by Zoe Nefouse
Under the guise of body positivity, the no make-up movement turns feminism into an elitist competition of who is the most authentic, implying one’s “natural” state is the height of beauty, honestly, and ultimately womanhood.
You may be thinking, “why does this matter? I don’t care what people do with their faces,” which is valid, but it actually matters a lot. Lookism, or prejudice and discrimination against people who fall short of conventional beauty standards, is incredibly harmful. It’s not just a proclamation that some people are ugly, but that specific populations of people are less attractive because their appearance deviates from hegemonic norms. Lookism most notably targets those with darker skin (colorism: discrimination based on skin color), non-Aryan facial features, larger body types, skin conditions such as acne, scarring, or discoloration, and queer and trans/non-binary folks whose gendered appearances are sometimes unconventional.
The recently published New York Times article, “No Make Up On My Wedding Day,” is a perfect example of the ways in which wearing no make up as an act of defiance only works if you’re young, white, and rich. In the article, Alix Strauss documents the wedding preparations of a few bare-faced brides who just want to be “natural.” Sounds nice! But the rhetoric is not. The language of natural beauty in this piece puts women who are comfortable with bareness on a pedestal over those who choose to wear make up for whatever reason. One bride even claims she’s, “seen friends try to make themselves into something they’re not,” as if she holds in her hands the truth of every woman’s self-expression.
What shocked me the most about the piece, was the emphasis on authenticity in opposition to make up that completely disregards the addition of expensive skincare routines used, not only used by Instagram models and celebrities, but also by the very women featured in the article. “Rather than hiring a makeup artist,” Strauss explains, one bride, “flew Melanie Simon, an aesthetician based in Los Angeles, to Italy for the wedding. Ms. Simon brought 70 skincare products and a bag of facial tools. Foundation was swapped for masks and serums […] and facials were done daily before the rehearsal dinner and wedding.” Forgive my rage, but is this a fucking joke? How on earth is this multi-thousand dollar process of professional skincare any less performative than putting on makeup? A wise tweet once said, “being hot doesn’t count if you’re rich.” This is a perfect example of why I support that sentiment.
The culture of minimalist beauty products is unbelievably classist. Lathering on overpriced Glossier oils while laying on a pillow adorned with the word “feminist” from Urban Outfitters in the name of “self care” is a privilege. Skincare is being marketed as a ritualistic, calming, and nurturing practice for already beautiful, smooth-skinned women. As someone suffering from multiple years of adult cystic acne, my skincare routine is less than comforting. Try a 12-step process of pain and misery with a side of crying and a second helping of self-hatred. Additionally, skincare has an oppressive history for women of color who’ve burned themselves with skin lighteners trying to reach Aryan standards of desirability. Having perfect, flawless skin is hard to achieve and a skincare practice that replaces the “need” for makeup with confidence requires money, time, and a pale canvas.
Putting bare faces on a pedestal also reinforces the already prevalent shaming of feminine gender performance, especially for queer and trans women. It forces us to ask ourselves, “what does it mean to be authentic?” and the answer shouldn’t have to be what we were born with. Makeup has always been one of the most accessible ways to perform one’s gender, and I’m not just talking about drag. Makeup has been used by femmes (feminine queer and transgender folks) as a source of comfort, expression, and radical self-love for decades. By conflating natural beauty with authenticity, the reclamation of femininity through make up is pushed to the bottom of a hierarchy of legitimacy. A hierarchy within which queer and trans people sit already close to the bottom. Additionally, this beauty brand of biological essentialism is explicitly trans-exclusionary. Our society (including cis feminists!) pressures trans people, especially trans women, into “passing,” and often will deny them respect if they don’t. This leaves many transwomen no choice but to be labeled either unnatural or unconventional by the very people who claim to be body positive feminists. The no make-up movement applauds traditional femininity but is inherently anti-femme.
That’s the thing about mainstream feminism. It always blows off the people who need it most. Now that feminism is in style, its early stereotypes are celebrated, but only if you’re pretty. Not shaving your legs and armpits is totally cool if your hair is blonde and only grows in those places. Women with facial hair and happy trails are never applauded. Not wearing a bra is fun and sexy, but only if your breasts are perky enough to stay put. Trying to radicalize what is already desirable is not even a waste of energy because it doesn’t take any. The no makeup movement which consists primarily of thin, able-bodied, young, white cis women with pricey skincare routines just dramatizes the privileges lookism has already handed to them.
All that aside, I’m glad that minimalism is empowering for these brides, celebrities, and former friends from high school on Instagram. In no way am I trying to shame, degrade, or tear them down for what makes them feel confident. But dainty white women with dewy faces and petite features going without makeup is not new or revolutionary. What is revolutionary, you ask? Native Americans in traditional face paint, honoring their culture and spirituality, in spite of colonialism. Queer and trans people, who’ve been bullied for their gender performance, walking down the street in makeup so they feel like themselves. Women of color saying “fuck you” to European beauty standards, with or without makeup. For the most part, the no make up movement is not radical and it’s not brave. These women have always been beautiful and I mean it when I say that there’s nothing wrong with being pretty. But activism isn’t always pretty.
About the Author:
Zoe Nefouse is a queer, Jewish, feminist with lots to say. As a recent Women and Gender Studies graduate from CU Boulder, Zoe is eager to contribute laughter and love to her community.
Interested in her? Zoe is dirt_diva on Instagram and a poem she wrote in college can be found at TheThoughtErotic.com. Additionally, her Venmo is zoe-nefouse, in case you’re feeling generous.