Is Feminism Femme-Shaming?

As one of Those Women who wears make up every day, can I still be a feminist? Or can my feminism be taken away by something as flimsy as my preference not to be seen undone?
Publish date:
December 14, 2012
feminism, make-up, Femme-shaming

I have been a feminist since the age of nine, and I have worn make-up every single day of my life since the age of 12.

Over the years my feminism has changed a lot. I am no longer anti-sex worker, I have updated my once Greer-tinged view on trans-gender and I believe men can (and should) identify as feminists. But there is one concept that I have found very difficult to shake off: the idea that feminists don't wear make-up.

Oh, of course I know some do. I read feminist books, run a feminist blog and organise feminist activism, all the while covered in make-up. At the age of 19 I attempted the unthinkable and tried to go out without make-up. “Now you're being a proper feminist”, I thought, “people will look at you and think 'feminist! Bare-faced feminist!' and request feminist wisdom.”

I made it as far as Tooting High Street before running back to my halls to apply mascara. Since that day I have unwittingly eaten pounds of lipstick and singularly kept Superdrug afloat with my cosmetics habit.

The next time I sincerely worried about it was at the first Brighton Feminist Collective meeting last year. What would my fellow feminists think of my red lips and flicky eyeliner?

Absolutely nothing, it turned out. It simply didn't come up. Until last week, when we had a debate about body image. Which led to the 'Real Women' campaigns we see (as in that very tiresome 'Real Women eat cake/have curves/regularly defecate’ schtick), body hair, and then make up.

All those present with even a hint of mascara on were quick to inform us that they could 'walk to the shops bare faced quite happily'. Which is good, because there's going to be a feminist obstacle course everyone has to complete, and going out make-up free is part of it.

Could this be defined as femme-shaming? It appears feminism is not quite as over the body policing of second wave as previously thought. The notion of a political lesbian might be over but the butch vs femme seems to have prevailed in some ways, and has spilled over in to third-wave feminism.

The rush for the women present to announce that they weren't like Those Women who wear make up every day made me suspect that if they were then they felt they wouldn't qualify as feminists.

Which means, as one of Those Women who does wear make up every day, can I still be a feminist? Or can my feminism be taken away by something as flimsy as my preference not to be seen undone? I don't feel like to make up is my duty, but I don't feel like me without make up.

The recent Children in Need campaign Bear Faced, in which women are asked to go without make up in order to raise money was brought up as an example of how women are expected to wear make up.

While I'd hate to deny Children in Need any fundraising gimmicks, this one does smack of the BBC spitting on a hanky and wiping your face: “Show your natural beauty,” it nags.

It’s an example of how anything deemed 'for girls' is so often seen as frivolous, silly and unworthy. To go bare faced is lazy, to go bear faced* is virtuous, but somehow to go painted is beyond the pale (or bronzed HA! HA!).

To make your self up. Even the term suggests that wearing make up is living a lie, guys! I suppose that's where the Femme Fatale comes from. I can't find any positive words for applying make up. Slap, slap it on, slap happy.

I am hesitant to call this femme-shaming, because while I think X-shaming can be valuable for shutting something plain mean down, equally it can just shut discussion down. I don't want to use the term shaming for everything that displeases me.

If that was the case, my iPod is constantly language-shaming me, I uploaded a French lesson on to it and now whenever it is on shuffle it keeps blaring out “Unit 1, encore” and I shamefully think: “sécher!” Which I think means 'skip' but I'm not sure 'cos I haven't listened to the lesson yet.

However, when I tweeted (oh my research is in depth) the question “is there such a thing as femme-shaming in the sphere of feminism?” people replied to say yes, either they had experienced it, or they were guilty of it.

A mother tweeted me that after being brought up to think girly = waste of time she often caught herself praising her daughter for picking gender-neutral or boyish toys and steering her away from what are perceived to be girl's toys. Which, as this woman noted, is just trying to make her daughter fit in with her own standards instead of allowing her to enjoy her own self expression.

Maybe femme shaming is not a major issue, perhaps it's an aspect of slut-shaming. But I think Militant Barbie put it best - femme or not, your appearance betrays nothing: “...I’m not dressing like this for your artificial dollface tells you nothing about my personality, my talents...”

*Looking through the celebrity Bear faced gallery it looks suspiciously like going Bear faced includes a lick of mascara. And maybe a bit of powder. Oh go on and some lip gloss. But natural, yeah?

What do you think? Is femme-shaming a thing you do or have you been femme-shamed?

Follow Kate on Twitter and let her know if you've been femme-shamed @squeamishbikini.