Lipstick Feminism: One Gal’s Take

I’ve been thinking about lipstick feminism, consumerism, and all things style, beauty, and fashion.

First of all, I love my skinny jeans. I’m not big on makeup, but I rarely go out without blush and mascara. I own THREE pairs of Ugg boots (I don’t really care if you think they’re fashionable or ugly). I don’t dye my hair, but I have numerous Nike tempo shorts and I admit that in reality, they don’t help me to run any faster. I was trained by advertisers to be a consumer. Am I a bad feminist? I don’t think I am. I do think that my habits and my fixation with looks and style goes to show that even (some) feminists aren’t immune to the pressures of the media. We too feel pressure to look “beautiful” as is stereotypically exploited, and we feel the pressure to be consumers.

All of this has me thinking about lipstick feminism… can it be liberating to wear high heels and feel sexy? I say, absolutely, yes. But I think fitting into what is stereotypically seen as beautiful, and following the status quo by doing the hair thing, the makeup thing, and the fashion thing that society expects women to do is not exactly feminism at its finest. (Feel free to criticize me, I’m quite young and in truth, new to all of this.) Do I think a woman sporting a face of makeup and high heels is a bad feminist? Absolutely not, not even for a second. I think there’s nothing wrong with women wanting to feel sexy and attractive. Most everyone wants to feel like they look good. However, I think that women following these expectations is not exactly liberating in the way we want it to be liberating. I think we’re simply doing what the media wants us to do: SPEND MONEY. On products. Clothes, shoes, makeup… it’s all so expensive and painfully unnecessary.

So why, WHY can’t I stop spending money on Clinique makeup, jeans that cost $100, and flashy tops that look “great” on a Friday night out? Basically, I think, because the advertisers and marketers have me right where they want me. They have me feeling insecure. They have me believing that I need these things to feel good about myself. I shouldn’t, but I so often give into these pressures.

I know there are women who refuse to buy makeup. Refuse to shave their armpits and legs. Spend conservative amounts of money on fashionable clothing. I admire these strong women. I wish I was so strong that I could truly value my mind over my appearance. Sometimes I think I really do, other times I am not so sure.

I dream of a world where women and men are nearly equal in their consumption of goods that are created to enhance stereotypical beauty. A world where women don’t feel like they need to wear makeup or buy expensive clothing or have impossibly smooth skin. At the same time I dream of this, I can’t imagine myself with body hair. Makeup-less. Dressed in a way that makes me blend into the crowd. Honestly, I would hate it. I would hate it because the advertisers have taught me to dislike myself the way I was really born – hairy, with blonde eyelashes and no natural sense of this thing called “fashion.”

Join the Conversation

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    Bad feminist? I wouldn’t say so… The thing is, to be successful, the movement also has to have roots in other progressive movements, such as liberation from, as you said, consumerism and materialism, as well as environmentalism. A majority of ‘Pretty’ clothes and the sort of shit that women are encouraged to buy to be attractive are made in sweatshops, usually by girls much younger than us in conditions that would make even the worst off of us in America grateful for what we’ve got. Mica – the sparkly stuff in a majority of cosmetics – is mined in third world countries that perpetuate and exploit the peril of their girls. And, let’s not forget the resources it takes to make them strip our planet of it’s resources, pollute the water and air, and make recovery difficult, if impossible.

    So… being pretty doesn’t make you a BAD feminist… but there are certain degrees of throwing yourself into a movement, and buying into this stuff would make you at least a little half-hearted about it. The good news is that it’s never to late to reexamine those values and make a change. Besides, I don’t think anyone would think less of you if you said you hadn’t thought of it from that perspective, up until now.

  • Mollie

    Are you saying I am a bad feminist? I now look at labels and see where clothes are made before I buy them, and I understand consumerism. I’m just saying it’s a difficult switch to make when you’ve grown up one way, with one group of peers and set of pressures. I actually think I’m a pretty conservative shopper compared to most Americans I know. That’s doesn’t mean I’m a conservative shopper in general. I’m just trying to throw out this perspective and critiquing the feminists that say doing these things is liberating, because I’m recognizing that I really isn’t. My point was that I’m not above the pressures of society and I want to recognize the struggle.

    In order to be successful, the movement has to be supportive of the young feminists trying to find their feet- instead of arrogantly attacking every area in which they’re wrong. I recognize that I don’t know everything, but I desperately want to get more involved in the movement and change myself so that I can help change the way things are. If I overcome my insecurities, those around me might be less critical of themselves. I’m just trying to get involved and throw out perspectives.

    • Jacqueline Hentzen

      …Didn’t I start out by saying ‘It doesn’t make you a bad feminist?’ I could have sworn I did. Lemme check… Yeah, I did.

      But, honestly, nobody’s perfect. And, let’s be honest, there’s a stereotype that feminists are all the same. So, you like looking ‘Pretty’. It’s a very relative measure what that is, and something else to consider is that looking at things from a different point of view sometimes helps you become more comfortable with who you are (Hell, I had to develop a split personality in order to become comfortable with not shaving my legs or pits… but that’s a boring story :-)

      Just giving you as much info as I had, as well as some of the things I consider when I look at clothes and makeup, which helps me shed the ‘Ooh, it’s so pretty and I need it to look pretty’ mindset (And I work in retail — I need every defense I can get to resist the temptation and stick to my guns.) My experience is that finding a different viewpoint helps change how you see it and helps change how you see and think about yourself.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I don’t think wanting to feel pretty or sexy are inherently anti-feminist, but here are some things you can maybe consider:

    Do you feel you can only be pretty or sexy in the $100 jeans, etc? Do you only feel attractive following the looks our society tells us are attractive? Are the things you own things you really love, or do you throw them in the back of the closet and buy all new stuff the minute something is decreed out of style?

    Can you still have things you enjoy but possibly curtail consumerism? For instance instead of “numerous” running shorts, can you get by with just a few pairs you really like, alternate them when they’re in the wash?

    You’re right, Americans are raised to be consumers. I think this might be one of the few places on Earth where shopping is a pastime, not just a means to get things we need. I don’t think people should feel guilty if they don’t live as ascetics but if you’re aware of consumerism and want to change the way you go about it, there are ways to begin. Checking where things are made or looking into more ethically made products is a start. Stop and ask yourself if it’s really necessary to have this latest (whatever it may be) or if you can still make due with the old one. If you do like changing things up can you look into secondhand stores or clothing swaps in your area, circulate what already is out there instead of constantly creating demand for new?

    • Mollie

      Thank you Jenny. I want to say that i came off a little ignorant in my blog… I guess I kind of write as if I’m writing to myself. Truth- I have 3 pairs of those shorts I love and I saved all my christmas money for a pair. I am deeply disturbed that myself and other young women feel prettiest in expensive, “nice” clothing. That is why I wrote this blog. I have a history of insecurities and an eating disorder, and I am trying to face these problems and be a better more critical consumer. I appreciate your advice, but I can’t say that it’s nothing I haven’t thought of… the problem is the consumption of society as a whole. That is what I was trying to get it. I was saying that although I am guilty of some of these things I am not going to lie to myself and say that it’s liberating. It’s not. I am very young and I know that women are judged harshly for their appearance. Many feminists are great at fighting this stigma and I think I am great at helping other women feel good about themselves- but I struggle making ME feel good about myself. That is what my blog was all about. I think some people are too eager to attack. They say things because it’s easy to establish dominance and superiority online.

      I realize that my problems are first world problems. Everyone writes from their own perspective. I really appreciate your comment and I think these debates would be so much better in person :)

  • Amber

    I think your thoughts on this aren’t uncommon ones. I know plenty of women who struggle with wanting to push against the ideals of women’s fashion, and being trained from day one to be consumers. I’ve been feeling the pull when it comes to make-up. I’ve always been kind of a lazy bum, especially in the morning, so any mascara, eyeliner or foundation that enters my bathroom tends to gather dust unless I have an Occasion to wear it. But it’s always been a thorn in my side. I was never a fan of hiding one’s face to make one beautiful, and yet whenever I really wanted to look good–for a dance, date or interview–I’d whip out the lipstick. This summer I finally threw it all away. It was expensive, I rarely used it, and the few times I did use it only undermined most of the reasons I didn’t want to wear it in the first place.

    And now I feel like an addict going cold turkey. Keep in mind–I’ve never worn make-up on a regular basis. And yet every once in a while I’ll get an aching need to run to the store and pick up some blush, because I might need it. It’s absolutely ridiculous!

    And although with make-up, I’m willing to put up my dukes and stick it out, I’ve finally come to the realization that when it come to hairy legs, the insecurity I’ve been (successfully) trained to feel when I’ve haven’t shaved just isn’t worth trying to quit it. Unlike smoking, shaving will not give me cancer. I only shave when I know my legs will be showing, or if I want to stay in the shower longer and need an excuse. I also know that the only reason I don’t like having hairy legs is because I’ve been taught that they’re unattractive. In this case, I’m going to buy into it, but at least I’m doing so willingly and knowingly. While it’s nothing I’d say I’m proud of, I don’t think I’m ruining myself. I’m just picking my battles.

    Because that’s all any woman can do–pick her battles. Some of us are fantastic warriors who can go the whole nine yards and feel hot while doing it, and some of us can nervously throw away our lipstick. And the women who do neither, but instead wear their make-up with pride–I get what they’re going for. Embrace Woman as she is now, rock what it is you have, and don’t let anyone shame you into wearing baggy sweatshirts. I get that. Like you, I don’t think it’s the best way–I’d rather we be able to rise above “women’s fashion,” because it’s not really about women or fashion, but money. However, I can’t blame Gondor for wanting to use the One Ring for it’s own advantage. After all, your make-up and shoes and body aren’t semi-sentient and out to kill you. Hopefully. Sometimes with the shoes it’s hard to tell.

  • AllyM

    I think this post is really interesting. I can relate to the feeling of trying to find your feet/voice/image as a feminist as I don’t think I have yet. Your post inspired me to comment for the first time on Feministing.

    I tend towards more conservative/mainstream/preppy dress (I am struggling for the right description) because in my clothes as in furniture, books and print work I tend to find clean lines and colour blocks instead of prints soothing. However I am also aware my predilection for Anne Taylor style dressing may have been shaped as an attempt to make my ideas more palatable to predominantly male colleagues.

    I guess where I always seem to come to on these things is that society probably has shaped me to feel pretty with lipstick etc and I am actively aware of that. Nonetheless if a little outer consumerism allows me to be confident enough to work for systemic changes then perhaps it is a reasonable pay off. That being said, I know I haven’t reached a position on this that is fixed so I love hearing other people’s thoughts.

  • Casey Quinlan

    I suppose I’m one of the few commenters on here who views makeup and fashion as away to get away from conformity and traditional beauty, strange as that may sound.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know that the fashion and cosmetics industry and every brand within it is working towards profit, not progress and I agree with the premise that we should start looking for brands that aren’t made by sweatshop workers in Cambodia or elsewhere.

    But when I struggled to find an identity as a teenager that existed beyond what was preferred at the time: blonde, spray tanned, and sporty, I started watching old movies starring people like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, women who took strong movie roles and looked incredibly glamorous doing it, and I was inspired.

    Is anyone or a anything a pure beacon of feminism? No. But when I used clothes and makeup to state that I was different and proud of it, it was a brave thing for a young girl to do, even though it was a small rebellion, so I wouldn’t start telling young women they can’t have a nuanced idea of what feminism is.

    Not to mention that some makeup doesn’t make women look traditionally pretty. When Noomi Rapace starred in “The Girl That Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” and walked into the courtroom with almost Clockwork Orange style eye makeup and dark lipstick she didn’t appear to be pleading with her eyes, “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Not to mention that some makeup doesn’t make women look traditionally pretty. When Noomi Rapace starred in “The Girl That Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” and walked into the courtroom with almost Clockwork Orange style eye makeup and dark lipstick she didn’t appear to be pleading with her eyes, “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”

      That’s also where the subjectivity of beauty comes in–I think she’s very pretty there (though no, not pleading to be found pretty!), because that sort of thing is far more appealing to me personally than the “blonde tanned and sporty” paradigm you mentioned previously. Which I guess is sort of what I was getting at when I asked if the OP felt the only way to be “pretty” was the latest and most expensive fashions – why should there only be one way to be “pretty”? Beauty can be someone who dresses like Lisbeth Salander, or a Ouled Nail dancer (said to actually frighten male tourists!) or Maori sacred tattoos, or old pictures of Theda Bara, any of the above is more beautiful to me than what’s sold as conventional attractiveness in the US, which to me often looks a bit generic and bland.

      And hopefully it’s understood by whoever’s reading this that all of the above is my personal opinion, and not a decree about how all women should look.

      • Casey Quinlan

        I apologize if it seemed my comment was directed towards you. I was addressing a point of view that sees all expression through makeup and clothes as a capitulation to men, or sees fashion as being one type of style. I agree with the idea that people shouldn’t be purchasing things just to feel accepted by a group or to feed into trends they don’t really embrace. And to clarify I do think she’s beautiful in the movie, just outside of the typical heteronormative concept of beauty, like you said.

        • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

          Oh, no need, I didn’t think it was directed towards me, sorry if the answer made it seem that way. I just was sort of adding in my own thoughts on the idea.

  • Siona

    I’d say you sound like a great feminist. You are clearly choosing what you like and don’t like. You say you don’t color your hair and wear little makeup, but love your UGG boots and cute running shorts. Good for you! I, for one, have been wearing the same running clothes for close to 10 years now, don’t own UGG boots, but wear makeup most days and color my hair. And guess what? We’re both great feminists! I think you’re asking yourself some challenging and important questions, which will only guide you to a more confident place eventually. Nice post.

    Just in case you’re interested, for any personal care products you do use, check them out on this safety database. I felt even more empowered as a consumer when I educated myself about the products I was purchasing…

    • Mollie

      Gah thank you for the nice comments! I think it’s so hard to write a blog and prepare yourself for a little backlash… but I forget that some people will take it nicely :) I have stayed away from here for a while because I get so worked up and I feel like I am sometimes bad at arguing my case. I love good conversation and I’m open to not-so-harsh criticism :) I was so happy to return here and see some nice things :)