#WeAllWokeUpLikeThis: On Makeup and Feminine Performance


A new beauty standard has been issued, in case you didn’t get the memo. It might be near impossible for you to have missed it entirely, given the amount of media and marketing American women are subjected to on a daily basis. But, in case you’ve been chilled out in your room re-watching Buffy for the 3rd and final? time during the past 6 months, let me inform you that the fresh faced, makeup-less look is back!

Now, perhaps this comes as a relief for some. Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Yes! Finally, my makeup-free everyday face is on trend.” Or “I can stop applying the heaps of mascara that I hate so much but feel compelled to wear. A chance to ritualistically destroy my mom’s re-gifted coral lipstick!”

If that’s you, the one currently feeling very #grateful, then enjoy! However, if you are elated, it might be good to consider what may be some of the reasons as to why.

The barefaced, make-up less look is totally on trend if you’re lucky enough to be counted among the few gals in our society whose genetics allow them to fall within hegemonic beauty standards; beauty standards which, for women, only seem to value clear even skin, structured symmetrical faces, and classically feminine features. If you’re not one of these ladies, and you exist make-up free regardless, props to you. However, if you’re a gal who is self conscious about her appearance, for whatever reason, that is a totally reasonable attitude to have. You have been subjected to, and have survived years and years of cultural inundation! While it isn’t right, or fair, or just, that you’re not happy with your appearance because you have been forced to endure toxic cultural messaging, it is also not your fault. Sure, maybe we could all do with a little more practice in the self love department, but you should not be shamed for using the tools available to you to alter your appearance in whatever way makes you happy. Particularly if those tools are something as excellent as sparkly liquid liner.

Makeup itself, despite the fact that the beauty industry is decidedly toxic, has a certain equalizing potential. Now, this is not to ignore some of the class dynamics involved in makeup, its production, and its purchase. Not to mention the consistent racism in product production, availability, and marketing. But if your appearance doesn’t align with whatever arbitrary beauty standard is currently being forced into your already pretty head, makeup can facilitate your (totally legitimate) desire to have the eyebrows you want, or the cheekbones you wish you had. Don’t get me wrong, it is gross the way that women are made to feel about their faces and bodies, like they are somehow inadequate if they don’t look a particular way (Surprise, that’s bullshit!). Yet, the beauty industry deciding that #nomakeup is the new beauty standard, is the new trend, fails to recognize the countless women who have systematically been told over and over again that they, as they are, are not beautiful. It doesn’t succeed in promoting a makeup free look, but instead promotes the same look it has raised up in the past, just this time with the added illusion of effortlessness. It once again sidelines the women who already feel bad about their appearances, those outside of stringent, normative beauty standards. This time however, it also shames us for trying.

Additionally, #nomakeup seems to perpetuate the myth of “the cool girl”. You know the one? She is low maintenance, she isn’t fussy, or prissy, or prim. She is laid back, casual, and looks desirable whether she’s rolling out of bed or going out for a drink. This girl is feminine in all the right ways, without all of the pesky nonsense like a purse full of products, or a scary-looking eyelash curler. #nomakeup plays right into the all too familiar narrative of the male gaze; “low maintenance, not no maintenance” Still gotta remove all that nasty body hair, right?

The reality is though, that more often than not, “The cool girl” is a performance of femininity. Its not that this girl doesn’t care about her appearance, but rather, that she is trying to look like she doesn’t care. Naturally, that is any lady’s goddess-given right. Of course there are exceptions; one of those rare gals who has somehow managed to escape years of bombardment unscathed and who genuinely gives zero fucks about her appearance. Or the gal who has worked really fucking hard to get to the point where, most days, she couldn’t give a shit about how she looks. But for the most part, “the cool girl” who looks like she doesn’t care because her jeans are baggy and her face is bare, mostly that girl cares just as much as you do. And that is totally okay. Turns out, in today’s context, consistently looking like you just rolled out of bed is just as much an aesthetic choice as wearing that braided updo is. Her display of indifference, is just that; a display. And certainly one worth interrogating, asking ourselves why it is that some girls get to feign apathy, and why it is that, right now, apathy is desirable.

While I am all for feeling flawless just after waking up, there is a distinction to be pointed out here: there is a difference between feeling flawless and looking #flawless. The point is, we should all we able to feel flawless, to decide on a given morning whether we want to paint on our brows, rock a daring pastel lip, or just rinse well with water. But the beauty trend that is #nomakeup stigmatizes a type of feminized behavior. Putting effort into how you look, when women are told day in and day out that we are nothing more than our physical appearance, isn’t just reasonable — it’s something we are made to believe is necessary. And some women are made to believe it is more necessary for them than for others. So when women put energy into how they look, spend time in front of the mirror fixing their mascara, or using concealer to “even out” their skin tone, and are then called shallow, vain, frivolous or underconfident, by the same industry that made them feel inadequate in the first place, #nomakeup becomes a clear example of the classic feminist concept: the double bind.

Now, do I have any illusions about the fact that grooming rituals writ large, feminine ones in particular, are something we are culturally coerced into? No. Sure, we can make daily decisions about how to present ourselves, how we want to perform femininity, or whether we want to perform it at all, but those decisions all exist within a broader context, and are subject to existing social strictures. Do I think it would be better if more women felt comfortable and safe, valued and important regardless of their decisions regarding their appearance? Regardless of whether they gave two flying fucks about beauty, or beauty trends? Uh, of course. But, does it remain kinda important to be critical of targeted industries like the beauty industry, and their bullshit, thinly veiled as progressivism? Uh yeah, I think so.

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