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The Other ‘C’ Word

The Other ‘C’ Word

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“Makeup doesn’t actually mean anything – it’s simply makeup. It’s about… what makes me happy when I look in the mirror… it’s about the face I choose to show the world, and what I choose to say,” she explains in this promotional video for the makeup brand: [https://vimeo.com/187957816]

  

Last October, No.7, a cosmetics brand of UK pharmacy chain Boots, sent waves through the feminist world with the introduction of its unlikely new brand ambassador—the acclaimed writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her appointment was especially noteworthy as it came right on the heels of Alicia Keys’ public decision to stop wearing make-up. It seemed a little counterintuitive for a renowned feminist like Adichie to endorse make-up so fervently, and so, more than helping No.7 put more lipstick on people’s lips, Adichie’s new position has also revived the debate on the relevance of make-up in the feminist movement, inspiring media outlets to publish articles with headlines like “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up” and “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too”.

While Keys’ take on make-up might seem like the more obvious feminist stance, Adichie is convinced that her advocacy and love for make-up is no less feminist than Keys’ rejection of it. According to Adichie, both she and Keys are actually acting on the same (feminist) instinct—being the version of themselves that makes them feel real. While this means a rejection of cosmetics for Keys, it means the opposite for Adichie. The writer concludes almost every interview on her love for cosmetics by saying that, at the end of the day, it is up to a woman to decide if make-up works for her or not. All in all, she seems to argue, all that matters is a woman’s personal Choice, and make-up is in no way anti-feminist as long as this Choice is upheld.

 

Is Keys’ stance against makeup a stronger representation of her feminism than Adichie’s decision to embrace it?

 

This use of Choice as a feminist justification for decisions that might otherwise be considered anti-feminist, like the wearing of make-up, high heels, or the hijab, is becoming increasingly common in mainstream feminist discourse. Undoubtedly, respecting women’s personal choices is important, but it is equally important, if not more, to critically examine these Choices and the desires that inform them.

NO ONE is immune to making anti-feminist Choices, including women and/or feminists. Championing Choice above all else makes it easier for all of us to escape the need for deeper self-reflection and consequently runs the risk of eclipsing the bigger struggle for the equality of the genders. It is perhaps time we turned down the volume of the overwhelming rallying cry that is “Choice!”, and took a step back to consider how we can make better feminist Choices in order to advance the movement more meaningfully.

Many topics come to mind when talking about Choice: make-up, body hair (or the lack thereof), the hijab, high heels, the list goes on, but the topic of choice here will be make-up, as space does not permit for more.

Make-up or cosmetics, by definition, are products used (predominantly by women) to beautify appearances, and women have been applying cosmetics on their skin long before Cleopatra sported the first recorded cat eye in history. Living in an age where advertisers and the media are constantly feeding us happiness-sapping messages served with a dash of body-shaming, putting on make-up has become the quickest, least invasive way to get a boost in self-esteem.

Indeed, it feels good to look good, and some even say that it helps women earn more. So what’s wrong with wanting to feel good about how you look? It makes you more confident, more positive, a better worker, a better friend… it’s all good, right? Isn’t that what make-up is all about, empowering women by providing them with a quick boost of feel-good vibes? Well, yes and no.

 

Is makeup “simply makeup”, as Adichie suggests?

 

Yes, of course there is nothing wrong with doing something that makes you feel good, and it is completely up to anyone to do whatever they want with their bodies, regardless of how that might make others feel. But make-up is so much more than that. For starters, it is a booming multi BILLION-dollar global industry that was valued at “460 billion USD in 2014 and is estimated to reach 675 billion USD by 2020 growing at a rate of 6.4%.” The industry thus outpaces the estimated growth of the global economy by almost two and a half times, and with the average modern woman spending almost 450,000 USD on beauty products in her lifetime, the industry is not showing any signs of slowing down even as the world economy struggles to maintain its current growth. What magical engine spurs this industry forwards? None other than the industries that trade in images and have a track record of the sexual objectification and exploitation of women: advertising and media.

Countless studies published over the past few decades have exposed the detrimental physical and psychological effects that the ideals of beauty disseminated by the beauty and advertising industry have on women all over the world. This is no secret, and rising incidents of eating disorders among young girls are becoming a major concern in many countries. More than just messing with women’s body image (intersectional feminists take note), these industries perpetuate racist, classist, and ageist ideals by concertedly sending out the subliminal message that women need to look white, young, and spend lots of money in order to look good.

No.7 really hit the jackpot when Adichie agreed to be their new face, because now, with a highly influential, non-white feminist known for her incisive critique of sexism, racism, and colonialism endorsing their brand, there’s no way they can be faulted for any of the abovementioned crimes, right? In her interviews, Adichie also reveals that other than the tantalizing prospect of getting lots of free make-up, she got on board with No.7 mainly because she believes that “feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive,” and furthermore, that “it is misogynistic to suggest that they are.”

But isn’t the entire cosmetics industry a misogynistic enterprise out to milk women of their self-esteem and money in a world where we have yet to be paid as much as our male counterparts? Some might argue that looking well-groomed helps women fatten their pay checks and that this in turn contributes to the closing of the wage gap, but is it not a sick twisted world we live in where women have to buy into an industry that hurts them in order to earn a little more?

Are not feminists and feminism here to challenge all of this, instead of telling women simply that their right to feel beautiful should not be challenged?

Image via xojane.com [http://www.xojane.com/beauty/makeup/what-is-feminist-makeupping]

 

Adichie’s comment on feminism and femininity not being mutually exclusive has resonated widely with women, including myself (and being the writer that she is, it is highly quotable too). It is a poignant and liberating statement, but before embracing it wholeheartedly, we should also ask ourselves this: what has makeup (alongside shaving, high heels, and uncomfortably tight clothing) to do with femininity to begin with? Why do high heels, footwear that ironically compromises one’s mobility, express femininity? And why is most female/feminine clothing designed to be so much more uncomfortable and impractical compared to male/masculine clothing?

If we were to take a closer look at the conventional ‘expressions of femininity,’ we will realise that most of it, like the wearing of makeup, uncomfortable clothing, ridiculous footwear, and the like, actually physically inconvenience and, if I may say, oppress women. Yet, many, if not most, self-proclaimed feminists I know wear makeup, with some even wearing more of it the more they proclaim their feminism, saying that makeup empowers them.

But really, what does empowerment mean, if you can’t dig deep enough to look your own insecurities in the face and battle them into the ground until they no longer affect you instead of covering up your face to mollify them for the time being. Also, why is it that femininity and conventionally-defined beauty are almost synonymous? Yes, it is every woman’s right to be beautiful, but why must we want to be beautiful?

Feminism has told us that it is high time women subverted the notion that our value lies in our appearances, and that we need to teach women and girls that being pretty is not a prerequisite to being valued. There’s this quote I love: “If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.”

Knowing how toxic the concept of conventional feminine beauty has become, can my Choice to wear make-up still be a feminist Choice? Can it simply be artistic self-expression when it is predominantly used as a means for women to beautify themselves and get closer to the ideal of beauty shaped by insidious images? If it were truly for artistic expression, why aren’t there more people walking about with phoenixes (whatever they may look like; go figure) drawn over their faces? And most importantly, why aren’t there an equal number of people of all genders wearing make-up? Does feminism not urge us to question and challenge such discrepancies?

 

Image via The Guardian

 

To complicate the question of Choice a little more and move beyond cosmetic issues, we could perhaps also ask: whose Choice, exactly?

A grabby-handed man’s choice? That’s a clear ‘No’. A straight, cis-gender, corporate woman’s choice? That’s a clear ‘Yes’ for many. A transwoman’s choice? I think a good number of ‘real women’ might have their doubts (unfortunately).

How do we define this Choice, then?

Some straight, cis-gender women have advocated for appalling policies that restrict women’s access to healthcare, but should we respect their Choice and not speak out against their advocacy simply because they are women? It is undoubtedly of utmost necessity that the feminist movement opens its arms to as many people—especially women—as possible, but in our effort to be inclusive, we must also be discerning. We can’t really believe that women are immune to making anti-feminist choices simply because they are women?

To me, feminism is NOT about Choice + full stop. It is also about making conscious choices that do not aggravate the existing sex- and gender-based discrimination against those who identify as women.

Feminism has been and still is ‘a movement for social, political, and economic equality of women and men,’ and we must strive to keep that in mind before it turns into a movement that fights for women’s Choices first and only.

As mentioned above, I know many feminists who love wearing makeup, and I do not have a problem with that per se, but I do feel a little disappointed knowing that someone who embraces feminism is further perpetuating the societal perception that a woman’s worth lies in her appearance. I personally hate wearing makeup, and that is my Choice, but am I really free to make that choice when my boss implies that it’ll be easier to seal deals with clients if I wore makeup, left my hair long, and wore more dresses and high heels, like my other female colleagues? In a society where some women are forced to cover up by virtue of their gender, would not another woman’s Choice to wear the hijab make it harder for the former to live out her own?

Here, we must again ask ourselves some difficult questions: whose Choice is prioritised more in the above cases, and why? The woman whose Choice so happens to coincide with society’s expectations of her, or the woman who feels constricted by gender roles and societal expectations?

 

Image via Wonderfeminists [https://wonderfeminists.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/i-need-feminism-because/]

 

When Adichie, an empowered, educated, influential woman, decided to become the ambassador of a cosmetics brand, did she not consider what her support of the beauty industry would mean to impressionable young women and girls? As a young woman, I would love to be able to choose to not have my senses assaulted by images that tell me I need to wear make-up to be beautiful and valued, but do I have an option, really?

It would be apt to conclude with a few words a fellow feminist and valued friend, Geetha Anbalagan, has shared with me:

“Looking within is tough work, but it’s often the most important aspect in this fight for equality.

Feminism, as with anything else that requires any critical thinking, will naturally lead us back to the questioning of our personal choices. We’re all capable and should be capable of making choices, even when they hurt us—that’s a right we all get—but when we stop questioning these choices, well then, we have a problem, whether with regard to feminism or not.

If people who embrace feminism think that they’re being alienated because their choices are being questioned, then they need to ask themselves why they are not okay with being questioned. Everything we do, everything we say, and every choice we make in life should be questioned, if not by ourselves then by others. Because that’s the difficult part in life: asking ourselves why we do what we do and what will happen if we changed that. If we’re shaken every time our choices are questioned, then that says something about the choices we make.”

The critical questioning of women’s choices should not be misconstrued as elitist shaming. We have one common goal—dismantling the patriarchy, and it is our duty to keep ourselves and others in check to make sure that we are moving forwards instead of backwards. No one is trying to push women away from this fight, but we must all take steps to ensure that the fight is strong and from all fronts. Feminism has brought us a long way from where we were a century ago—many things have changed for the better since—and I certainly hope that the obsession with Choice will not push us in the opposite direction.

 


References:

  1.  Feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie is now the face of a drugstore makeup brand. https://qz.com/813708/nigerian-writer-chimamanda-adichie-is-now-the-face-of-british-drugstore-beauty-brand-boots-no7/
  2.  Alicia Keys: Time to Uncover. http://www.lennyletter.com/style/a410/alicia-keys-time-to-uncover/
  3.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37676472
  4.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-make-up_us_58135b5de4b0390e69cf7b87
  5.  Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fronts beauty campaign with an empowering messagehttp://mashable.com/2016/10/20/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-makeup/#ThGPD1lgBmqR
  6.  How a Little Lipstick Could Add Thousands to Your Paycheckhttp://fortune.com/2016/05/19/makeup-more-money/
  7.  Research and Markets: Global Cosmetics Market 2015-2020: Market was $460 Billion in 2014 and is Estimated to Reach $675 Billion by 2020. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150727005524/en/Research-Markets-Global-Cosmetics-Market-2015-2020-Market
  8.  Global GDP growth in 2015 was 2.63%: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG
  9. Forecasted growth of the global economy until 2020 is just below 3%: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25823/9781464810169.pdf
  10.  “The Beauty Breakdown.” https://stephns.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/thebeautybreakdown-newsweek.jpg 
  11. SUBDUED DEMAND, DIMINISHED PROSPECTS. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/update/01/
  12.  10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White. http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/when-beauty-equals-white/
  13.  The Cosmetics Racket: Why the Beauty Industry Can Get Away with Charging a Fortune for Makeup. http://www.alternet.org/story/148140/the_cosmetics_racket%3A_why_the_beauty_industry_can_get_away_with_charging_a_fortune_for_makeup
  14.  “Viral video: Why women pants have good-for-nothing pockets?” http://english.fashion101.in/news/FAS-FEV-women-pants-with-no-pockets-fashion-india-5482706.html
  15.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched this and it still gives me goosebumps: “Dustin Hoffman on TOOTSIE and his character Dorothy Michaels.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE
  16.  Women’s Health: Yet Another Issue Sarah Palin is Out of Touch On. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cecile-richards/add-womens-health-to-the_b_131186.html

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