded the American colonies, and the colonial aristocracy. This background influenced their views on dress. Scott argues that their dislike of fancy dress and hair wasn’t really about “liberating women”--it was about imposing a Puritan worldview on others, and shoring up the social power of white Yankee protestants.

At a minimum, the early feminists tried to advance their own standard of female beauty without thinking about the needs or desires of women different from themselves. For many American women, cosmetics and fashion were useful tools for social advancement, or important symbols of their ethnic identity.

Long story short: This book made me feel like it was OK to be a feminist and still enjoy beauty culture. I’m grateful for birth control and the freedom to vote, and I don’t think my love of eyeliner undermines any of that. I've relaxed about the “rules” of feminism--because if you look back in history, you’ll see that some of these rules came from a very narrow point of view that didn’t accommodate different classes, cultures, or ethnicities.

  • Do you ever feel like your feminism conflicts with your interest in beauty?
  • Do you think modern feminists are biased against makeup, or are most of us over it now?