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The thing is, of course, that women are made to feel bad about using makeup when they use it for reasons other than having a little fun or wanting to "feel better" about themselves. The idea that makeup—or any other external beauty device, ranging from Spanx to plastic surgery—is used for the utilitarian purposes of promoting oneself in the workplace (or in society at large) is totally stigmatized. This is why the the ideal makeup look on a woman is "natural." You have to try to look good, but you can't look like you're trying. Particularly for women, the more blatantly you appear to be striving, the more contempt society has for you. We are all supposed to be natural beauties.
Another of the Times' experts is Thomas Matlack, a "venture capitalist, writer, and founder of The Good Men Project" who says that, "when it comes to makeup and self-esteem I plead ignorance other than to say women should do whatever they want." Matlack explains that he puts "makeup in the same category as fake breasts, even if it is a less extreme form of 'beautification.'” Which, well, what the fuck? Really? Putting a little concealer under your eyes is in the exact same category as surgically altering your body? What about getting a haircut? Or shaving your legs? Or doing any of the tons of things that women—and men—do to conform to current societal norms?
The problem with this discussion that the Times hosted—well, one of the problems—is that it pretends that makeup exists only within the context of a woman's self-esteem, as if this was just about personal choice. As if any personal choice isn't made within the realm of a much larger framework, that of the world in which we live. I'm not saying that people who use makeup can't use it without making it a part of some larger political statement. That would be absurd. And I'm not even saying that there's something inherently wrong with trying to attain the current beauty standards. I mean, I like makeup. And I wear it to get certain responses and I have fun with it. But then again, I do lots of things in order to get certain responses and some of those things perpetuate what are perhaps unhealthy standards of living. I do this because, well, I am human. And as a human, I sometimes embrace certain privileges in order to enjoy my life. I'm not always trying to change the world.
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that it's all a big mess. Trying to hold up makeup as an example of what is wrong with our society is just stupid. Pretending that without makeup, all women would be starting off from some sort of mythical "level playing field" is a joke. None of us are born equal and makeup is one of the more minor ways of trying to even the playing field. If the Times wanted to have an interesting and intelligent conversation about beauty standards and their implications, there are plenty of angles that could have been explored. Unfortunately, pretending that "red lipstick can change the world" isn't one of them.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen