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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?

13 thoughts on “the abnormality of the plain-faced woman: saying ‘no’ to no make-up selfies

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more Ruby! I’ve had several arguments / discussions with people in the last week about the “positive” implications of this campaign. People seem to get the idea when I criticize the ‘no-make up selfie’ trend that I’m having a go at every individual woman who has participated and posted a picture of themselves with no-make up on on Facebook with the good intention of raising awareness of breast cancer.

    What I’ve actually had issue with is the way the campaign is implicitly promoting the idea that pictures of women with no make-up on, or more broadly, women who generally wear no make-up are abnormal.

    Sure the people who have participated in this campaign probably think they’re doing a good thing, but like you I think it should be pointed out when a campaign is reinforcing cultural gender norms which are potentially extremely harmful.

  2. I really like that you’ve taken this trend as a way to talk about makeup being a gendered performance, Ruby.
    A year ago I made myself do a month without makeup, to journal about how I felt about not putting on a mask before I leave the house. I don’t wear foundation, powder, blush; my look is cat-eye eyeliner and bright lipstick. I remember a lot of people commenting on my changed face (‘You look tired!’), and I considered how we normalise makeup and being ‘pretty’ as a foundational feminine characteristic. I must admit, I felt less feminine!

  3. I want to begin with saying that I love your post here, and would like to ask if I could please add something to it by way of comment on embodiment diversity in makeup wearing:

    When someone wears make-up, it can represent more than a confirmation / conformation / legitimisation of their gender.
    I as a person wear make-up in the same way I drive a colourful car, paint, & make films. I am an expressive artist and wish to fill the world with beautiful things.

    Why would I see my skin, or face in particular, as belonging only to the realms of gender confirmation? I wear make-up because I like the colours and shapes, and because it highlights the configuration of features I was born with. I wear colourful clothes cut in a particular manner for similar reasons. My self-expression is one of the many ways I create art in the world I live in.

    While many people do indeed feel pressured to turn to cosmetic enhancement or else appear ‘ugly’, we must steer away from tainting all with that same brush and acknowledge instead that there exists some pretty diverse reasons to apply paint to one’s face.

  4. I am enjoying the discussion of the make up subject on females. I do not believe that we as woman necessarily feel pressured by society or men or anyone in particular to actually wear make up, but rather we can choose to either wear it or not to wear it. I may choose to wear a plain bland coloured dress and another female make choose to wear a bright red dress. Each to their own, we all know how we each feel ourselves, depending on what we wear. As a woman, I like to feel feminine so I and others may feel we prefer to wear bright yellow shoes because it makes us feel good and happy, – not because the shoe makers or males, or the neighbour or society in general pressure me into it, or make me feel obliged to buy the shoes. In general I believe its how doing something makes us feel – do we feel happier and brighter and generally in a better mood if we wear bright red lipstick? If so, and we enjoy that feeling, then lets do it! Do we feel happier and brighter and generally better if we don’t wear bright red lipstick? If so then don’t wear it! And yes , a certain colour of clothing can make us come alive, and make our skin shine, or if the case be, draw us down as it does nothing for our skin tone, these are facts. I would like to think that maybe we could do a selfie with BRIGHT RED LIPSTICK ON for breast cancer awareness? Why not?

  5. Good commentary on the awareness campaign, however I disagree that makeup is sexist. I do acknowledge though that there are some cosmetic brands that prey on the insecurities of women, but I am hesitant to paint the entire cosmetics industry with the same brush. For this reason, I am also very selective about what makeup brands I support. Illamasqua is a great example of a brand that think outside of the heteronormative box, their models include elderly women, larger women, alternative women, and even men. I also surround myself with subcultures where the men in my life wear just as much makeup, if not more, then the women in my life. So makeup for me can be something that enhances who I am, it doesn’t hide it.

  6. Pingback: why I took part in the no makeup selfie cancer awareness campaign | lip magazine

  7. I understand the issue being discussed but the reason make up was chosen is because it takes the same amount of time to check your breasts than it does to apply your make up. It was a simple time calculation and I doubt the intention was anywhere near as thought out as your argument. Regardless of the debate, which I agree is an issue but a separate issue entirely, the campaign raised over £3 million for breast cancer awareness. I posted a make up free selfie and harassed people to donate the £3 via text. Breast cancer affects mostly women (there are a very small percentage of men that get it) so I understand the targeted campaign. Given that its raised awareness, £3million, and got a load of women to check their breasts (I can only speak for myself and my cousins and close friends here), isn’t it worth focusing at least a little bit on the positives instead of completely ridiculing a valuable and worthwhile campaign. If some of that £3million went to saving the life of one of your friends or relatives, would you really be spending so much of your time and effort complaining about it?

  8. I hardly ever wear makeup, I am a mum of 2 and taking time out of our busy mornings for me to put some foundation and eye shadow on just isn’t in the program. I do like to wear it sometimes when I go out with the girls, or for a meal with my husband (although he prefers the natural me anyway) But I wouldn’t have a go at women who do take the time to put their make up on each day, I certainly wouldn’t criticise them for doing so or generalise the reason as to why they wear it. The no make up selfie should be seen for what it is, a silly photo that is raising money and awareness for an awesome cause. We have all been effected by cancer in some way or another, it is awful and horrible and takes people too soon and makes people go through awful things, so I for one think that anything that raises £8million to such an awesome cause should be applauded and for the people that feel the necessity to be negative about it should just think about what they are saying, it is a photo, get over it.

  9. I love wearing make up. As a woman and an Artist.
    And I definitely agree: the fact that society deems a no make up selfie “brave” makes me realize how deep in the shitter we are, as a people.

    Thank you for posting your opinion, that’s more brave than a make up less selfie

  10. I agree with you on the point that women wearing no make up should not be a drastic, shocking, awareness raising thing, as I find nothing especially suprising or attention grabbing about a girl not wearing make up. However I completely disagree with your stance against make up all together. You make it sound like women have been brainwashed in to thinking they need makeup to be happy and look beautiful. I agree that the industry is evil and preys on those with low self esteem, but not everyone who wears make up is a victim to that. I wear make up because I like to. I have never believed that it was something I needed, but just something I enjoy. Just the same as you might enjoy wearing your favorite t shirt or shoes or jeans or wearing your hair a certain way, I like wearing make up. Reading this makes me feel like you would consider me some dumb, sheepish, victim of the machine.

    • I completely agree with you! I felt like the author was attacking women who wear make up. I do it out of choice, and I also know men who wear it. They wear it as their own little statement. Makeup can be used to create an identity and I really appreciate it.

  11. Pingback: #nomakeupselfie You will have seen them -

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