Can Make-Up Be Gender Neutral?
THIS article originally intended to express the gender neutrality of make-up but, in researching it, I changed my opinion on the matter. At its core, few things are inherently gendered. The genders given to most things are assigned by us according to imposed cultural and societal norms rather than any implicit nature. But many things have become gendered by history and association. To proclaim make-up gender neutral is to ignore history and the present reality in favour of an ideal future yet to be realised.
The first record of the use of cosmetics comes from Egypt and refers to unguent, a cream for anti-ageing and keeping the skin hydrated. This was used extensively by both men and women but the first records of make-up (kohl and precursors of mascara and eye-shadow) show women as the main users. It would be silly to think an article would allow for anything near a full retelling of the history of cosmetics worldwide but it is worth charting some of the uses and changes in make-up and beauty regimes over the course of time. Variously, make-up has been worn by men and women and encouraged or discouraged. In the case of men, most uses of make-up have historically related to one sort of ceremony or another whereas women have largely been encouraged to wear make-up in order to adhere to imposed ideals of beauty or to accentuate their appearance.
In some periods, such as the Regency era, most people of both genders applied particular products such as rouge. As history goes, generations often rejected what came before them thus seeing the use of make-up variously vilified or celebrated. In Britain, anti-French feeling in the eighteenth century saw the excessive use of cosmetics to be seen as French, frivolous, dandyish or effeminate. This last accusation is one to bear in mind. That which is labelled ‘feminine’ or to do with women is often looked down upon or seen as unimportant, superficial and lesser. Though society demands women look a certain way, they have also been periodically demonised for using cosmetics to ‘trick’ or for even thinking of such ‘unimportant’ things at all.
From the 1850s onwards, make-up became rooted largely within the domain solely of women in Western culture with Victorian society promoting sobriety, restraint and the denouncing of the ‘evils’ of vanity. The blatant use of make-up was frowned upon – though women continued to use it subtly (think ‘no make-up selfie’ cheats). Enter into the twentieth century and the invention of cinema and Hollywood glamour and more widespread access to, and use of, make-up. It was not until the 70s and 80s, however, that make-up began to be used by men within certain subcultures once more. Again, the use of cosmetics was different for men and women. Men used make-up to rebel and make a statement and, while women were part of movements such as punk, was not imposed upon men in the same way.
The above roots some of the basic concepts and beliefs around make-up in history. It brings to the fore issues such as the different standards by which men and women are measured and expectations of them, the systematic belittling of things considered female or effeminate and the demonising of feminine ‘vanity’. The reason make-up cannot be said to be gender neutral is that it is targeted towards women, designed for female use and we have been conditioned to believe that it is necessary. Men wear make-up to have fun or make a statement but for women, it is part of their socialisation. Make-up is imposed rather than a privilege – even if it is fun or a woman is wearing it for herself or she likes it.
I have friends in different sectors who have been told turning up to work sans make-up is unprofessional and looks as though they don’t take pride in their appearance or take things seriously – even if their attire is suitably professional, if they are well-groomed and enthusiastic. Make-up could be called gender neutral only if this same pressure was exerted equally on everyone but the expectations are not the same. Women are expected to perform femininity and a failure to do so often incites judgement or even anger and abuse.
All of this is not to say that I’m against make-up. I tend to believe we’re more than our histories and can move forward. I can understand that make-up has been traditionally imposed upon women while still making the decision to use it, enjoy it, appreciate it. I can see the artistry in it, the might of the industry and the more numerous opportunities for women in the cosmetics industry. Another point is that just because something is seen as female or feminine, does not make it lesser. You are not lesser for enjoying it. Awareness is key but so, too, is individual choice. Also to note that I’m advocating the use of make-up by men should they choose. True equality requires this freedom because the patriarchy that limits and dictates to women, also limits men. Make-up could be gender neutral if everyone was free to use it or not, depending on their own desires.
Now, most make-up is designed for softer female skin and doesn’t invite particularly effective application on a male face so formulations would have to change and not just cultural implications and expectations. Some of these types of products have already been produced by both drugstore brands and high-end labels like Tom Ford as well as unisex companies like Enter Pronoun. But widespread and effective use of cosmetics for men could potentially actually prove to emphasise ideas of masculine ideals of beauty. If men were to use make-up as most women do, they could highlight features considered attractive and take attention away from those that are less so.
Really though, the whole thing is moot and bewilderingly childish. It’s truly difficult to understand why people become so riled by the behaviours of others when they are legal, not harmful and have nothing to do with anyone else. In an ideal world, make-up would not only be gender neutral but neutral in general. Women would not be labelled sluts for wearing too much or seen as sloppy or unattractive for wearing too little and men could wear it without comment. The future has the potential to be gender neutral but the present is, sadly, far too influenced by the past.
Photos c/o shadowness.com, galleryhip.com