Rebranding makeup as “self-expression” perpetuates conformity

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20


This year, I succumbed to capitalist America and went Black Friday shopping at a local mall in my hometown. Although I left the hellscape that is the Willow Grove Mall’s Sephora empty-handed and with my pitiful $20 bill still tucked into my wallet, I could not stop thinking about the advertisements, the environment, the staff and the store itself. Advertisements in the store displayed bright makeup looks, from red eyeshadow to purple highlighter, and showcased a diverse cast of models.

This is one example of makeup culture being rebranded. Advertisements for makeup have recently moved away from overtly promoting norms regarding conventional beauty to pushing an agenda based on self-expression. Cosmetic companies are now promoting a more universal approach to makeup, urging consumers to buy their products in order to express themselves. However, the “makeup is for self-expression” mentality is falsely empowering and covers up the beauty industry’s legacy of imposing restrictive femininity on consumers. It is a half-hearted attempt to reclaim makeup as an artistic medium without actually recognizing how it reinforces toxic beauty norms.

I will not deny that cosmetics can be used for self-expression. Zoe Heard ’21 said “I like wearing [makeup] occasionally for artistic expression. I don’t think it’s necessary for me for everyday use, but it’s nice once in a while, like dressing up or decorating the house is nice.” But if cosmetics were for self-expression only, we would not generally follow one mode and regimen of doing makeup. Most makeup users feel as though we have to follow a certain procedure — primer, foundation, concealer, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush, highlighter, lipstick, contour and so on — in a uniform way.

Some people do paint themselves creatively, using blue mascara and drawing hearts on their eyes, but they are a small minority. If makeup were truly a form of expression, we would treat it like art or music. We may think bright, abstract paintings are odd, but their artists are not ostracized, which is how society tends to treat those who wear more unusual makeup looks. Instagram and other social media platforms may showcase more unconventional looks, but this does not reflect our day-to-day reality.

If makeup was socially accepted as a mode of self-expression, I would not feel the necessity to cover my acne scars before I leave the house, nor would I feel guilty if I did not. But the current rhetoric perpetuates beauty norms. Self-expression does not have to be bright and colorful all the time; it can also be shown in the form of rejecting beauty standards, like refusing to contour one’s nose to make it seem thinner. But this is not the way women are encouraged to express themselves. Makeup is seen as a necessary step in a woman’s routine: a hygienic requirement. When women put on makeup, it is often labeled as “putting their face on,” as if their bare faces are not legitimate and must be hidden from the rest of society. Instead, we have learned to prefer a “natural look”, achieved through light makeup rather than a woman’s actual bare face. Lauren Hirth ’21 takes issue with this mentality. “I dislike the ‘natural look’ because I think it’s dramatically distorted our vision of what a face looks like,” she said.

The argument that makeup is self-expression fails to challenge internalized, harmful norms regarding a woman’s appearance. It just places a blanket statement over all of the issues surrounding beauty culture in an attempt to reform an industry that profits off women’s insecurities, rather than actually recognizing toxic makeup culture for what it is: a practice that teaches women that their beauty and worth relies on having perfect skin and Eurocentric features. Makeup products were never conceived as a medium of expression; they have always been used to police women’s appearances. The cosmetic industry’s goals could not have changed so quickly from enforcing beauty norms to promoting creativity; the “selfexpression” rhetoric only serves to make cosmetics more palatable to modern consumers and to ensure that makeup corporations meet their bottom lines.

My purpose is not to point fingers or criticize others for wearing more accepted styles of makeup, nor am I saying that those who wear cosmetics are fake feminists or that they are submitting to the patriarchy. Makeup can be empowering. The problem is that makeup is considered to be a required part of a woman’s hygienic routine. As consumers, we have to recognize that reclaiming makeup requires much more effort than slapping the blanket statement of “self-expression” on it and ignoring how we treat beauty at large. The “self-expression” argument is only a nominal reform in an industry that was built on profiting off the insecurities of women as well as an excuse to avoid confronting how toxic makeup and beauty culture is today.