Let’s Queer The NYT ‘Debate’ About Women And Makeup

I don’t know if you know this about me, but my superpower strength is Getting Ready For Work In Under Ten Minutes. It might seem crazy, but I promise it’s true. In fact, today I slept through my alarm and woke up at 9:15 in a panic (I’m supposed to be at work by 9am, and I live 45 minutes away from my office) but by 9:23 I was out the door and rushing to the subway. I was fully clothed, I had breakfast and lunch in my bag, and I even remembered to wear my spiffy new iPhone touch gloves. My secret? I shower at night, I don’t brush my hair, and…wait for it…I don’t wear makeup.

Not wearing makeup isn’t a thing I do for feminism. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but I’m not ashamed of it either. I feel completely neutral about not wearing makeup. I have lots of feelings about the way makeup functions in the world and the expectations that are connected to it, but I have no interest in talking about an individual’s personal choice when it comes to makeup because I don’t think it’s a useful conversation. I would never tell you whether you should wear makeup or not, or how you should feel about that choice, whatever it may be. And luckily, I totally don’t have to, because on Wednesday the New York Times decided to take on that task for me! Whew, lucky us.

Jennifer Lawrence doesn't know why the NYT decided to frame the debate the way they did and neither do I.

Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t know why the NYT decided to frame the debate the way they did and neither do I.

Earlier this week the illustrious New York Times, beacon of hard news and weirdly-contrived fake trend pieces, decided there’s “Room for Debate” when it comes to women and makeup. What encouraged this brave foray into the super new and not-at-all tired debate about women and their looks and how we all choose to exist in our bodies? The NYT feels that while “some would argue that makeup empowers women, others would say it’s holding them back from true equality.” While questioning the validity and complexity of the relationship between women and makeup could have been interesting, the way they chose to frame the debate completely missed the mark:

A recent survey seems to come down on the side of makeup — at least superficially — saying that wearing makeup increases a woman’s likability and competence in the workplace. If makeup has indeed become the status quo in the public realm, does it ultimately damage a woman’s self-esteem, or elevate it?

In other words, the conversation is totally fucked from the get go. I really think if someone were to stage a debate about the idea of makeup as the status quo as a reality – What kind of makeup are we talking about? Why do we live in a world that demands we look “natural” but insists that to achieve the natural look we must heap on products? Who benefits from makeup being “the status quo” and who suffers real consequences? – the conversation could yield interesting, useful answers. I mean obviously we could just blame the patriarchy (#BOTP forever and ever amen) but I’m genuinely interested in having a deeper and more nuanced conversation about this issue. But! That’s not what the NYT wants to do. It wants us to blindly accept this statement as fact and get to the real question: Since we’re all stuck in this world where makeup is a necessity, how are we lady folk coping? I call bullshit.

I'm just going to illustrate this article with photos of gorgeous lipstick because the other option is photos of me rolling my eyes and this seems preferable.

I’m just going to illustrate this article with photos of gorgeous lipstick because the other option is photos of me rolling my eyes and this seems preferable.

There are seven essays in total, and while one of them spoke to me a little bit, on the whole I just couldn’t take them seriously because as I mentioned, they were missing the point. I’m not trying to personally offend anyone when I talk about the beauty industry and the ways in which marketing makeup to women can be problematic. I don’t care that Thomas Matlack, who is apparently the “go to guy” whenever the mainstream media needs a Sensitive Male Perspective thinks his wife is beautiful with or without makeup. There was no nuance in the essays, no surprises. It felt like a group of people had been selected and had been told to say very specific things, and they stuck to the script. The one truly bizarre moment appears when makeup artist Scott Barnes – who is obviously going to come down in support of makeup making us all feel fab, because its his livelihood, and that’s all well and good – writes: “A woman applying makeup is sort of like a man donning armor to prepare himself for battle. Makeup gives you confidence…and confidence is a good thing to have on the battlefield.” Sure, okay, confidence is great to have on the battlefield, but you know what’s even better? Actual armor! Like the kind the men in this hypothetical yet super-literal take on the “gender wars” battlefield situation are gonna get. But nope, the men are gonna get the armor and the women are gonna get the lipstick and we’re all gonna feel soooo confident and it’s gonna be great, really! Equality rocks, amirite?!

Over at Jezebel, Jenna Sauers (a former model who initially contributed to Jezebel anonymously “from the trenches” and now contributes regularly under her real name) presents an interesting take-down of the debate, questioning the framing of the essays and suggesting that there is no choice.

As a kind of thought experiment, sure, I can imagine there are women who wear makeup truly and only “for themselves,” who would continue to do so even absent any the miasma of social programming and cultural pressure to wear makeup, subtle and not-so-subtle, that women face in mainstream contemporary western culture. Maybe there are women who truly indeed wear makeup “for themselves,” such that if our culture happened to transform overnight into one where the wearing of makeup by women was stigmatized, they’d continue to do it. Because it’s their choice! It’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever met any of these women.

Now the thing is, while I do agree with Jenna on some of her points – I hate when we talk about “choices” as though they exist in a vacuum, I hate pitting women against one another à la “the mommy wars” and I hate when people act like there is One Right Way To Do A Thing, especially if it involves The Idea Of Feminism – I read this paragraph and shook my head. I disagree. Because I have met these women. They exist. They’re queer.

I feel like all the hard femmes I know could rock these lipsticks so hard.

I feel like all the femmes I know could rock these lipsticks so hard.

You may be super surprised to hear that not a single voice in this conversation belongs to a queer women. So let’s inject a little queer perspective into this conversation.

To argue that no woman ever would wear makeup “for herself” is to suggest that we are so deeply entrenched in a world that objectifies women and encourages us to make ourselves into objects of desire that even if we believe we’re acting independently, we’re actually just doing what the system wants us to do (hello, hegemony!). The thing is, the act of being queer is already subverting the system. If one refuses to give in to the idea that we must be pretty, we must be available for consumption, we must be pleasing to look at (implicitly implied: in the eyes of cis dudes), then the act of putting on makeup can possibly be reclaimed. I want to be careful here because I don’t want to imply that a heterosexual woman is not capable of this because of course she might be. But a queer woman effortlessly does this and so the act of putting on makeup – when the intent is explicitly not to attract the attention of a man – can suddenly and easily become radical.

Butches and femmes: Queering makeup for since approximately forever ago.

Butches and femmes: Queering makeup since approximately forever ago.

Queers take on radical approaches to makeup in many other ways, too. Some of us radically reject it. Some of us radically embrace it. A masculine of center woman refusing to wear eyeliner is just as radical as a femme woman wearing a full face of makeup, complete with bright red lips and fake eyelashes. Absolutely any interaction with makeup is radical when we use it in ways that don’t fit with how society believes our gender should behave. When a feminine gay man wears nail polish, when my masculine of center girlfriend paints one nail pink, when we do things we are told we should not do – and yes, we do these things for ourselves – that’s radical. Makeup isn’t the enemy. Queers have done a great job proving that makeup really can help us – and everyone else! – take what’s on the inside and articulate it on the outside. And wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation to have? How queers and straight people and everyone in the world can utilize makeup in a way that is safe and fun and personal?

If I absolutely had to wear makeup to work I would probably want it to look something like this, to be honest.

If I absolutely had to wear makeup to work I would probably want it to look something like this, to be honest.

I hope you’ll tell me how you feel about makeup. I want to know about your take on the social implications surrounding it, the queer ways in which we can reclaim it and all your other feelings in the comments. Just because the New York Times failed to have an interesting conversation about women wearing makeup doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be had. Maybe we can have it.

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Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 404 articles for us.


  1. I only wear makeup on special occasions (and that only happens when I remember to put it on). I used to want to wear it a lot more, but my skin has improved so it’s not as necessary.

    When I wanted to wear it when I was younger I was doing it for myself. To rebel, because no one else in my family wore it, and because I thought it sounded cool/liked the idea.

    Instead of wearing makeup lately I have been experimenting with nail polish. I feel like if I’m going to wear makeup it would be an expression of myself, which could be accomplished just as easily by my manicures. (And when i say ‘manicures’ i mean painting my nails and then doing nothing else with them. I do not mean professional manicures, of which I have only ever had two. Ever.)

    What it comes down to is that if I wear makeup I’m going to wear it for myself, and rarely, and I’m not really all that likely to follow makeup trends. (I have a slight interest in makeup trends but only because of my larger interest in fashion.)

  2. The NYT’s room for debate has really been having a contest to have the worst topic each week. Among the worst features of the supposedly illustrious newspaper.

    And it really, really frustrates me when discussions of femininity only include heterosexual voices. I feel like I am constantly having to say, “No, I am not wearing this so men find me attractive. Because I don’t want men.” Not that you can remove make-up and standards of beauty from society as a whole, but seriously, there are ways in which femininity can be queer or empowering, if any one thought or listened.

    Could we maybe start from: Makeup is an interesting an powerful thing because it can change the way you look. The way we look (and our gender presentation) affects the way we act & are perceived. How do you use make-up (or not) to affect how people perceive you? How do you use make-up to change how you see yourself? Now let’s have an interesting discussion in which no one talks about how lipstick = armor in a ridiculously mixed metaphor.

    Also, I hate how none of these people actually talk to or critique each other– any interesting points they may have had are lost in endless cliches.

    • This is an awesome comment, thank you for writing it.

      There’s only one question I want to add to the ones you have asked: how do we use makeup to communicate (or conceal) something inside yourself?

    • “The way we look (and our gender presentation) affects the way we act & are perceived. How do you use make-up (or not) to affect how people perceive you? How do you use make-up to change how you see yourself?”

      I just wanted to say that this is exactly how I see makeup and what I use it for.

  3. Amen to personal choice.

    I feel like the “experts” at the New York Times and Jezebel were attempting to speak for women as a whole instead of for their individual selves, which would’ve been so much more heartfelt and honest and just…real.

    I’ve heard femme friends refer to their make-up as “warpaint,” which is sooooo much more fitting than calling it armor.

  4. I love makeup. I am slightly obsessed, and I’m a complete nerd about it. I’m currently having a lazy night in while I create eye makeup looks for each of the Hogwarts houses.
    I agree that queer femme women can be completely subversive. I do my makeup for myself, I love the entire process, I see my face as a canvas and makeup as my paint. I see it as a sort of reclamation of femininity, to be controlled by ourselves, not by the male gaze.

  5. I love this!

    I don’t wear makeup mostly for practical reasons. I also have a ten minute get-ready-for-work routine, I have this lovely eczema that shows up on my eyelid and makes eyeshadow impractical at best, and both my wife and I like the way I look without it. Also, I don’t wear nail polish because I hate hate HATE the way nail polish remover feels.

    My wife, who is ever-so-slightly more butch than I am, does wear makeup sometimes and fingernail polish pretty much always. This is how we ended up at my office Christmas party with me in a 50s-style dress with no makeup on and her in a shirt, trousers and bowtie with makeup on… ;)

    • “I have this lovely eczema that shows up on my eyelid and makes eyeshadow impractical at best”

      What! All this time, I thought I was the only one!!!

      I like makeup, but my eczema makes it very difficult to wear, and I just don’t care enough to spend ages tracking down brands that won’t make my skin fall off my face.

      • Yeah, unfortunately it seems that mine is mostly stress-related :( but makeup doesn’t seem to help either.

        • Ah, that sucks. Mine flares up with stress too (as well as dust, pollen and extreme temperatures). I just assumed I was stuck with mine for good since I’ve had it all my life, but I’m going to go to a dermatologist this year to just make sure it’s not allergic dermatitis.

          Not that you asked for my advice, but the things I find useful in keeping mine at bay: sulfate-free shampoo & conditioner as well as rosehip oil (tea tree and sweet almond are good too – coconut if you need something heavier). I use a brand of skincare called Moo Goo which has been really great, but Nature’s Organics is good too and cheap. I’m basically telling you this because it helps me stay away from steroid creams so maybe it would help you when you have flare ups.

          • Yeah, I’ve tried most of that song-and-dance already, alas. Steroid cream doesn’t do shit, either. At least it’s usually not itchy, it just looks like my face is falling apart…


    Real talk: I barely ever leave the house without makeup because, whatever, I like the way it looks and it’s fun and yeah I know I don’t have to wear it but it’s kind of part of my identity in the exact same way that “not wearing makeup” would be part of someone else’s. Actually someone once called me an “eyeliner andro” and while I think she maybe didn’t mean it in a nice way, I do think that I’ve integrated makeup into my gender presentation. You did a perfect job of explaining why this is a radical act, so thank you!! I want to take some quotes from this and put them on a shirt.

  7. I’m not even particularly femme, but all of my makeup looks are based entirely on drag queens and Adam Lambert, so I’m pretty sure that makes me twice as homogay as I already am.

  8. It’s my goal for when I’m competent in make-up application to wear only the most garish of makeup while around men who think they’re progressive for telling women to look more natural.

  9. All I can say for myself is that I hate make up, I’ve never found a woman wearing it to be more attractive because of it, always the opposite in fact and the idea of going through the day, eating, drinking scratching an itch or kissing, with paint on my face seems ridiculous. Jenna Sauers comments perfectly mirror my feelings and arguments I’ve made over the years.

    I also have to say that It’s disturbed me how much I’ve seen patriarchal (there’s that word) society and marketing influence lesbian fashion and concepts of beauty. You might call it reclaiming, but it feels to me more like we’re being swallowed up and women who don’t even give the tiniest fuck what men find attractive still have to jump through the same hoops. We all know the straight society mockery of flannel shirts and comfortable shoes, and in reaction a lot of lesbians, or at least mainstream ones, seem determined to prove that they can be just as uncomfortable (and look just as silly) as any straight woman.

    So it’s tricky as you say. I’m all for everyone choosing for themselves, but then figuring out where actual choice starts and pressure, shame and out-right brainwashing ends. It actually reminds me of reading about when people try to organize a union or you could point to women’s suffrage. One of the hardest things about it is making the misused parties realize it. People who’ve been oppressed their whole lives will react badly to someone trying to point it out and usually enforce the oppression on others. It’s a coping mechanism of the brain, the same part that rationalizes an action AFTER we’ve done it. You figure well, there has to be a reason I’ve been put through this, it must be the way things should be. Realizing that it was unnecessary or pointless is too painful to comprehend. Especially when looking back at wasted time, something I know A LOT about. What’s so insidious too is that this stuff happens from the moment we’re born. It’s so hard to step back and examine.

    • I grew up in a very conservative, patriarchal, religious environment in which any attempt by a woman to decorate her face was seen as whorish and narcissistic. So now when I put on makeup, I feel like, “Screw that, I can decorate my face if I effin’ want to.” It feels extremely empowering to me to be rid of that system and that mindset. So there’s that.

      • Wow I really empathise with this! To like makeup, clothes, glamour – well at church that was wordly, superficial, a distraction from God yada yada yada. My father actually tried to stop my mother wearing makeup on her wedding day because he doesn’t believe women should wear it! I don’t really wear makeup but my love of clothes & jewels is to me a rebellion against those norms and a celebration of my embodiedness.

      • It certainly goes both ways, that’s for sure. But that kind of patriarchal domination, as separate from the kind I talked about, is fringe in society these days. Or it is unless you live in certain parts of the middle-east I guess.

        Women have been forced and coerced to alter their bodies for as long as we’ve been here though and it shows no signs of stopping.

        • >>Or it is unless you live in certain parts of the middle-east I guess.>>

          I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably the case in parts of the Bible Belt, too.

          • I think it depends, even in the Bible belt. I lived for a while in southern Tennessee, right on the Georgia and Alabama border, and spent a lot of my time singing old American sacred music with Primitive Baptists in northeast Alabama (long story — short version is that I love the music, but I am not Christian). All of the rural conservative Christian women that I sang with wore lots of makeup, and many of the younger women wore really skimpy clothes. Among all these Primitive Baptists, I was considered weird because I didn’t wear makeup and I dressed pretty modestly. However, I’ve been to some other communities in the South where the women did dress really plain and not wear makeup, and they would have been shunned if they acted differently.

            I guess it’s no surprise that there are many different ways society can try to control people’s self-presentation and sexuality.

          • You misunderstand. I said it’s fringe in this country these days, which it is, even if you live in the bible belt. It’s NOT fringe in parts of the middle-east (and elsewhere i’m sure) in those places it’s fairly well mainstream.

    • I agree with this. I have a naturally reddish skin tone plus flare-ups of Rosacea, which makes my face turn bright red on occasion. I rarely leave the house without some kind of foundation/powder makeup because of this. It takes a ton of makeup just to get my face looking like a normal skin tone. I tell myself it’s to make myself feel better but I’m subconsciously falling prey to the beauty myth.

      • I get Rosacea flare ups and have reddish skin too: foundation made things worse/more likely to flare up in the long run, in my experience.

        Obviously there are a bunch of Rosacea triggers you can avoid; or just roll with on a night out, if it comes to that. But I found there were a lot of things that also helped to desensitise my skin to the possibility of a flare up: by breaking off using any skin products for a period and then testing them, paying close attention to my reaction.

        Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, various Parabens and a couple of essential oils turned out to be a big no-no. Unfortunately they are in lots of things, but there are quite a few only slightly pricer alternatives now (worth it imho). It takes a bit of time, but I strongly recommend trying different products and/or discontinuing the ones you are using, if it’s a frequent problem: this goes for shampoo and toothpaste too.

        Alternatively it might help if you buy a green pre foundation redness reducer (it takes some experimentation to avoid looking like a zombie, but if your skin can tolerate the makeup, the green helps near invsibly cancel out the redness).

        Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it isn’t a myth: don’t be so hard on yourself. People make judgements, often unfair ones, based on how we look.

        • Thanks for this! I have a green pre-foundation stuff, I am just too lazy to use it most of the time. I just got diagnosed with it a couple of months ago so I have to play around and see what works.

  10. Sigh.

    Yay first comment! (though if I refresh I won’t be but eh)

    Nay for the NY times article. It made me feel like a facepalming bobblehead.

    My thoughts on makeup and feelings and things…I’m semi-closeted; out to the outside world, in with my mother. And when it comes to makeup and things, I sometimes argue with Mom about not putting it on; since her view is that yes, you can put it for yourself..but also, it heightens your features so you can attract people…but mostly so you can attract guys!

    And her view on lesbians and queerdom is general is VERYYY narrow…so the idea of a femme lesbian would perplex her and irk me trying to explain myself.

    Also, she believes that only lesbians don’t wear makeup and that just frustrates me when I recall her saying that because she is SOOOOOOOO WRONG…your view on makeup doesn’t equate your sexuality!

    But then I’m not ready to initiate that discussion because I like my head and I’m tired of bruising it against a rockhard wall of denial.

    I love androgyny. I sigh at the gals who can pull it off and I accept myself as a humble tomboy and I’ve grown to like my body in recent years and be comfortable in wearing dresses and tanks and whatever THE FUCK I WANT WHENEVER I WANT.

    However…while Mom and I agree on that, we disagree on the significance of putting on makeup and I avoid argument because we’re passive and we don’t want to fight so I end up putting it on to shut her up and keep her…happy-ish.

    So in conclusion…on the day where you can openly queer or straight and put regular makeup (as opposed to theater makeup) and no one gives a fuck then that is the day when I cry for joy.

    But until then, I brood and growl and eyeroll and sigh.

    • “Your view on makeup doesn’t equate your sexuality.” THIS THIS THIS!!

      I rock the eyeliner look, but I do it for me. It is neither an offering to appease the heteronormative majority, nor (in my case) is it radically queer… it’s just a personal choice to augment the appearance of my facial features.

  11. I wear make-up when I remember/have time/can be bothered/need some extra confidence and find that it makes me feel more ready to face the day. However, I’ve always been intimidated by the ‘culture’ (for want of a better word) that surrounds it. Make-up sometimes feels like some sort of secret club that I haven’t been initiated into – I remember a salesperson in a chemist’s actually shouting at me as I walked past as to which mascara I used and, upon me saying that I didn’t wear any, telling me angrily that I would have to when I had a job.

    Recently I’ve started to embrace make-up more, I recently bought my first bottle of nail varnish ever (previous nail varnishes in varying shades of pink had been gifted to me) and painting my nails in a colour of my choice, thereby reclaiming an area of traditional femininity that had formerly made me uncomfortable felt really empowering.

    So basically I feel that make-up can be a wonderful field for self-expression and reassurance as well as a way for some people to give the middle finger to social expectations but that it is unfortunately intertwined with expectations of gendered behaviour.

  12. Despite rarely wearing any, I love makeup. All my life, my mother has sold Avon cosmetics as a side job (as a single parent with three kids) and I have grown to associate makeup with empowering female businesswomen. Fifteen years later, my mother has traveled the world, met great people and learned important leadership skills through the power of makeup. I have great respect for it and see it as a tool for potential. Now, what a person sees it as potential for is a whole different story…

  13. Oh I want to read all the comments but I also want to comment and my friend is picking me up for a movie very soon.

    Make-up actually feels empowering to me, in a way, mostly because of my father. I grew up evangelical Christian family. Not being vain and not causing our Christian brothers to sin by looking at as lustfully (yup that was a message pushed on me repeatedly as a teenager, rage rage rage) were pushed pretty hard. We were supposed to be feminine and pretty but not too pretty, and certainly, certainly not sexy! If my sister and I looked too good, my dad used to comment about finding burlap sacks for us to wear and joke about looking for a Protestant convent. Seeing me put on make-up made him particularly uncomfortable. Now, partly this was the anti-sex, misogynist streak of our religious culture, and partly this was a well-intentioned desire of his that his daughters see their worth as not lying in their looks. So I associate wearing make-up, looking sexy with this sort grabbing hold of celebrating my ownership of myself as a sexual being and enjoying it.

    I go for months and sometimes whole years barely ever wearing make-up, and then I’ll go for months when I wear it almost every day. And it’s always for me. It’s fun. I like experimenting with it. I like the way my eyes look when they pop a little more. I usually only wear eye-makeup, sometimes something on my lips, never cover-up.

    Will read y’alls comments later! Maybe write more! (I do have more feelings and thoughts =p)

    • Ah, the good old virgin-vs-whore conundrum, whereby women are required to look, as you put it “pretty but not too pretty, and certainly, certainly not sexy”

      And we wonder why females (of every sexual orientation) feel that they cannot win?

    • YES to all of your comment!

      “So I associate wearing make-up, looking sexy with this sort grabbing hold of celebrating my ownership of myself as a sexual being and enjoying it.”


  14. The thought of wearing makeup makes me want to cry because it sends me to memories of my sister putting barrettes in my hair and putting makeup on me. I absolutely hated it. I would always run away crying and I would tear the barrettes out of my hair because I didn’t know how to take them off properly which only made the whole experience more painful.

    People should do whatever makes them feel good. Wearing make up makes me feel like shit because it makes me feel as if I am not pretty enough as I naturally am. While I don’t like it, if it makes other people feel like a million bucks, they should do it.

  15. Makeup is a great artistic outlet, and I definitely have a ton of fun with it as a style choice, as much as I would picking out clothing and accessories. As a teen I used it as an act of rebellion against the SuperBaptist community, deliberately looking as scary and tough as possible, as what I believed to be the opposite of the socially acceptable 50’s era gender role I was expected to fill. Now I only enjoy makeup in the social setting. If I am seen wearing makeup at work, it is a guaranteed sign that I am having some sort of internal conflict or emotional issue. A literal mask of product. I often wonder if other ladygays do the same thing.

  16. My mother doesn’t and has never work makeup, for reasons that she says are feminist (in some way that is probably legit for her generation’s idea of feminism, but to me screams madonna-whore complex). She would say she wants to be (seen as) smart instead of decorative, etc. I think she is also just personally uncomfortable with seeing herself as a beautiful, sexualized-in-someone’s-eyes person, because for her that means she is NOT intellectual and strong and independent.

    I taught myself how to wear makeup, and I like to think I do so to queer that shit up (hey look I can line my eyes flawlessly AND tear your cognitive linguistics paper apart, what now), but also partly because that’s what makes me feel comfortable in this made-up-women-appreciating-world. I hope that isn’t counterproductive to Mission Queer.

    I also think, importantly, that my approach is one my mom could never have taken. If society when she was growing up told her that she couldn’t both wear makeup and be a Strong Independent Woman (and maybe that was actually more true in her “time” than it is now), then maybe her choice is legit. (Feminism is temporally situated? I know, brand new idea).

    Anyone else have mommy thoughts?

    • My mother (very butch in presentation) has always been vehemently opposed to makeup and I when I started eyeing it in high school she flipped out. Had to wait till I moved out and went to college. Then I went nuts with it, as well as with femme presentation. Four years later and I’ve figured out I prefer a more tomboy femme approach but still love makeup. Female role models can have such a weird effect on us, I think.

    • Because of my mother, makeup is the exact opposite of empowering to me. Whenever she tried to get me to wear makeup, it was because I wasn’t good enough as I was – there was always something tacked on to it, like “put on makeup, you look too pale”, or “put on makeup, xyz feature is wrong with you”. The act of wearing makeup was never for myself, only for her, or “for” someone else, as in going to an uncle’s or cousin’s wedding, but really she was the only one who cared.

      She’s always been trying to mould me into someone I’m not and really don’t want to be, and makeup was always a part of that. I’d always make excuses for not wearing it – for instance, she’d want me to wear it to band concerts, but I’d say I didn’t want lipstick getting on my trombone mouthpiece (which is a legitimate concern, right?) Oftentimes it would just be a childish “no” until she got frustrated and gave in.

      I think of wearing makeup and I want to cry. I guess to me, it represents being someone I’m not, and not being good enough as I am (Mulan, anyone? haha) So I guess in a sense, not wearing makeup is sort of rebelling against being the person she wants me to be, and as an extension just being OK with who I am and want to me.

      Normally, I just tell people that I value my extra few minutes of sleep more than how I look wearing makeup. But, I mean, I react so strongly against having makeup on my face, and the idea actually makes me feel really upset, so I know it goes deeper than that for me.

      • Ditto ditto ditto. In my mind make up always has the question “But, don’t you want to look pretty?” attached to it. That always just felt like a less aggressive way to say “You’re ugly, don’t you want to do something about it?”

      • Ditto. My mom still encourages me to wear makeup to fix my colouration. Apparently I’m void of colour to her, yet my uber femme friend was indignant with disbelief that my natural lip colour wasn’t due to lipstick. Just this past week, my mom brought up the lipstick debate and I used this anecdote to shut her up. Ugh. Not wearing makeup is part of my identity, and everyone says that I “don’t need it”, except Mom. It’s frustrating, and at my age, feels patronizing like if I were still being reminded to brush my teeth.

        Also, my worst memories of taking dance classes was the tramautizing ordeal of having mandatory makeup. Many bitter tears were wept for those horrid recitals and group photos.

    • What a great article and incredibly interesting discussion!

      I grew up under parents who saw little need for makeup or for conforming to societal standards of beauty. As such, my mum never really went out of her way to tell or teach me about makeup (makeup for fun or for ‘social necessity’).

      They both even tried to stop my teenage sister from shaving her legs for a while, until I pointed out that they shouldn’t use her as the battering ram against fucked-up societal beauty standards when she’s just a teenager trying to fit in… fighting said standards can be a challenging and sometimes socially-isolating path and it’s one she should walk of her own accord if/when SHE wants to. (They may or may not have changed their shaving policy due to my paraphrasing of the aforementioned argument, not sure).

      ANYHOW. My mum never really taught me about makeup. But she never really taught me about how to look after my skin either. (My whole home life has been weirdly avoidant of many mentions of attractiveness or appearance or sexuality or bodies, save for the occasional lame fart joke by dad). As a result of having oily skin and never having too many ideas of how to fully deal with this or even feel okay about spending proper money on skin creams/remedies that would sort this out- because that would mean spending ACTUAL MONEY on my APPEARANCE (an idea I’d internalised as wrong, somehow) – I’ve had a childhood and teenhood of treating my skin far less well than it should have, and not quite realising the consequences till later.

      These days I wear concealer to cover scars and blemishes from said mistreatment, because even though I don’t like that I am, I’m a bit insecure about it. This is part of an evil cycle whereby my skin hates the concealer and does not clear up, so I keep wearing it. However, I’m going to start the Oil Cleansing Method mentioned by Laura soon, yay Laura! My awesome AS-appreciative natural-remedy-happy friend even made me a first batch! And that will hopefully follow with no longer using concealer. I would like to try fight the patriarchy with this one.

  17. Personally, I often wear makeup, I prefer it to subtle, I don’t do to make myself feel more attractive or for self-esteem, I’m a confident person and I have no body or beauty issues, I wear it because I like it, and I like to add a hint of colour to my face, often to compliment the colour of clothing that I’m wearing, sometimes I put it on more liberally if I really want accenuate my feature and clothing – and that’s how I see it, an extension of clothing, to me it’s no different that dressing up in nice clothes. Of cousre I have my natural days, but whatever I do is always for myself.

    Oh and to end a slight digression but hopefully related as this artical immediately made me recall what became a heated debate I had on another site some time ago about women wearing makeup and a members assertion that it was only worn to attract the opposite sex and natural was more beautiful and by implication ‘real’ he was playing the role of the sensitve male trying to empower the ‘low in confidence’ girls of the site. Whilst there was some fawning – ‘oh that’s so sweet’ I went to war – firstly against it’s for attraction purposes, but also calling him out for a previous statement that female body hair is disgusting and unnatractive and should be removed – question being how far does being natural go before it’s not attractive. My point in a drawn out way was women will always be scrutinized in some way, and anything could be seen as making a statement.

  18. First off, I would really like to challenge the assumption that if queers use make up, it is effortlessly radical. Just because the wearer is not trying to attract male gaze does not mean the wearer is automatically subverting the misogynist system.

    Queer wearers of make-up can certainly be radical (and I would argue that many of them are), but these people always have a history of self-discovery with regards to make-up. Radicalism is the synergy of choice and consciousness; it would be a gross exaggeration to say all queers who wear make-up do so because they chose. If we are to critique the NYT for its lack of nuance, let’s at least remember to be nuanced ourselves.

    A queer woman who wears make-up to get a promotion, a queer news commentator who wears make-up because her producers demand it, a butch daughter who wears make-up to appease her traditional mother.. The choice of these people to struggle through oppressive circumstance is radical, but the make-up is not.

    • I am really inclined to agree.

      I see what this article is getting at, but for me, just… no.

      I wear basically a full face of slap most days I go out. I like my face just fine without it, but usually I like my face a bit more with it on. I own a lot of make up. I read A LOT of make up blogs (I’m quite fond of the online beauty community). I’m good at it – my friends often ask me to do theirs, or give them advice. Make up is an interest/hobby for me, in the same way fashion is. I like to look a certain way, for myself and for other people (ie. ladies), make up is part of the whole picture.

      I don’t think I’m sticking it to the man with my 10 different red lipsticks or whatever. This isn’t the 1800’s… I don’t think the fact that I like girls changes anything about my make up wearing habits and what it says about me (not much). I can feel just as comfortable with a bare face than I might with full maquillage, looking the way I do in the world I live in might say a few things about me, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with my homo-ness, and it sure as hell ain’t radical. Speaking for myself here, obviously. I wish it didn’t feel like every little tiny thing I do has to be some kind of radical statement. It’s not. It just is.

  19. I recently moved from New York to Portland, OR. One of the weirdest things I’ve noticed about the move is that people here are constantly surprised by my makeup. My daily face is just a basic cat eye, completely common in New York but very rare here. It’s still my daily face though, because my makeup is for myself. I don’t feel like me without it, it’s as carefully cultivated as every piece of clothing in my wardrobe.

  20. I am a professional makeup artist of 7 years. I also happen to be butch, and present masculine of center.

    I absolutely agree that wearing makeup differently than the typical intent is radical.

    I have two theories:

    1. Makeup is for creativity. That’s why it’s called makeup artistry!
    2. When any client asks me, “What do I need?” I always smile and say, “Nothing.
    This is for fun! and it’s going to look great.”

    Also, the juxtaposition that my carefully crafted eyeshadow and bronzer provides when paired with studded boots and tight v necks provides is glorious.

    • I like this approach. Ideally, in my opinion, make up should be freely chosen and done for fun, and I think it should be aimed at artistry, creativity and expressiveness, rather than for “hiding flaws” and looking respectable. And also, of course, I think a joyful and liberatory practice of maquillage should be separated from the systems of capitalism and patriarchy where women are forced into proving their femininity by having to buy it. I think make up should be for men and women and everyone else to celebrate themselves, rather than as something women have to use to legitimize one’s gender to institutional forms of surveillance.

      As a trans woman, however, I’ve always felt super uncomfortable wearing make up myself, because I feel like it somehow reinforces the trope that trans people are all inherently fake and somehow more “constructed” than cis people. I do know that this is an irrational perspective, but it keeps me from wearing make up. So while I tend towards the femme, I generally skip make up because I’m always afraid it will make people think I’m shallow, hollow and all artifice. It’s a shame, because sometimes I want to do like Siouxsie Sioux or Robert Plant style make up for myself, but all that damn transphobia is in the way!

      But one of my favorite feminist/literary theorists, Helene Cixous, has this absolutely killer make up style that I hope to someday be able to emulate. She’s known for a somewhat dapper presentation, but contrasted with cat eyeliner and red lipstick. I think that’s a pretty subversive, or at least novel, way of doing gender through make up.

      I’ll end with this anecdote. Last semester, I took an art theory class with a lesbian professor. I volunteered (because, well, she asked me) to pose nude for a video art piece she was doing. Yes, she was a total stranger, and yes, I was completely naked (and not wearing any make up). But she was so nice about the whole thing– I was completely terrified, but I’d never felt as beautiful. There’s a form of power in that too, I think.

      • What a fantastically written and interesting response.
        Thank you for sharing that.
        I love Helene Cixious’ makeup style.

      • My girlfriend, who is also trans*, has the same thing about make up. She hates that that view of trans* people as more “constructed” than cis women has so seeped into her, but at the same time is uncomfortable with makeup, despite the fact that she identifies and prefers femme/high femme appearance and expression. My friends and I have always been very supportive and explained to her a number of time that she only should do and wear what she is comfortable with. If I had a nickel for every time the phrase “you do you” has come out of my mouth, I would be loaded. I need to show her this thread, bc she will love it.

      • “… yes, I was completely naked (and not wearing any make up). But she was so nice about the whole thing– I was completely terrified, but I’d never felt as beautiful. There’s a form of power in that too, I think.”

        Thank you, this was beautiful, and powerful too :)

    • Yes! Masculine of center here too, and always wear eyeliner and no other kind of makeup. I rock an andro look, kind of teenage skater brat sissy boy/boi, and eyeliner just kind of fits along with it. My mom has tried to force me to wear what she called a ‘full face’ of makeup since I was twelve. She even took me to a makeup store where a consultant had set aside an hour to teach me to look like a “beautiful young lady”. This made me gag, and I didn’t find her lessons fun or interesting, especially given that I had recently been forced by my parents to quit karate, guitar lessons, and Little League in order to join figure skating, aerobics, and other stereotypically ‘girly’ pursuits. I saw makeup as part and parcel of how I continually disappointed my parents in being myself, and how they were trying to mold me into something they wanted.

      After my first year in college, I brought home my girlfriend as well as my best friend and his boyfriend. My parents, curiously enough, were very rigid about gender roles but had no problem with gayness, probably because both my dad’s brother and my mom’s sister were gay and loved very much. My parents had generously allowed Nicholas, Kelsey, and Lindsey to stay at my house for a few days. When we arrived, my dad told me that my mom wouldn’t be down to meet my friends and girlfriend for another hour. When I asked why, he whispered to me that she hadn’t expected us so early, and “needed time to put on her face”, ie makeup (and yes–it always did take her about an hour).

      When I later told her that my friends and I valued her for things other than her ‘face’ (made-up or not), she got mad and said that someday, when I was an ‘old lady’ I’d understand how ’embarrassing’ it was for a woman to appear without makeup. This made me so sad and also angry. It made me remember how, years ago, when we went on vacation to Florida, my mother refused to go swimming because she got a rash on her legs after being waxed and had a ‘gross’ ingrown hair on her bikini line. Meanwhile, my father–coated in a pelt of hair all over every part of his body except his head–had no self-consciousness whatsoever as he splashed around the pool and played catch with me. Everywhere I looked I saw women lying on chaise lounges, and a few putting their feet in the pool while complaining that the splashes of the swimmers (including me, as Dad and I played catch) was ruining their makeup and hair. They didn’t seem to be having any fun whatsoever.

      When I came out in college, I was told by a few dykes that as a boyish lesbian I shouldn’t EVER wear makeup, not because it was sexist but because it would ‘confuse girls’ about whether I was femme or butch. I found this obsession with role playing ridiculous, partially because I saw myself as a sissy boi, not a tough guy or any type of femme, partially because it seemed to take every dyke and force them into a monolithic stereotype of either a macho macho man or a girly girly girl–complicated dyke gender schema be damned!–and partially because it seemed to reproduce the system that so enraged me in high school and with my parents. In other words, even in lesbian land, the ‘femmes’ were expected to paint their faces to turn on the boys, ie butches, and if a butch painted her face, she’d be ‘demoted’ in status in the same way a male high school athlete would be called a ‘pansy’ if he dared to express sensitivity or give a flying fuck about his looks.

      In conclusion, my mom is sixty-five and still won’t step outside without “putting on [her] face.” (She also still starves herself and calls herself fat even though she weighs ninety five pounds, but that’s another story). I wear nothing but eyeliner, yet I have to admit that even that has fucked me up: Like mom, I don’t feel ‘presentable’ without it, even though my girlfriend Lindsey (who calls herself a ‘lipgloss lesbian’, and loves to surf and eschews eyeliner for the pain it causes her when salt water gets in her eyes!) says I’m just as hot without it. It’s sad that I have seemed to inherited my mom’s discomfort with going out without her ‘face’ and can’t even believe my girlfriend when she tells me that I’m being ridiculous.

      So yeah, makeup was presented to me as an imperative as a girl. And even though I’m gay and androgynous, I still feel the need to wear it (by “it” I mean eyeliner) every fucking day, or else I feel ugly. This is true despite Lindsey’s assurance, and it’s true despite the fact that I couldn’t care less what men OR straight girls have to say about my appearance (Because let’s be honest, straight girls spend so much time commenting on other girls’ appearance and so little time commenting on guys’ appearance that it just doesn’t make any sense).

      I also worry that this makeup imperative is getting worse as I get older. This society is every bit as ageist as it is misogynist (and it delivers a heaping shitspoon of both ‘ists’) and I personally despise the word ‘ma’am’–it makes me feel like my grandmother. When I wear eyeliner, I get called ‘miss’, while when I don’t, I get ‘ma’amed’. Of course, this just makes me feel even more shitty–and makes me feel that my eyeliner is even more necessary. I find the whole thing fucking annoying.

      To this day, when my mother visits Lindsey and I, she can’t help but ask why I’m not wearing blush, eyeshadow, and lipstick, and why I don’t carry a pocketbook.

  21. thank you thank you thank you for writing this beautiful well written article.. It’s so interesting what you write about armor.. I was speaking to someone about this.. and she said a similar idea.. I however, think if makeup gives you confidence, go for it. but what about, getting confidence in other areas like intellect, and perception.. and thanks for this idea.. will include it in my next blog!!

    Check out this article I wrote about makeup.

  22. Mmmmm. I don’t know how I feel about make up.
    What I know for sure is that I don’t wear it for several reasons:
    1. It takes LONG. I am another person who gets ready in ten minutes. On holiday with friends I would be raring to go on a night out and have to wait literally 2 hours to leave because everyone else was doing their makeup (and hair. yay Vanessa for not brushing hair).
    2. It is expensive. On occasions I have toyed with the idea of buying a thing of mascara (bottle? tube? what do you call that?) or some concealer, only to be scared away by the £20 price tag. Let’s be real for a second: I could buy 10 drinks with that money.
    3. I don’t find it enjoyable, or confidence boosting. The only time I have found it enjoyable is when I was 4 and I got a make up kit (which I now see as a pretty depressing thing for a 4-year-old but hey) and there were loads of colours and the nail varnish was fun to peel off like when you get PVA glue on your hands. Typically I would have to redo it 3 times for it to look right and end up with black all over my fingers. I don’t like not being able to touch my face. I would rather put on a suit or a killer dress to make me feel confident and hence able to conquer the world.

    On the one hand, I hate everything about make up because it is yet another symptom of this ridiculous society where the most valuable thing a woman can do is look good, and appear sexually available to men. I’m remembering how the red lipstick and blusher are supposed to imitate the way our cheeks and lips flush when we have sex, so by wearing those things you are probably (subconsciously, implicitly) telling anyone and everyone that you want to have sex with them. And this is probably not true for 95% of the people you encounter. Also, it disturbs me when I see nice looking girls cake on enough foundation to paint a room and fake eyelashes that touch their eyebrows etc. etc. until they look like different people, then they walk around looking like identical sextuplets separated from barbie at birth.

    BUT I don’t think this applies to crazy or dramatic make-up. I am a pretty creativity-focused person so if you want to call your face a canvas and make it look like the sun shining through the wings of a butterfly, I think you absolutely should. Hell, if ‘natural’ makeup makes you feel good and you enjoy doing it and you think it’s radical, you should wear it. If you can pull off red lipstick, you should, because it can also mean power and confidence and not taking no bullshit from anyone. If Cleopatra invented eyeliner, eyeliner is cool.

    As always, you do you.

    • These are pretty much exactly my feelings about makeup. Also I’m paranoid that if I wore makeup it would smudge EVERYWHERE (eyes, sleeves, you name it).

      This whole discussion is awesome, I love reading everyone’s comments and there are so many interesting perspectives! Yay! Autostraddle > NYT (but of course we already knew that!)

  23. The NYT “debate” was uninteresting and dumb. And Vanessa, I am super impressed that you can get ready for work in under ten minutes! I’m lucky to be out the door in an hour and a half…

    But I also wear makeup every day. I rarely step out of the house without perfect eyeliner, red lips, and dramatic mascara. As a femme, it’s just how I’m most comfortable presenting myself to the world. And as a trans girl who didn’t dare touch the stuff for 23 years, the whole thing still feels precious and transgressive even though I know I’m giving my money to companies that profit from the harmful beauty culture in our society.

    I’d like to think that I do this all for myself and nobody else. And it’s true that I find my lengthy morning routine to be a really relaxing way to express my creativity and play with my appearance. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t receive positive reinforcement from others for my efforts. When I’m “dolled up”, people literally tell me that I look like a doll. Random strangers ask me if I’m a model at least once a week. Older women will make comments that essentially give their stamp of approval for my gender presentation. When these kind of daily interactions become routine, it’s hard for me to do anything that might make them stop happening- like not wearing makeup.

    I’ve only recently started going out sans maquillage, and it’s usually not by choice. I think some irrational part of my mind was worried that I would magically transform back into my pre-transition self, and that I would be treated as a guy (but obviously that hasn’t happened). And so far the only difference has been that I get less attention from strangers- and to be honest, that invisibility is sometimes kinda nice! But as a femme, I’ll always feel more comfortable with my french mod eyeliner and lipstick on.

    I obviously have a lot of feelings about makeup :)

  24. I’m so glad you wrote this. I loved Jenna’s take-down and also felt hyper-aware of being queer and femme as I read through it, and subsequently sort of “this discussion doesn’t necessarily apply to you,” which took me a bit by surprise without being able to explain quite why.

    This part:

    “As women, we don’t have the choice to engage with the beauty industrial complex: it’s so ever-present in our lives that women who don’t wear makeup are commonly taken as defining themselves against it. To not wear makeup, for many women, is to invite misunderstanding or, worse, judgment.”

    I think queer women, whether we wear makeup or not, ARE consciously defining ourselves against it, whether “it” refers to makeup itself or the beauty industrial complex or both because neither exists for us or for our benefit. Whether we embrace or eschew it to hone our individual aesthetic, it’s only ever an invitation if we want it to be, and maybe that’s the most radical thing of all.

  25. i have so many feels about makeup.

    feel #1, i am high femme because i have always been high femme, always, regardless of the gender of my partner – isn’t that part of being queer you guys?

    feel #2, i usually wear clothes and makeup considered more extreme (higher heels, darker lipstick, bigger lashes, etc.) than typical heterosexual women’s fashion in order to deliberately queer it

    feel #3, the point is to be hard/high femme as a way to exclude myself from the hetero-cis-dude gaze because it’s intimidating or whatever

    feel #4, i also exaggerate femininity to honor the femmes of lesbian times past who did the exact same fucking thing

  26. I am a base-makeup girl. It isn’t so much that I like the way I look with it but I don’t like the way I look without it. low self esteem? yes.

  27. This is such a good article. It’s funny when I was 7-8ish I was spending the night with a friend and somehow makeup came up and her dad was like “you’ll both be wearing it by the time your 16”, not sure why though. Anyway, I absolutely made it clear that I would not wear makeup at all. I’m not sure how I knew at that point that I would be masculine, I didn’t know I was trans, but I knew that makeup and being feminine was not right for me. Makeup isn’t just for femmes though, I understand that now, but younger me just thought someone chose to wear makeup to be girly. I still have never worn it, and probably never will.

  28. I wear differing amounts of makeup at different times, mainly as a way to separate different parts of my day/activities. I’ll wear a little bit of makeup to go to work or class, and it makes me feel like I’m ready to start the day. I wear more makeup if I’m going out at night or something, and it makes it feel more like a special occasion. When I’m not really doing anything, I don’t put on makeup, and it’s more relaxing.

    I guess I never really considered the idea that makeup choices can be subversive. I like to think that I choose to wear makeup or not just based on my own feelings, but I’ve noticed that I feel more comfortable when I’m wearing similar amounts of makeup to the other women around me.

  29. I sort of fail to see what’s so subversive about the simple act of a gay woman wearing make up. Even if you’re doing for someone other than men, you’re still participating in the same culture that says women need to be done up all the time.

    And gay women grow up in the same culture as straight men. If they find make up attractive or feel that it’s necessary for them to be interested in a a woman, that’s still reflects a double standard.

    Now, my last sentence is probably less true for gay women than straight men, but I don’t think we should be quite so quick to pat ourselves on the back for something we can’t help.

    (Now, I should say, I just started doing my face some days. I treat it as a craft project, almost. It’s kind of fun. And it makes a huge difference to my looks.)

    And finally, why all the focus on women? Why not focus on why men never or rarely use make up? To me, that’s another double standard. Why don’t we frame the conversation as what men are failing to do for whatever quirk of masculinity that prevents them?

  30. so much yes to all of this, and i left a comment on the make up artist’s essay to let him know that in fact i know lots of guys who rock skirts and blowouts way harder than i ever could (and not just because i don’t have enough hair to blow out), and i have SO MANY THINGS TO SAY ABOUT MAKE UP but you all have mostly said them and what i really want to know is:

    how do i get my lips to look like that one picture with the pink lipstick and the gold paint? seriously. i think it would look great with my bowtie.

    (but really. how do i do that?)

    • Seriously, can we get a makeup tutorial one of these days?? I would LOVE to be able to do any of those.

      • Yes! Someone please teach me how to put on eye liner so that it is actually on my lash line… and not just a weird black line above my lash line. Is this just happening to me?

  31. I don’t find make-up any different than tossing on a watch or a necklace before I leave my house. It’s something that adds to my overall style and at the end of the day, I can wash it off and still feel like me. I only go for eye make-up and some lip gloss because (not to toot my own horn but) I have amazing eyes and nice full lips so why not make them “pop”

    I can understand that some people were raised to think that make-up is a necessity for women but I was always raised to believe that it was an option. As long as people know that their make-up or outfits don’t define them and they just use such things to express themselves, no harm done.

  32. This article is fantastic! I am so annoyed with NYT as of late. Less of the actual news outlet I once loved and more of this unimpressive drivel.

    For me, makeup has always been a sort of neutral thing. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve really thought about how much it was around me/impacted me growing up. I’m from northern NJ originally and so, big hair, perfectly manicured nails, super duper make-up was always, always, always the thing for the other girls at my high school, but it wasn’t for me. I was always the nerdy kid who stayed after school for stage crew instead of going out on the weekends. It was really dance that opened me to the possibilities of make up. I hated putting on the heavy stage make-up we had to wear, but I did like the way some of it enhanced the features I liked about myself, like my eyes, so I started experimenting with it more, especially when I got it college.

    Now, I always have at least a little bit of eyeliner and mascara on, but eye make up is the most I wear on a regular basis, with maybe a little bit of chapstick. I do admit that part of it comes from a socially constructed point of having to wear makeup to impress others or to look good for others, but a lot of it is for myself, because it does also tie into parts of my queer identity. As a queer woman, I love to queer every and as much of my life as possible. Going out with my friends to the gay bars in Philly, I’m half expected to put on skinny jeans and a button down, but I would purposely high femme it up to queer myself more. My friends at the time couldn’t understand that the gay men who I didn’t know probably assumed I was some straight biddy, but I didn’t care. It was who I was and how I wanted to dress, so I did. Now, I’m in a committed monogamous relationship to one of the most beautiful girls I know. My girlfriend is a trans* woman who loves all things femme. Wearing makeup not only puts an added dash of queer into our relationship, but also empowers the both of us. In some ways it really is warpaint for us.

  33. i wear makeup every day. i get ready and leave the house in 10 minutes. i used to not wear it because i didn’t feel like i could, like it would seem like i was trying too hard, like i would be perceived as “femme” by other queers (took me a long time to realize a – that’s fucked and b – i actually AM femme).

    as far as what’s so radical about it, i like this quote from my friend claire, via bossy femme:



    • OH and i forgot to add that i wear it because i like it and because i feel like i automatically have a take no shit attitude when i put on lipstick, like it’s magic. and because every time i do i think of my mom putting on lipstick and the way she looked in the rearview mirror when i was a kid sitting in the backseat of the car and i feel connected to her and this self-care ritual and that quiet moment of femininity.

      also: what the fuck is wrong with artifice?? the valorization of natural over artifice is a constructed one. let’s tear that open, too.

  34. I disagree that the use of makeup is inherently subversive when it is not used to attract a man. Lots of queer women still use makeup to be pretty and to get an A+ from the patriarchy. Lots of queer people enforce patriarchal, racist norms of beauty. Queer people’s relationships with patriarchal norms, from marriage to makeup, are always navigating the waters between subversion and assimilation (or recapitulation).

      • What is pretty? Pretty is a subjective term defined by the dominant society, aka the patriarchy. That’s the problem.

        • i don’t know if i buy that. i want to feel pretty because of the patriarchy? that hurts and is insulting. perhaps PART of what makes me feel pretty is defined by patriarchy. i’m sure that’s something i’ll be unpacking forever. BUT i feel like there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling pretty. when i make myself feel pretty despite all of the messages that say i should feel like shit about myself/undesirable/not good enough/etc., that’s a big old “fuck you” from me to the patriarchy.

          • I understand that. My point was that “pretty” is completely defined by social construct. In America, “pretty” means something different than what it means in France, or Nigeria, or the Dominican Republic. So yeah, if you are doing you and it makes you feel pretty, then more power to you. But at least be aware that your feelings are mostly socially constructed, because most everything is.

  35. i mean i agree with you that queer people are not immune to reinforcing racist ableist capitalist patriarchal norms, for sure. but i feel like femininity often gets scapegoated when we talk about that, yanno?

  36. I feel like if I think someone (whether that person is male or female or whatever) is attractive, I’m going to think they’re attractive whether or not they’re wearing makeup.

    • yabut i don’t care about whether other people think i’m more/less/at all attractive in makeup. i wear it because it makes me feel badass

    • to some degree i think that’s true, but not totally. make-up can’t turn me into angelina jolie, but it can make me look like a better version of myself, and actually it annoys me to no end when cis-men insist that make-up on women is pointless (aka, silly female vanity), because they are just blithely unaware of the ways in which they are being affected by women’s deployments of the art of beauty.

      • This is so true. I would hope that people who are attracted to me will also be attracted to me without make-up, because if they’re around long enough they’re certainly going to see me that way, but the average person is probably going to think I look more attractive with an even skin tone, pink cheeks, eyes that look bigger, lips that have some color instead of just fading into my pale pale skin…it’s not like I think that people who don’t wear make-up are unattractive, but I can absolutely do some things with make-up that do make me probably more attractive to most people, and when I do them most people probably wouldn’t think I was wearing make-up when they look at me. Of course then I throw on bright eyeshadows and glitter everywhere and then people know, but I do that because it’s fun and awesome.

      • Sometimes I’ll look at a straight cis man and think, “Would it kill you to use a little concealer?”

  37. I wear make up on a daily basis. Mostly because my dear, dear grandmother always used to say “Always put your face on before you leave the house. You never know who you might run into.” She was from southern Ohio, had 6 children and worked her tail off – all while wearing her “face”. Whether it was in the factories or in the pizza shop she owned, she rarely went a day without makeup. As she got older and had “good” and “bad” days, hospital stays, surgeries, the make up became a little more few and far between. Actually, one of my favorite moments with my Gran and make up was right before the heart surgery that she would not live through. I got to the hospital at 6am, hungover and late. I saw her before they took her back and the first thing I noticed and said was “well hey there, fancy, nice eyebrows!”. She wore a full face, penciled in brows and all.

    So basically my love for makeup doesn’t fall into any categories of my queerness – its about memories and is stamped into my being.

    • That story really hit close to home. It reminds me of the coolest old lady I know who passed away this summer and had a similar outlook on makeup. Your grandmother sounds darling, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your feelings about makeup being shaped by memories and experience.

  38. Reading these comments has been very interesting. (I didn’t bother to read the NYT panel because I’m sure it’s completely inane.) I completely understand people’s reasons for and against wearing makeup. Personally, I struggle with the knowledge that I wear makeup partially so I feel more confident but mostly so other people will find me attractive. I don’t think I’m the least bit attractive without makeup, and I know that it’s problematic to base one’s self confidence on the approval of others but here I am doing it anyways. So while it’s great that other people can find the act of putting on makeup subversive, I don’t think what I’m doing is particularly radical. At the same time, I’ll definitely rip anyone a new one who says I’m a sellout of a feminist for wearing eyeliner to feel pretty.

    Ranting aside, I’m really glad we’re having this conversation because I love it when queers deconstruct hetero/cissexist beauty norms!


    So, I feel like the progression of my makeup-related feelings went something like

    I : Makeup would make me straight (I could somehow lipstick away my desire to ravage Ellen Page? Idk, teenagers are weird)

    II : As an out homo, I assumed that being attractive is the most important thing there is/If you wanna catch the [assumedly small number of homosexually-inclined] fish in your pond, you have to be as attractive as possible, and the only way to make myself attractive was to be “feminine” and therefore do the makeup thing

    III : A butch wearing makeup was somehow inherently radical

    IV : Recognition that Feeling III made me feel like I had reduced myself to performance art, like I wasn’t queering/subverting anything by wearing makeup because my desire to wear it came from an inauthentic place

    V : Wearing makeup feels like I’m making my body my own, like I finally have ownership over it/agency

  40. I have always worn makeup “wrong,” even back when I thought of the way I was and talked and thought and acted as just plain wrong, and not wonderful and queer. When I was in the 8th grade my mom sat me down and tried to explain why it was not appropriate to wear gold eyeshadow to school every day, which I continued to do anyway. Now I like to wear makeup that looks farcical, thick black lines of liquid eyeliner and flat red lipstick that does not “enhance” any idea of “natural beauty.” I have no idea how to wear makeup that makes me look “more beautiful” and i don’t think I have ever had the desire to… guess I was always practicing to be a femme.

    • I love what you said about not trying to enhance your natural beauty and just your attitude toward make up in general. “Farcical makeup” made me smile. Way to make it your own!

  41. I like a lot of this article. However, I notice a lot of the comments above are arguments about whether queers can be radical or subversive when they do or don’t wear makeup. Implicit in this is the assumption that queers should be radical at all times or that every aspect of their existence is radicalised because they are queer. Frankly I disagree with this. If people want every aspect of their being, including make-up, to be an up yours to the heterosexist patriarchy, I’ve got no problems with that – I salute you. If on the other hand, queer people just want to put grown up facepaint on because they like the way it feels, then that’s cool too. Doesn’t have to be part of some grand plan for gender revolution. It can be face paint, not war paint. You like it? Then you do you.

    I’m tired of arguments like ‘makeup/dresses/perfume/jewels are kowtowing to the male gaze’. It’s bullshit and I don’t feel the need to justify myself anymore by arguing ‘no my lipstick/silk/scent/pearls really ARE radical’. At the end of the day I don’t really care. I like them and I like them whether other people like them or not. And that’s good enough for me.

  42. I’m from Europe and never was out of this continent so probably my culture with make up is different than the us-american(s).
    Even when I did not know I was queer I had the same way of wearing makeup as today and i had never a problem with feeling good like this.
    In daily life (school, uni, job) I nearly never wear something. Sometimes mascara, even more seldom a bit of lipstick. Having the whole program with powder and rouge happened probably not even ten times. I do it because I’m too lazy for caring about, the time it takes I like to sleep longer, and because I don’t need it for myself.
    For going out, it is quite different though. Seldom I’m wearing none or only mascara. Mostly I love doing the whole program. It is part for me for going out like choosing the outfit. And for me it is a way to be me but being another side of me. Or me looking different than normal. But never looking better than normal, because I am what I am, if I’m wearing make up or not. And, in comparison to my hetero female friends, I’m wearing more and more extreme make up than most of them. Expect putting on eyeliner which is one of my weakest points in abilities, I have a better practice and knowledge than them, too.
    Even though sometimes I wish I would look as “good”/normal than the average makeup-wearing girls on the street, I love my way to deal with make up. Because it’s my way. And when I see one of these girls with the perfect faces seconds after the wish of looking like them I remember how much money and effort this takes in everydaylife and with a smile I remember the time I can sleep more without, and still looking good. Of course.

  43. I generally only wear make-up for special occasions. I have acne, so my face-cleaning routine in the morning is long enough without the application of make-up. If I’m going to wear it I generally stick to eye make-up and lip gloss – I hate foundation, because despite the promises of how it’s supposed to cover up acne, it doesn’t do that AND it also makes my face look pasty.

    I’ve wondered lately if I should reconsider my not-wearing-make-up stance, because I am getting kind of frustrated with being mistaken for younger than I am simply because I am baby-faced, and I think that causes me to be taken less seriously.

    • addendum (stuff I meant to add before I posted):

      I’m glad this topic is getting “queered” because it is frustrating how much this has focused on whether or not women wear make-up for male approval. Yeah, it’s incredibly annoying when guys who don’t understand the difference between a woman who is truly bare-faced and a woman using “natural-looking” make-up lecture women on how they don’t care if we wear it. But that’s beside the point – I would say even with straight women, it’s generally not about male approval. And the incredibly variety of different ways that queer women wear or don’t wear make-up is something that definitely needs to be added to the discussion (but oh so rarely is).

      • I agree with you.
        And not all men like the same way of how much make up can be on a face. They are individuals, too, and some hate, some love 2 kg of it in a woman’s face. Some love something inbetween. A discussion about woman and the “need” of make up in a patrichal world with “men” as one group is an as stupid discussion as a discussion without queer opinions.

  44. I almost didn’t click on this article, but I’m so glad I did. It’s so interesting! As someone who avoids makeup almost entirely (eyeliner when I dressed up as a pirate is as far as I’ve gone in the last year or so), I had not expected to find so many makeup-based feelings in the comments. Reading through what everyone has to say about this has actually been really eye-opening

  45. Let’s do something really radical. Let’s ‘humanize’ make up!
    Wear it at work, only for fun, to attract whoever you want, to watch “Murder she wrote” with your cat, do it extreme, do it soft, do-not do it… Everything is ok as long as you are the one making the choise! We do make up, not the otherway round ssooooo let’s use more the make up and be less used by it (or by the people who want to tell us how to think and feel). An instrument cannot think but we can! And thinking freely means doing it beyond gender, sexuality, education, common sense…

  46. I wear make up almost every day and have done since I was around 13, always for myself. I went through a phase of self-described “emo-ness” when I was a few years younger, mostly to irritate my classmates, most of whom already thought I was pretty strange, so I wanted, but wasn’t really allowed, to wear a lot of eyeliner, but still wore a sliver. In the last six months or so I’ve become slightly more adventurous and wear a basic flicky eyeliner every day. (You can tell I know a lot, right?) I do still only wear eye make-up, because I don’t have the patience for anything else.

    My make up is as much a part of my presentation as the rest of my look. I cut most of my hair off a year ago, and that’s when I really became confident with developing a “style” as such. I like that it’s a constant: I drift between butch and femme and having something permanent when I’m switching between short skirts and button ups and bowties is just nice.

    So yeah, I wear make up because it makes me feel pretty darn cool in myself, and I think that everyone else should be able to feel cool doing whatever they want to their face, whether that be lots of things or nothing at all. What I’m saying here is DO YOU, EVERYONE. YOU ARE FABULOUS AND EVERYONE ELSE CAN SHUT UP. Or something.

  47. I call bullshit on the implication that only men can objectify and that queers who wear makeup are only doing it “for themselves”. Queer people wear makeup to look attractive to others too. Maybe just not men. There’s plenty of shallow and judgmental people in the queer community too.
    Honestly I feel like femmes wearing tons of makeup to attract MOC people are still following patriarchal norms.

    Also, everyone who is saying things like “I wear makeup because it makes me feel good/badass/confident”, where do you think you learned that feeling? From society, that equates makeup with beauty.

    • I think most people do all sorts of things to be appear more attractive to people they’re interested in dating and/or sleeping with. It’s certainly not limited to femmes wearing make-up, and I think it’s kind of a bizarre assumption that femmes are specifically trying to attract MOC women with make-up.

      • My feelings exactly. Almost everyone, not just femmes, does something (like, oh I don’t know, showering? Dressing nicely? Shaving?) to be more attractive to potential mates. Focusing the judgment on femmes– and assuming that they are putting on makeup specifically for MOC women — is more than a little bit wack.

        • The femmes I’ve met/flirted with/dated have been waaay more into make-up and lingerie and other girly stuff (like, on their sexual partners) than the MOC women. That’s obviously a generalization and based on a small number of people and I am completely sure does not apply to everyone, but yeah, it’s ridiculous to say that the purpose of a femme wearing make-up is to attract MOC women.

      • That’s my point! I shouldn’t have used the specific example of femme/butch, but when we are putting on makeup and following societal beauty norms in hopes of attracting someone, aren’t we playing in the patriarchy?

    • i call bullshit on the femmephobia in this comment, emma. i agree with everything maeve said there.

        • homophobia is a funny term that i feel grew out of PC culture
          transphobia is a funny term that i feel grew out of PC culture
          racism is is a funny term that i feel grew out of PC culture
          ableism is a funny term that i feel grew out of PC culture

          no. femmephobia, like any of these other terms, is one that grew out of a bunch of people articulating their experience of marginalization, including but not limited to the “example” you used above – which you freely admitted was of your own experience/bias.

          “PC culture”? really????

    • also, please don’t insult my intelligence by claiming that i just “learned it from society” and can’t think for myself. every day that i put on makeup i am making a choice, as with anything i do. whether i’ve thought critically about enough or at all (and i agree with dizzy’s comments above – who says everything has to be so damn critical all the time? maybe it’s just fun?) it is not for you to say.

      • Listen, so I am a big proponent of social learning theory, which basically says that everything we learn is within a societal context, by modelling the people around us. It also says that we don’t or can’t make decisions in a vacuum, the decisions I make today have been informed by the culture in which I was raised, and the sub-cultures I travel in now.
        So I didn’t mean to make you feel insulted. Knowing that we are completely biased in our decisions doesn’t mean we are not intelligent enough to see it happening.

        • i’m familiar with the theory, thanks, and it’s clear from your comments that you’re a proponent of it. i’m asking for us to complicate it, to include agency and to consider that perhaps when we regularly view certain groups of people’s behaviour under this lens it is a reproduction of the exact systems we aim to critique,, e.g. your example of femmes using makeup to attract MOC women. why is the lens on femmes, and not MOC folks? why is the lens almost always on femmes and FOC people? where is the article deconstructing the ways that MOC folks work to attract femmes? that is MY point.

    • Dude, a whole big lump of attraction (not all, obvs) is based on visual appearance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be attractive to the people you are attracted to.

      And like the other guys about have said, your “femmes wearing tons of makeup to attract MOC people are still following patriarchal” smells pretty “shallow and judgmental” itself.

      You basically sound like one of those horrific girls (which I see way to much of among self-stating feminists) who go around sneering at girls calling them sluts and anorexic.

  48. Frankly, I wear make-up in order to look more conventionally attractive, and I know that that’s playing into normative ideas about attractiveness (even if I want to attract a woman rather than a man, even if it’s an edgier version of femininity than the super-mainstream one) and that insecurity about my looks is at play here, but at the same time, I see that conventionally attractive women get positive attention in both queer and straight environments, and I want to be desired and loved, so it’s not an entirely irrational insecurity. I also see that people with self-confidence and charisma seem not to need conventional good looks or indeed make-up in order to be desired, but putting on eye-liner is a billion times easier than magically turning myself into a confident and charismatic person. So, I’m working on my self-esteem by being loving to the people in my life and trying to live with a purpose outside myself, and I’m wearing eye-liner, and I’m trying not to judge myself too much for my inability to be the hot subversive femme I sometimes feel like I’m supposed to be, or indeed for my somewhat self-destructive desire to be that imaginary girl.

  49. I wear makeup because it’s fun for me. I like putting it on. I like trying new ideas. I like the personal time I take each morning to put on my makeup. I’m 22 and I’ve worn makeup for a large part of my life at this point and I can honestly say that the reason I do, is just because I like it. It makes me feel good. Often times, even when I’m not planning on leaving my apartment (and as a grad student, I have a decent amount of days where I lock myself away to study) I usually still find myself putting on makeup that morning. My makeup has become a part of who I am and who I choose to be rather than part of how someone/men/society wants me to be/look/act. It’s something that I take ownership of.

  50. this conversation is fantastic, i’m glad we’re having it here. thanks for bringing it up, vanessa.

    I stopped wearing makeup when i was still in high school, not very long after i started. i felt more ugly in makeup. i felt like by trying to hide the things i didn’t like about myself, i was only succeeding in highlighting them. the longer i spent staring in the mirror trying to conceal my perceived flaws, the more aware of them i became, so i just stopped.
    i still liked wearing eye makeup at times, it felt dramatic.
    now, 11 years later, i sometimes think about wanting to wear makeup, but i think i don’t really know how, and also i don’t own any.
    this isn’t radical, at least not for me. it’s one part practical and one part lazy.

    that being said, if someone could help me make that gold brush stroke makeup look happen, i would be ever so grateful.

  51. I don’t wear makeup because I don’t know how to apply it. My face has looked like a Jason Pollock painting every time I’ve attempted t put it on. If I really took the time to learn, I would be all about having way too much fun and making myself look like a character in a cirque du soleil show. Looking natural? What is that?

      • Funny thing is, I watch those all the time. Andreaschoice and MichellePhan are my favorite. It’s entertaining, for me, to watch make-up transform people.

        • Try Lisa Eldridge. She is awesome, knows her shit (because she is an actual make-up artist/goddess) and also explains every step in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow.

          >>> >>> >>> http://www.lisaeldridge.com/video/
          >>> >>> >>> http://www.lisaeldridge.com/video/basics/ (Make-up 101!)

          Michelle Phan on the other hand… Knows next to nothing about make-up and is only great at editing her videos and talking cheesy in her voice overs.
          Also what is up with her little “romantic” movies? Trying to flirt with some stranger who passes out right in front of your eyes and then leave him alone in a restaurant instead of calling an ambulance or something? Oh boy.

          Anyway: Try Lisa, you will not regret it. Although … your bank account might.

  52. Thank you for writing this! That NYT “roundtable” has been bugging me all week. Shocked at its shallowness and lack of dimension. They’re usually so good at being thought provoking, and this piece was a dead fish… an annoying dead fish. Yay, queer perspective!

  53. Hm. I don’t wear makeup to work. I do sometimes wear it out to gay bars. But it’d be hard to pin down my motivations… I’m not trying to look more feminine, certainly, but more attractive, yeah; eyes outlined with liner do look bigger. (And I often think men look more attractive with a little eyeliner, yes.) It’s the same reason I’ve considered whitening my teeth. But I don’t feel any pressure to do either of those things, out on the town or at work, and if I did I’d scream bloody murder.

  54. Whenever I put on a full face of makeup, it’s pretty deliberately queer. The most recent times I’ve worn any were Halloween, when I got my old roomie to replicate Doctor Frank-N-Furter’s look for me, and more recently when I attended a burlesque show wearing a lot of body glitter and red eyeshadow applied by the genderqueer friend of my kink play buddy. In my life, both wearing and applying noticeable makeup is usually a process of bonding and communicating with other queer folks. This is partially because I’m most comfortable in makeup around people who know me well and understand that for me, femme presentation is a form of drag.

    My makeup idol is my best friend, who in growing to embrace her femmeness discovered the existence of bright blue lip tar. She loves wearing lipstick colors that enhance her face but also kind of unsettle people – it makes her feel awesome but gets more gazes of puzzlement and awkwardness than intense desire from straight/normative folks. As a bonus, when she wipes it off, her lips are left vaguely blue-grey for a while, making her seem slightly undead. Zombie femmes forever!

  55. first off, i LOVE this comment thread. yay for everyone being deep and thoughtful and challenging one another in respectful ways!

    second, it’s got me thinking not just about makeup, but about appearance in general – hairstyles, fashion, etc. as someone who doens’t read as queer but doesn’t consider herself femme, i get really frustrated with my appearance a lot. i’ve never been good at imitating conventional models of femininity, and i’m also not good at projecting a consciously queer appearance. basically, i feel like i’m Doin It Wrong all the time.

    but also, Doin It Wrong implies that there’s an accepted way to do it, right? like, there’s someone who got the look Just Right, and we’re all* trying to emulate that. and i don’t know how to break out of that and still communicate what i want to communicate about myself. tell me i’m not the only one who struggles with this?

    *we’re all = society, not specifically you fabulous queers, who obviously are Doing You.

    • Yes, I definitely relate. Every time I try something different with my appearance, I feel like I’m trying too hard to achieve some look that isn’t me, whether I’m afraid people will think I’m trying to pass as straight, or trying to look stereotypically queer. I have a really hard time knowing what I actually want to look like.

  56. Make up ≠ Make up.

    In our Western societies women’s make up is supposed to intensify childlike characteristics. Mascara and eyeshadow for giant eyes (the bigger the better) and lipstick/-gloss for pouty lips. Foundation, powder and blush for soft, youthful skin with healthy looking cheeks. Those are the beauty standards, we are supposed to embrace.

    I personally rarely wear my make up that way. I identify as butch and don’t want to emphasize my (traditionally seen as) feminine features. I like my high cheekbones and my thick eyebrows. So I emphasize those. I never leave my house without using an eyebrow pencil. I don’t use a lot. I just like them to look a little bushier than they are. They give my face a nice boyish frame and I like that :)

  57. UGH (to the NYT piece, not this, of course!). I think the trope that grosses me out most of all in this sad little “debate” is that wearing makeup is a way to “be your best self” and “show love for yourself,” because you “deserve it”! Of course, it’s not like that has anything to do with gender! Obviously dudes should be slathering on the foundation and spending hours on their hair too, right, if they’re serious about feeling their best and being empowered?!? And to say stuff like “People listen to beautiful people. She told me that her makeover changed her whole approach in Congress” as if that is a TRIUMPH? Lord.

    Also, I am positive that no one has ever actually spoken these words to dear Mally or to anyone in the past half-century: “She wears makeup, so you know what that means – she’s insecure.”

    The way so many of these writers avoid mentioning the fact that this is a cultural expectation for WOMEN and women alone is astonishing (and when the makeup artist dude does acknowledge this, it’s to show how, really, if you think about it, women are so much more POWERFUL than men because they can wear makeup! See, the fact that people judge you in business contexts by how fuckable you seem is actually a GOOD thing!).

    I don’t think makeup itself is gross and dumb — I’ve got on a little eyeliner right now (though that’s fairly rare for me; I bike most places and do some sweating on the way, so I’d look like a smeary mess if I wore it often). I do think it is gross and dumb that our default idea of a grown woman’s face is one wearing makeup, and that in certain contexts it is actually required that women be made up. (The depressing story about the bartender who got fired, for instance.)

    I currently have the luxury of being a writer and editor who does not need to interact with the public at work and whose physical presentation is almost entirely un-policed. But I’ve missed out on jobs and been subtly or less-subtly chastised before for, essentially, failing to make myself an appropriate female object to be looked at. (And this hasn’t been a deliberate choice on my part, really; I just rarely think to bother to do anything special with my hair and face, they seem to function fine as they are.) That so many of these writers are presenting this as just a fun choice an individual lady can make for herself misses the point by a mile.

  58. I like the way I look with make-up more than the way I look without. My ideas about what looks better are totally shaped by the media and such, obviously, and so are everyone else’s pretty much. I also like fun make-up–bright colors and glitter and stuff. But in general I feel more confident with some mineral foundation to cover up my acne, some color on my lips because they are super pale otherwise, some blush and some mascara. I don’t need it to leave the house or anything but I prefer it. I think it’s ok to make ourselves look more attractive if we so choose, and I think most people make some effort to do that to some extent–even if it’s just showering on a regular basis.

    Also I think a girl with an amazing shade of lipstick is a total turn-on. Sorry if that makes me part of the patriarchy.

  59. Pingback: When people wear makeup, nothing universal happens except for judgement. « things i'm keeping in mind

  60. I’m currently watching/ listening to DSDS (German version of Pop Idol – so bad it’s good) in another tab while reading this: fascinat – one of the “jurors”, for example, is Bill Kaultitz, lead singer for Tokio Hotel, who is fairly well known for wearing a LOT of makeup, and they’re explicitly addressing gender perceptions, body image, and perceptions of beauty (not well, or sensitively, but still….).

    Living abroad, working for a very queer-inclusive company which has a pretty strong You Do You stance, I realize my concept of the “norm” has definitely shifted, as has my own relationship with make-up.

    I hardly ever wear any leaving the house, which no one seems to find unusual (and I sell cosmetics!), most of the other women at work do fun eye make-up but nothing else, while the guys (mostly queer, but not all) tend to go for the foundation+concealer+highlighter+powder+++=natural look.

    How much is actually individual, how much personal/situational/generational/subcultural response/reaction/challenge to (perceived?) dominant culture? Or something else altogether?

    Somehow make-up – with all it’s complicated baggage – is still more personal than clothing or jewelery… maybe because it’s on the one part of our body we don’t cover up, and used predominantly to accentuate eyes and mouth – organs of communication?

    Hard to say.
    Love that this article (AS, not NYT) exists and all the viewpoints in the comments here!

  61. Really loved this article.

    I dress masculine of centre on the whole, usually without makeup, or with a touch of eyeliner, but grew up with a real love of the more “out there” make-up of the late 70s and 80s, even as a child.

    I like the idea of my makeup as “warpaint”, I like makeup for effect. I truely admire subtle and artistic effects, even when the look is “barely there” but it’s not for me: kohl pencil, when I’m in the mood, and bright colours and pastels applied a bit slapdash, a bit blended, often with my thumbs and fingers. Though I have a thing for a more natural, smoky 1920s look, with makeup, that I’m working on improving too.

    At New Year I figured I’d have some fun and dress up my baggy jeans, waistcoat and Autostraddle t-shirt (thankyousomuchIloveitwithapassion) with blue sparkly lipstick (worn it to work a few times too) yellow nail varnish and blended pink to silver-white eyeshadow, because I looked kickin, a bit retro and, I hoped, any heteronormative blokes thinking of snatching a kiss at midnight would think twice. As it turned out, I inadvertantly stumbled into magical-pixie-girlfriend territory and still got unwelcome attention. Can’t win sometimes!

  62. I’m fat and femme. I’ve been told all my life that I am a disgusting eyesore. I like to wear red lipstick, it’s my way of broadcasting, “fuck you, you fuckers.” I don’t give a shit if some arsehole is offended because I – a desexualized, undesireable QUEER woman – am wearing a bright symbol meant to advertise feminine sexuality. It’s also a nice thumb in the eye to anyone who thinks I’m too ugly to bring attention to myself.

  63. When I was a kid my father was abusive. He taught me that dressing femininely in anyway (wearing skirts, wearing make up, wearing anything that made my curves visible) would make me stupid, weak, a whore, etc. I bought into that crap for a long time and felt horribly ashamed of my body, appearance, gender, all of it.

    Being femme is one of the most empowering things I can think of., not in a radical way, in a personal way.

  64. Jinkies, I love autostraddle! Best posts ever. The topic of makeup is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I used to wear makeup ALL THE TIME. It started in highschool. I was really into the gothic subculture at the time, and my makeup really was my armor at first- it was a way of frightening away potentially violent bullies (I was a wierd, non-christian kid growing up in the deep south) Later on in high school my gothic makeup is what, ironically, made me popular -once people figured out I wasnt going to sacrifice their pets to Satan, my anticonformity became appealing to kids bored out of their minds.

    Fast forward to present day, out in the work force, I cant really get away with the look I once donned proudly. Makeup had become habitual for me… no longer as a statement, but as a means to conceal the things I didnt like about myself. Even though I’m gay and dont give a sh*t what men think about me, I still felt this pressure to look a certain way… Especially living in Japan, land of women who wont leave the house without a full face of makeup, even to go grocery shopping.

    One day I ran out of foundation. I was super busy that week and thought to myself, “shit, now i have to run out and buy makeup”. then I stopped, and said aloud what I had been thinking: “…I HAVE to run out and buy makeup”. Thats when I realized, i don’t HAVE to wear anything. Since when did makeup become such a necessity to my existence as a woman? Why am I not ok just the way I am? Why should the way I look be the single most important thing about me, queer or not? I cant change the way the world operates, but I can change the way I perceive myself and my relationship to bodily aesthetics.

    Do I still wear makeup? Of course. Its fun, and can be very subversive. I love the way it can make me feel. but I’ve stopped wearing it to work, and I wear it now only when I damh well feel like it. And you know what? I’m still femme, and I still look good.

  65. Wow, so many feelings. I don’t even feel like I have a place to weigh in on this.

    I think I have some bare minerals foundation still somewhere that I will dig out to slightly cover up a really awful breakout maybe every few months, if even?

    I never got into it, I don’t think women should be obligated to wear it, I like girls with and without it. Just do you, obviously.

  66. One main reason that I wear makeup is that occasionally and to some, I come across as androgynous to the point of ‘what gender are you?’ without it. Although I kind of sometimes like appearing androgynous around those that I know don’t mind (or those that find it attractive or endearing), and I like that it allows me to inhabit a gendered space that I sometimes enjoy, I don’t always appreciate the looks or very occasional comments from others who are confused or consider it worth mocking.

    In high school, after a music performance, I was once asked by a bunch of younger kids from another school whether I was a girl or a boy. They shouted it out loud enough for my friends to hear and even when I gestured at what I was wearing (girl’s pants) and asked ‘do girls or boys usually wear these?’, they continued to ask and shout. I remember feeling horribly, hugely embarrassed.

    It’s instances like those that, even years later, inform my decision to often slap on at least some eyeliner before heading out the door. I dislike that I can feel uncomfortable without it, but it can be too much sometimes to radiate a constant ‘don’t care, fuck you’ at society’s bullshit gender laws and their police, so I cave and use the kohl – which still does indeed make my eyes look extra lovely though, so I don’t mind.

    However, I can still appreciate my own cuteness without eyeliner, in all of my queerdrogyny. This is thanks to girls who kissed me anyway – at all times of the day, with ‘paint’ on or not, with equal sincerity each time- and told me that my androgynous ‘boyishness’ was part of what they found so attractive. That was a blessing to my relationship to my body and my gender identity.

    Still. I do enjoy the makeup sometimes. For terrible reasons and by way of terrible social manipulations or not, it can make me feel more attractive, which I enjoy. I also particularly like putting in ‘extra effort’ when I’m doing the one thing that I do that girls have told me is rather sexy – sitting behind a drum kit and smashing away at some beat. For someone who comes across ‘adorkable’ the rest of the time, I like to capitalise upon this moment of ‘sexy’ attractiveness (vs ‘dork cuteness’) by wearing more makeup than usual- although as a queer, I find I feel most comfortable ‘queering’ this up with a healthy degree of unisex/masculine clothing also, so as to remove some ambiguity as to who I’m looking nice for (hint: not men).

    • Some of the most fun I have with makeup is when I drag up. I dragged up when drumming for a cabaret show once and a gay man said ‘who is that boy drummer? He is so cute!’ and had to be convinced I was a girl.

      Ultimately I like that makeup can be used on a way that queers and messes with gender, and I like that that’s the opposite of what the big makeup companies and the patriarchy are trying to promote.


  67. For me the issue is that while it is always all right for a women to wear makeup, there are situations in society (I would say many situations) in which a woman can be discriminated against, ostracized or put down for not wearing makeup. As long as this is true, I think makeup will be problematic, no matter how much we use it “for ourselves,” to empower ourselves, as a presentation of ourselves, for artistry, or just for fun.

  68. I generally find discussions of make-up end up like this one, half useful critique and half weird gender-policing. Yes, make-up and gender expression doesn’t exist in a vacuum and had been heavily influenced by generations upon generations of social construction. The interesting part of discussions like this is that they primarily focus on femmes and feminine queer folks. In reality, lots of people wear make-up (I think we should include any sort of hair product in this discussion. Who are you REALLY taming that frizz for hmmmm?). What I hate the most is that femmes and other femme-ish folks are put in to a position of having to defend their choice to wear/use makeup and other peeps feel the need to proclaim that they have evolved past the use of such silly and trivial things. Yes, makeup is charged with a lot of assumptions and expectations in our Western society, but let’s not forget that in other societies and for thousands upon thousands of years that makeup/dress/artifice of all kinds have been used to denote all kinds of different statuses, group affiliations, etc. Western culture does not own this idea. Let’s talk about how Western cultural expectations continue to be harmful and detrimental and how the beauty industry perpetuates that. Then let’s talk about why some of us choose to engage with the “beauty” industry. Let’s examine how what makes me feel attractive and pretty is probably completely different from what makes you feel attractive and pretty/handsome/hot and why it’s OKAY to desire that feeling and that it doesn’t always have to be subversive because, really, a good majority of us are looking to be attractive for the people who we want to bang. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. But, while we are at it, let’s also look at how the beauty industry is also harmful for men (cis-gendered and transgendered) and masculine folks. Femmes can’t always be the only ones on the hook.

    • THIS THIS THIS. my favorite comment so far, and I have really truly enjoyed reading all the others. There is no way I can express myself as eloquently as Brazen, but I would like to reiterate the idea that wearing makeup to feel “pretty” in a way that’s very influenced by mainstream gender norms should not be a bad thing. I love rebelling against societal norms as much as the next queer girl, but I also think people should be able to do whatever they want to feel confident/happy/attractive/comfortable, without worrying about whether what they are doing is radical enough or whether it plays into the patriarchy. Qualifiers on when it’s “okay” to wear makeup, are bullshit. If you wear makeup to be radical, that’s awesome. If you wear it because people give you compliments when you do, that’s awesome. If you wear it because you don’t feel comfortable without it, that’s cool too, because there should never be qualifiers on this. People can wear lots of makeup, they can wear none, and they can do it to feel attractive to whomever they like, in whatever way they like. you do yous.
      PS this article and comment thread are fantastic and rainbows and laallalaa I love you all

  69. UGH. What it (and feminism) all boils down to is NOT telling people what they should aim to be. WHY has the whole makeup debate been dissolved into equally ridiculous binary options of:

    a) Makeup is good


    b) Makeup is bad


    ah. better. :)

  70. Most of my girlfriends in the past have strongly disapproved of my makeup. I hear this line:
    “I’ve never seen you without eyeliner”
    Every time I get a new girlfriend, lover, or friendship group.
    I get
    “Why do you wear makeup? You don’t need it”
    at least once a week for the first 3-6 months of any relationship.

    I DO live in that world, the one where wearing makeup is an unacceptable abnormal act. I do it for two reasons:
    I have shitty skin, it drips with oil in some places and flakes off in huge patches in other places… If I go without moisturiser, foundation and powder then I am actually uncomfortable. I spent my early teens feeling like my face was mummified, and when I started wearing makeup it was like RELIEF. Thank god for the ability to treat my face like a canvas and prime it properly.
    I blush. Endlessly. I actually feel bad for men with ruddy cheeks who blush and are mocked for their sensitivity who feel socially banned from covering it. I was teased mercilessly for many years for my pink cheeks and now my uniformly “sand” coloured face allows me to be whoever I want. If I was a man I would want to hide that as well.

    So… Basically…. FUCK YOU, society, that constantly questions the way I live and what I do to my own body/face. If I want to have hairy legs and shaved pits and well-manicured pubic hair and a gym-toned body and eat cupcakes and have an artfully sculpted face that makes me stop when I catch sight of myself in mirrors and think “damn, I’m pretty”… then I will do all of those things. Until I don’t want to any more. My choice.

    • I completely agree with you on feeling bad for men. I think make-up can do wonders for self confidence and to me it would feel odd for my face to look the same on a night out as it does for work (although I realise that for lots of people that just isn’t an issue).

  71. I dont like make up, my face feel sticky in the afternoon but I love hot Red Lip Stick and some mascara when i feel like it, I dont think anything wrong with makeup I just think women shouldnt depend on it for inner confidence..You are beautiful without it,You dont need a mask

  72. wow, guys…WOW.

    this comment thread is so incredible to read, and you blew my expectations of the conversation i hoped to have out of the fucking water. i was hoping 10-20 people would weigh in…this level and volume of conversation is INCREDIBLE.

    i’ve read every single comment and you’ve all given me so much to think about, particularly the people who disagree with me or disagree with elements of what i’ve written. thank you all so much for taking the time to discuss this. i would like to respond to a lot of these comments but frankly i’m a bit overwhelmed by them…i just want to let you know that i’ve read every single word in this thread, and i’ll continue to read anything anyone adds after this, and i really hope that at some point i’ll be able to come back and engage. you guys are fucking brilliant and this website would be nothing without your awesome brains and comments and feedback and participation.

    THIS is the level of debate that i was looking for. this is incredible.

  73. Saying that being queer is a rebellion and wearing making that’s ‘queer’ as a rebellion makes everything feel less authentic.
    I know lots of hetero women who don’t wear makeup, and lots who wouldn’t been seen without it. The same is true for any other woman of every other sexuality you can possibly think of.
    I would never wear makeup/ not wear makeup to say ‘fuck you’ to the world or the ‘patriarcy’. That’s too much time wasted thinking about people in a negative way.
    When I wear makeup, which is pretty much every day, it’s because I love the way it looks.. Lipstick especially, I have so many colors it’s rediculous. The point I’m trying to make is that wearing makeup makes me happy. Sometimes life kicks you down and it’s nice to have little pleasures and luxuries.

    • What do you mean by ‘wearing makeup that’s queer as a rebellion makes everything seem less authentic’? I want to understand your idea more.

      Also, what’s to say that people can’t wear makeup as a ‘fuck you’ to the patriarchy AND because they like the way it looks? I feel that your post insinuated these two reasons can’t and don’t co-exist together, when I feel like many comments above suggest that they can/do. Just saying. :)

      Also, do you consider other moves to resist / challenge the patriarchy to be ‘time wasted thinking about people in a negative way’, or only when it comes to the wearing/non-wearing of makeup? And if that is a statement you’d only level against ‘political’ decisions about whether to use makeup or not, why?

      I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions :).

  74. I love make up.

    I love how it helps me function with all the crazy ass “whoooite” (white) people I have to work with.

  75. I love this article and all the amazing comments!
    I’ve been mulling this over in my head for a while figuring this out… and it reminds me of the whole body hair debate. I agree with some other posters that just because you aren’t wearing it for a man doesn’t make it radical, although I could never give up make-up entirely because I enjoy fancy-dress costume and festivals more than life itself (and I literally just throw as many colours as I can at my face often having to explain to people who I am as I look so different), but you won’t find any of the looks in beauty ads or fashion magazines. It is fun and it is the same as putting on my gold boots or one of my corsets, to celebrate and dance. For work/university I don’t wear make-up and don’t feel I have to, (just as I wouldn’t wear a corset) but my best friend walked out of a waitressing job in London because they told her she had to wear make-up. If this still goes on, then we are still not living in a world where most people feel comfortable with a woman’s barefacedness.
    Beauty advertising always makes me angry, with their spurious faux-science and constant undermining of women’s confidence, presuming to tell us how a woman is supposed to look, not to mention the cocktail of dangerous chemicals contained in most toiletries that have the potential to be physically harmful.
    I also echo some of the above sentiments, in that I feel sorry that hetero men don’t feel they can use cover-up after a heavy night on the tiles but equally I know I often only wear eyeliner because I’m unhappy with my small Irish features, rather than it being empowering… (and I’m with Lindsay above who says she always feels like she’s Doing It Wrong with the whole femme-but-masculine-of-centre presentation).
    Lastly, I can think of way better things to spend my money on (music, films, new shorts…) but I also agree that as long as you are doing it with an awareness and not just because you feel you ought to, then obviously it’s up to you.

  76. I had a professor of graphic lit in college who wore bright, red lipstick every day simply because, as a woman, she could. I didn’t care about anything related to sexuality and gender until I met Vanessa, so I wish I could remember more of what she said, but she went on to explain that in our society, men wear a piece of fabric that, not only strangles them but also has an arrow pointing directly at their crotch; a constant reminder of their sexuality. Therefore, she chose to combat that by wearing bright, red lipstick, something that usually isn’t worn by men, just because she could.

  77. makeup is my warpaint
    when i want to be a femme superheroine

    it used to be a shield
    (i used concealer to conceal my queerness)
    then i discovered that my naked face
    like my naked body
    is beautiful and worthy

    so now i wear neon eyeshadow and combat boots
    feathers in my hair and green lipstick
    when i feel like kicking ass and taking names

    and when i am home alone
    and see my face in the mirror
    it is also beautiful because it is mine

  78. I suppose I consider myself Femme-that-can’t-be-bothered-much with makeup and mostly just use foundation and concealer to cover up my spots and try to erase any sign of blushing or drastically red face that happens when I get a bit too hot and then can’t get rid of for the whole day.
    But since I started using makeup, doing it properly in a way that fits me and my style, I’ve totally fallen in love with it. For some reason when I finished school and then started dating my girlfriend, I held back on the mascara and eyeliner that I’d normally wear.
    Possibly because she didn’t wear much, and I always feel out of place with girls not wearing makeup if I am. Possibly just because I was out of the strange hyper-society that was school where I felt like I had to look my absolute best to prove all the people wrong who used to bitch about me, call me ugly and pretend to come on to me.

    But even while I was at school I really loved makeup, just putting it on feels decadent. I felt like some badass 1920s rebel when I first sat on the pavement in Bilbao on a school trip and did my makeup while we all waited for the bus.
    Once I started doing it for myself and how it made me feel, rather than doing it because that’s what the girls at school do, it became something magical and lovely, and I’m getting back into it in a big way.

  79. I love this article. I really love the pink glitter lips, but I would never have the guts to wear them.

    I often think about the make up I wear and what that says to others, and indeed, about myself. I wear make up every day, although my everyday essentials are; some foundation used as concealer under my eyes because I have dark circles even when I get a good nights sleep, and getting that is pretty rare, mascara as otherwise you can barely see my eyelashes and I little foundation on my cheeks to cover up that one is redder than the other when they flush. I feel naked without it and this amount of make up allows me to forget about feeling self conscious all day. I work in an office with about 20 women in it, and despite being one of only two queer women, only about six of us ever wear make up to work, which are proportions I have never seen before, at uni or in other jobs. I guess I must work with a pretty confident bunch. I also hope that the amount of make up I wear makes my gender a non issue in a job where about 95% of my clients are men, by not wearing anything that I consider sexy (eyeliner, lipgloss) although recently I have been debating drawing on wrinkles to combat the implied ageism I face.

    If I am gong out I wear a full face of make up, but I rarely have time to do the fancy eye make up that I wish I was better at. I do my ‘evening’ make up with the hope to appear attractive to women, despite the fact that it often gets me unwanted ‘attention’ from men and makes me even less visible. However, when I’m not single, or with family etc. I still wear similar make up when I am out, to feel pretty and mainly, for me, it is all part of dressing for the occasion.

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  82. Only read this article now, but here’s my two cents: I am one of those pale white people who’s essentially faceless. When my mouth is closed it’s only apparent that it is there at all if I outline lips with a noticeable lipstick. And since I don’t have the energy to put mascara on my invisible eyelashes and do my eyebrows every day (they are the same color as my skin), I dye both my lashes and brows black every other week instead. The way I use makeup is less to achieve sex appeal and more to give myself discernible facial expressions.

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  84. For me, personally, when I put in the time to put on make up, I’m aiming to look less available and less approachable, specifically to straight men.

    The look that I, and so many queer femmes I know, want is to look like you want to touch me, but also you’re afraid to touch me.

    But I think that the most important point for me is that, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy something, to care about it and be a part of it, while critiquing the parts of it that are flawed or fucked up.
    There’s a lot of shitty things to dissect and get rid of with the make up industry and advertising directed at women, but that’s not gonna stop me from perfectly painting on fluorescent pink lips when I feel the need to.

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