"I never used to let my daughters play with that stuff," my neighbor, a pixie-like 69-year-old woman with an eccentric mop of curly gray hair, recently remarked of my eldest daughter’s glitter eyeshadow. Luna, my kid, had pulled it out of my makeup cabinet that morning and proceeded to treat her small face like a canvas, delighting at every shiny speck as it appeared on her lids. "I know you’re a feminist, love, but when I became a feminist, that meant rejecting makeup. Your daughters must learn to feel worthy and beautiful without it."
This wasn’t the first time someone had warned me about the possible adverse effects of my daughters, ages 3 and 1, being exposed to cosmetics. I live in Hebden Bridge, a Yorkshire, England, town known to strangers (if known at all) as the land of hippies. In the 1970s, hippies moved in by the dozens. Everyone speculates that it has something to do with the abundance of psychedelic mushrooms that grow in the surrounding countryside. Back then, it was relatively cheap to live here, too.
It’s also a town entrenched in second-wave feminism. Many people, like my neighbor (who I actually really like, for the record) and younger folks (raised, perhaps, by the original leftists who made Hebden a home), are committed to a rejection of mainstream fashion and beauty, considered patriarchal tools used to oppress). Some condemn sex work and, with it, sex workers. Others, fairly, continue to fight for a departure from traditional gender roles — for a world in which domesticity isn’t expected of, or imposed upon, women. This is all to say, I know a lot of people who don’t love makeup.
I get it — I really do. As author and feminist campaigner Julie Bindel wrote in The Independent: "Women who wear makeup spend an average of nine whole days every year of their lives applying it [...] Such is the lack of confidence in their natural looks, 15 per cent of heterosexual women polled about their so-called beauty routines disclosed that they apply makeup before their partner wakes up, with as many as 41 per cent saying they feel too self-conscious to go without it."
"There are some powerful rewards in store for women who conform to femininity, as well as punishment and disapproval for those that reject it, such as being verbally or physically attacked for looking 'like a man,'" Bindel wrote. "A free choice to wear makeup only exists if not wearing makeup is not a stigmatized option."
As a queer fat woman who champions size acceptance, I’m no stranger to the ways in which our culture rewards and punishes people based on their outer shells. We are taught that thinness is the key to beauty, success, happiness, and wellbeing. We are dehumanized when we don’t fit the model. There are lots of women out there who have felt dehumanized for not conforming to other standards of beauty, including, well, beauty — that is, the products we put on our faces.
Still, I let my daughters play with my makeup. I let someone gift them a wooden set of beauty products, so they can play pretend while I’m putting on my own. I let them use their child-safe palette to treat mine and my husband’s faces (and their stuffed animals) like an art pad. I also make damn sure they see me without any makeup on at all.
If Bindel is correct, and a free choice to wear makeup can only exist if not wearing makeup isn’t a stigmatized option, I must do everything in my power not to stigmatize it. For me, and for many fourth-wave feminists raised on Tumblr and pink-haired radicals, this isn’t a difficult feeling to manifest. I’m fat-positive. I believe wholly in celebrating the differences between our bodies, and faces, and beings — and in dismantling the body hierarchies that threaten so many lives.
I enjoy the softest, fattest bits of myself, as I enjoy the dark circles under my eyes and the pink splotches on my cheeks. My daughters know all of this. I tell them regularly. I would never berate my rolls or wrinkles because there’s nothing to berate. The language of body shame, if they inevitably learn it, won’t be learned at home. I trust in that. It’s why I also trust that I won’t harm them by wearing makeup.
When thinking of her own 3-year-old daughter, blogger Courtney Mina says, "The responsibility lies on me to teach her that beauty comes from the person she is, and not from makeup. Makeup doesn’t 'make us beautiful.' We are already beautiful. It’s simply a way to play and express ourselves and our creativity — just like putting on an outfit is."
Whether she's at home, at the grocery store, or at the park, Mina keeps her face bare often. "As I’ve grown into womanhood, I’ve left behind the notion that I 'need' makeup and use it now as a way of self-expression [...] We aren’t living in the 1970s. I believe quite strongly that progressive feminism should support every woman’s choice when it comes to how she expresses herself and what she does with her body. Making blanket statements about what women 'should' or 'shouldn't' do is dangerous."
Plus-size model Kat Stroud, also the mother of a 3-year-old, agrees. "I would say balance, as with anything in regards to parenting, is key. I like showing my daughter both. We take pictures of me with and without makeup on the regular, so I think it’s important to show them the same confidence you have when in makeup when you're not wearing it. This way she will learn that makeup is an aid, not a necessity."
When it comes to second-wave thoughts on beauty, Mina and Stroud understand all the points that are usually raised. Makeup has, at many times in history, been expected of women. Bare faces and "natural beauty" haven’t been celebrated. So pervasive has been the notion that a regular face is "ugly" that some women have literally never allowed their partners or children or friends to see them without it. All of this can and should be fought against, but it doesn’t require a total eradication of the products. "I don’t believe it is for us to destroy the idea of wearing makeup, but to change the attitude surrounding it," Mina says. "I believe quite strongly that it’s happening right now."
As with thinness, the problem at hand isn’t the fact that some people are thin. It’s that everyone is expected to be thin, and there are consequences for not adhering to the formula. The problem is not that makeup exists or that some people genuinely like it. It’s that makeup often feels imposed upon women, including those who’d rather not use it.
Makeup will never be framed as a necessity in our household. Instead, it will be a form of play, of dress-up, of experimentation and creativity. I will tell my girls that I like to paint on myself sometimes, as they might paint on a piece of paper. As we might paint a worn-out bedside table — not because it needs it, but because the process is fun. And should they have no interest in playing with cosmetics beyond the age of 3? That will be absolutely fine, too.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.