The Debate Over Makeup: Why Can’t Guys Play Too?

The New York Times‘ always-fun “Room for Debate” has a bunch of folks weighing in on whether makeup helps or hurts women, essentially, in the slog toward equality. It’s a topic dear to us — a plank in our founding, really. The debate at the core of this site has always been whether we’re “allowed” to love traditionally feminine things, as well as men, and remain true to our feminism. We’ve always argued that we are. That, in fact, as long as we’re armed with awareness and education, history and intellect, we can rack up points on the Sephora card, love men or women of our choice, and express ourselves through fashion. As long as what we’re doing doesn’t contribute toward oppressing either ourselves or others, we should have the freedom to do as we please.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s kinda sad for guys that they can’t wear makeup in most mainstream social circumstances without being suspect? (“Suspect,” of course, in a variety of ways, depending on the perspective of those around them.) I remember it being a bit of a revelation to me the day in high school when it dawned on me that I could cover up my zits but boys with the same skin problems mostly chose to display their blemishes in all their glory. That’s fine, of course, but some of them might have wanted to dab a little concealer on — I say they should be able to without worrying what others will think of their wearing “makeup.” (And at my Midwestern high school in the late ’80s/early ’90s, this still would’ve been a problem.) I think guyliner is sexy, but most men never even consider it. (Granted, I happen to like the kind of guys who’d wear eyeliner, which is part of it — they’re sexy because they have the confidence in their sexuality to pull it off. Also, rock ‘n’ roll. Pete Wentz, I miss you.) My brother, who is a rock star and a half even on the most normal day, wears lipstick when he performs with his glam-punk band, and I have never heard one person say anything about him except that he’s the coolest person they’ve ever met. I’m still not sure if I’m cool enough to hang out with him, but he’s forced to let me, because of family.

Perhaps more to the point, I adore using makeup myself. And despite having read stacks of feminist texts, I can’t think of one damn reason that’s bad for me or women. Ancillary effects can be harmful: The cosmetics industry needs to clean itself up and stop putting poisons in our products, and stop beating up our body images. But the act of wearing makeup, for me, is a huge part of my self expression. My go-to smoky eyes convey my rock and roll spirit; my recent forays into nearly-naked eyes with red lips make me feel glamorous and grown-up. I don’t feel like I need to wear makeup, and that, girls, is simply a matter of confidence that took until very recently to develop. But I want to — it’s a fun indulgence of my privileged life that I don’t want to give up. And as we tell you in more detail in our upcoming book, Sexy Feminism, the history of makeup is full of women using the stuff to empower themselves and fight oppression.

So when it comes to makeup, I say: Why can’t everyone play? Look into the brands you’re wearing; pick the ones that don’t poison or oppress; and have a great time.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

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