the abnormality of the plain-faced woman: saying ‘no’ to no make-up selfies
You will have seen them. They’ve been viral over the weekend. In valiant acts of bravery and generosity, women everywhere have been posting (dark, out of focus and grainy) photographs of themselves WITHOUT MAKE UP. But never fear, for these drastic, selfless acts are all for a good cause: raising awareness and (apparently) money for breast cancer.
Even though I’m all for raising awareness and generating discussion around women’s health issues, I’m in the critical camp when it comes to social media awareness-raising and charity worship. While other cynics are criticising the #nomakeupselfie crusade because they see it as little more than narcissism thinly veiled behind slacktivism, I take issue with the concept on radical feminist grounds. I don’t disagree with selfies; you can rock that arm-dislocating, mirror-angling feat of exhibitionism — I’m not going to stop you. What I disagree with is the concept that images of women in their plain state are subversive, and can be used as a radical, attention-drawing act of awareness-raising.
I cannot participate in this current trend, even if I wanted to, because all my selfies are #nomakeupselfies. Having never worn makeup, the #nomakeupselfie trend excludes women like me, and seems to imply and reinforce heteronormative gender roles and modes of embodiment.
What this has highlighted for me is the extent to which makeup is constructed as synonymous with femininity in our culture. If the concept of an image of a woman not wearing makeup on your news feed is enough to make you look twice, and then become aware of the gravity of breast cancer, it signifies just how normalised makeup is, and by extension, the abnormality of the plain faced woman.
Wearing makeup is a deeply socialised act of gender performance, heavily imbued with cultural meaning. Most women I talk to have been wearing makeup out of habit and self-perceived necessity since adolescence.
‘I CAN’T wear no makeup at all, I’d look like a hag,’ a workmate once lamented.
‘On days I try to wear no makeup, everyone asks me if I’m sick,’ a friend complained.
I guess I just missed the boat on this one. While my mum and sister wear makeup and always have done, I somehow escaped the early socialisation into one of our culture’s most gendered rituals.
So, as an outsider, makeup makes little sense to me. I see it as blatantly sexist. It is among the many time and money consuming things that women are socialised to see as “necessary” for the performance of normative femininity, yet not something the majority of men participate in. We hear the feminist horror stories of our grandmothers surreptitiously waking up an hour before their husbands to apply makeup, getting back into bed a glowing vision of 1950’s femininity. But we really haven’t come too far from this if wearing no makeup is being framed as a powerful, but strictly novel, act of awareness-raising. Again, it implies that all “normal” women wear makeup all the time, unless they’re performing a charity stunt.
In the past I’ve had many issues with the way that campaigns for women’s health are framed. In the pink-washing of women’s issues and concerns, the mainstream constructs an ideal, normal and homogenised target femininity that doesn’t necessarily match up with the myriad of identities and experiences of many women. My butch lesbian aunt is just as likely to suffer from breast cancer, but where would she fit in the pink tide of ‘Girls’ Day Out’ women’s health charity events?
I’m not going to harangue women to boycott important aspects of their self-expression and identities, which may include makeup, and I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t take part in awareness-raising for issues that we’re passionate about. But I do want to argue that while #nomakeupselfies are going viral, we should reflect on the gendered power discourses latent in all that we do.
How about going makeup-free to raise awareness about the bullshit patriarchal, heteronormative beauty system and the multimillion dollar cosmetics industry, both of which indoctrinate women and girls into a lifetime of superficial consumption of products they don’t need, causing them to invest time, money and emotion over their appearances, which could be spent concerning more meaningful things?