Exploring gender through makeup

Michaela Edlin, Editor in Chief

Makeup does more than alter appearances. It is a tool in understanding gender and misogyny.

As a young child, I mindlessly got into my mom’s makeup, smearing lipstick on my face. I loved the color, smell and camp of the performance. I was mimicking the social roles that my mother upheld.

Cosmetics have a strong connection to womanhood in the modern world, and can be used to interrogate subtle misogyny. Even though this correlation is strong, the degree of separation allows subconscious bigotry to slip through the cracks.

This realization did not come to me easily. My use of makeup has forced me to analyze my relationships to women and womanhood in confusing ways. Being nonbinary, I’ve struggled with these relationships, with makeup in the middle of this conflict.

According to studies and the Social Learning Theory by Albert Bandura, a psychologist who taught at Stanford, gender differences begin in early socialization. According to the theory, children model behavior and communication off of parents, like I had with my mom’s makeup. Whether parents reinforce these behaviors informs a child’s socially acceptable gender behavior.

I don’t recall if my parents were irritated or amused by my makeovers, but I didn’t shy away from makeup. According to research by Harvard, children most often label their gender by three and lose “magical” thinking of the body and gender by seven. Its seems as if I followed the typical timeline in my early years, until I later disrupted it.

I loved to pick out sheer Claire’s products for gifts. I had my kindergarten birthday at Blush, one of the tacky makeover birthday party venues of the aughts. In third grade we were tasked to create a tutorial; my supposed skill was applying makeup in the car.

Looking back, it’s clear I loved beauty and makeup, but it’s also true I was overcompensating for the absence of womanhood I couldn’t recognize when I was younger. When I started to develop acne and gender became less performative, more prescriptive in my pre-teens, I felt the same urge, except I was able to identify it.

Freshman year I wore makeup daily and knew I was nonbinary, but still wanted to assimilate into womanhood. Makeup was an easy way to do this; by signaling outward femininity, there were less uncomfortable, awkward questions about my gender, as long as I didn’t mention it.

This later backfired when I became uncomfortable with my femininity and wanted to be clear I’m not a woman. Even though I loved makeup, I went long periods without it. At that point I viewed makeup as a creative tool, but also a tool that hurt me.

Wanting to separate myself from womanhood was expected, but through this process, it was hard to distinguish whether that separation was purely due to gender, or if misogyny played a role. It was likely both, because as I was pushing away makeup, pushing away womanhood, it was pretty easy to push away women.

But I’m not the only one who has pushed women away because of makeup. Women are often punished for using too much, too little or doing it poorly.

In 2016, Alicia Keys decided to stop wearing makeup with her #nomakeup campaign. While many were supportive, she faced substantial backlash after performing makeupless at the 2016 MTV awards. Keys’s experience shows how even though makeup is a personal choice, its connection to gender is evident because no men are criticized for going sans makeup.

After my own experimentation without makeup, I started using it again, but in a different way. Being more secure in my gender and having more expertise with makeup, it started to be a way for me to accessorize and be creative. No longer was I coping through my makeup.

Even though I have now allowed myself to play more freely with eyeshadow, concealer and glitter without feeling its connection to my gender, makeup will always be connected to womanhood.