How Makeup Works

Feminists and Makeup

When second-wave feminism swept across the U.S. in the late 1960s and '70s, feminists urged their fellow women to discard anything that men might use to objectify them. By putting on makeup and dressing in a certain way, these feminists argued, women were only submitting to a patriarchal culture that sought to exploit them for their beauty, not their brain. Stop trying to appeal to men with makeup and fashion was the rallying cry of radical feminists.

The feminists' arguments didn't go over as well as they might have hoped. Some women feared that if they gave up on lipstick, they'd be branded as ugly fringe radicals. Some women believed that a socially appropriate appearance -- one that included makeup -- was important for the workplace, where women were fighting tooth and nail to get ahead, though the argument of how feminine a woman in the workplace can be continues to this day. And some women may have acknowledged that while they wore lipstick to attract a man, they also wore it for themselves. It was fun, it was art, and they didn't think they should have to give that up, even if there was a whiff of sexism to the practice.


Today, feminists are still divided on the makeup issue. On the one hand, the issue of choice is important to many feminists, which means that a woman should be able to decide to wear makeup for herself without anyone else assuming that she's a floozy. On the other hand, many men and women are concerned about the messages implied within cosmetics advertising and television shows. They argue that women are being sold the idea that they're imperfect and need to be fixed, which can only happen if they continue to buy certain products. And will the line continue to move in a culture obsessed with youth and beauty? Will everyone be expected to get plastic surgery once foundation can no longer hide the signs of aging?

Perhaps most worrying to critics of the cosmetic industry is the trend of younger and younger girls using makeup. If makeup really does serve to signal other males of female fitness, then does wearing lip gloss and blush sexualize girls too soon? Do they stand at the precipice of a life filled with unhappiness and body angst? If makeup is possibly toxic to adults, then how toxic will it prove to be on young skin?

It's impossible to answer these questions or foresee a truce between some feminists and makeup. For some women, makeup will always be something that should be applied before leaving the house, and for others, it's unnecessary and offensive. But what do men think about makeup? While some radical feminists claimed that women only wore it to please men, you might be surprised at men's responses to cosmetics through the centuries, as well as how they might represent the next great makeup market.