In Defense of Makeup
Face Paint: The Story of Makeup
By Lisa Eldridge
Earlier this year, a potentially fictitious, albeit tremendously entertaining, story was reported by Yahoo news about an Algerian man who sued his bride after seeing her without makeup for the first time on the morning after the wedding. The man claimed that he was deceived, unable to recognize her as the same woman he married. Beyond its evident humor, this story is a thinly veiled criticism of the application of makeup, suggesting that women treat their body as an object in a sale with marriage as the ultimate goal, and that they use makeup as a tool to mislead and capture a mate, to beguile the male gaze.
Bitter animosity toward women’s use of cosmetics is nothing new. In her book on makeup practices and production, Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, Lisa Eldridge – a renowned professional makeup artist – charts out the history of the debate on the value of applying color to the body. She finds that makeup has been considered a form of artifice, or even indecency, for a large portion of history from ancient Greece through the present, while, on the other side of the spectrum, some contemporary feminists have denounced makeup as an instrument of oppression that forces women to conform to an ideal.
By way of response to such criticism, Eldridge explores questions as, what motivates women to apply makeup? Do cosmetics warrant the negative reaction that they arouse? What is the value of makeup in women’s lives? She attempts to answer the age-old question of whether its use is driven by mere vanity or some higher aspiration. And what appears to be a history of colors, ingredients, and beauty brands, reveals itself as a more significant enterprise – a kind of history of women. For exploring the various developments and trends in the world of beauty accoutrements, Eldridge discovers a curious phenomenon that reappears again and again throughout the chapters, namely that historically, “it’s during the times when women were most oppressed that makeup was most reviled and seen as unacceptable.” In other words, she observes a strong correlation between the subjugation of women and the attempt to dictate their appearance, particularly in regard to the use of beauty-enhancing products. Eldridge implies that the criticism of makeup is an attempt to regulate women’s self-representation – that makeup use is not merely motivated by the desire for beautification, but that it plays a meaningful role in the largely oppressive history of women – as an exercise in self-expression, an act of emancipating oneself from external forces.
Eldridge’s book is organized thematically, reminding us that history can be told in many ways: “in history, things overlap, repeat, and develop in an organic, not-always-linear way.” She paints the story of makeup in layers to show how finely one narrative melds into another. In the first section, called “The Ancient Palette,” Eldridge partitions history by color to explain how the application of red to the lips and cheeks, white to the skin, and black to the eyes and brows has evolved, appearing in different parts of the world from ancient Egypt through the 19th century. The next section, called “The Business of Beauty,” traces the history of the production of makeup, the role of advertising in generating the fantasy that cosmetics promise to help us fulfill, and the development of the first beauty brands, such as Max Factor, Revlon, and Estee Lauder, to name a few. Eldridge also discusses the ingredients – often harmful – that women have used either to fulfill a standard of beauty or to paint against the grain. The book is peppered with enormous, stunning photographs and painting reproductions that might be displayed as art, rendering the large, luxurious hard cover book itself an object d’art. Moreover, the book’s visual quality acts as a sales-pitch, an advertisement for makeup. The photographs of the cosmetics – an array of unique powder compacts, blush, and lipstick bullets that had initially kindled Eldridge’s fascination with makeup art – are prominently displayed to exhibit makeup’s artistic function not only in regard to its application, its content, but also in regard to its form. Makeup recommends itself as an object of beauty that, as has been established by various philosophers, we long to possess. Yet while the book centralizes the historical elements, the correlation between the prevailing view of makeup and the relative freedom of women reappears in various guises, half-concealed in between the main threads of the text.
From chapter to chapter, Eldridge returns to her discovery that “the freedom and rights accorded to women during a given period are very closely linked to the freedom with which they painted their faces,” the examples of which recur throughout history. For instance, unlike the barefaced women of later centuries, ancient “Egyptian women,” particularly fond of strong makeup, “actually had a fair amount of autonomy.” From ancient Greece through roughly the First World War, cosmetics had faced various forms of censure, and the fashion of their application was largely determined by men’s discourse on women’s decorum. Eldridge uncovers a great deal of inflammatory writing by men about makeup practices in ancient Greece, “especially by the male elite who believed that a woman’s main role in life was to be virtuous and stay in the house and oversee its running.” Indeed, makeup has often been associated with the dangers of a woman’s body, and suppressing her attention to physical beauty was intended to restrict the woman’s carnal life. Throughout the ages, makeup was also deemed a sin, a vice, or was classified with other forms of immodesty, the implication being that women’s reluctance to hide, their wish to be attended to, was a violation of etiquette and good breeding. Additionally, critics often expressed the view that beauty products were a form of deception. The ancient Greek author Xenophon, in his Oeconomicus, argued that the dishonesty of rouge was its ability to give the appearance of blood-flow to the cheeks, signifying virility and health even in subjects who lacked them. The logic behind this argument was that women’s bodies were supposed to serve an important function in their desirability as wives and mothers, and men wanted to be certain that women were as attractive and healthy as they appeared at first sight. Eldridge also demonstrates the reverse of this pattern, revealing a link between makeup use and the autonomy of women:
An exception to this rule was the [ancient Greek] hetaerae, or courtesans, who generally wore a lot more makeup, and were, ironically, afforded more rights. They were also allowed to attend the symposia and control their own money. Interestingly, courtesans, professional mistresses, and prostitutes being afforded more freedom and power than other women (in addition to wearing more makeup) is a pattern that has repeated throughout the ages.
Men’s writing on cosmetics and decorum greatly affected how women wore their makeup. In ancient Greece, the fashionable look – that is, the socially-determined trend – was to keep makeup to a minimum, potentially applying a light layer of powder and filling in the brows to meet, Frida Kahlo style, over the bridge of the nose. Similarly, throughout history, the color of the skin was fashioned to conform to social (read: men’s) expectations. In the chapter called, “White: The Politics and Power of Pale,” Eldridge examines the “wide-ranging and cross-cultural tradition of lightening one’s skin in order to fit into a beauty-based, cultural, or social ideal.” Women – from Japanese Geishas to Renaissance nobility – painted or powdered their faces to appear lighter in skin tone, which was deemed the color of prestige, conveying that the women were not “forced to work outdoors” where they could be exposed to the sun’s rays. Makeup functioned as a mode of self-representation, yet its signification was determined by public opinion. A lot of the ingredients used to lighten the face and neck were toxic and would result in damage to the skin, or indeed in a shorter lifespan, signifying that the dominant ideological stance on a woman’s appearance functioned as a kind of incarceration both of her body and of her spirit.
Not surprisingly, Eldridge declares that as women attained more rights, the responses to cosmetics also evolved, as did the beauty trends. The two World Wars functioned as a turning point in the social status of women and their makeup. Undertaking men’s jobs while the latter were sent to the front, women experienced “a previously unheard-of sense of social and financial independence,” and in accordance with the pattern, “cosmetics were not untouched by this change, shifting from being something that must be used covertly to something to be proud of…” For the first time,
Democratized and empowered, young women used makeup to express themselves and set themselves apart from their mothers and grandmothers for whom makeup had been frowned upon; suddenly they could emulate their screen idols and have fun doing so.
Cosmetics enabled women to display their self-determination: wearing makeup represented the very ability to wear it. The production of a great deal of beauty products and glamorous campaigns directed toward women coincided with their increasing independence. While in the 1930s, eyeshadow was advertised in a prescriptive way based on the color of the eyes, by the 1960s, “as women became more liberated and the old rules began to seem less relevant,” palettes with various colors started to be produced and released on the market, “encourag[ing] the consumer to have fun, be creative, and make their own rules.” The more freedom women attained, the fewer beauty rules they had to follow.
Moreover, as Eldridge illustrates, makeup, an assertion of women’s autonomy, became associated with the women’s rights movement and revolutionary spirit in general, for while “campaigning for the right to vote at a march in New York in 1912,” ladies “defiantly paint[ed] their mouths bright red.” And considering the political and social role of lipstick, the larger implication of Eldridge’s findings is that the significance of makeup is its communicative function. Since the earliest cases, face and body painting was performed as part of a “ritual,” “protection,” or to denote one’s “allegiance” to a certain group. Yet the communicative properties of makeup became more prominent with the rise of Hollywood, particularly before the development of the talkie films when maquillage was used to enhance the actors’ facial expressions in order to relay the personality of the characters. And much like today, women recreated the makeup look of their favorite character type, identifying themselves with the seductive vamp or “the carefree flapper.”
This suggests that beyond its aesthetic purpose, the function of makeup is to communicate one’s internal traits, or more subtly and significantly, to represent the self. In effect, identity is established by emphasizing certain attributes, while camouflaging others, which is the chief principal of makeup art. Face paint is a tool through which identity can be performed. Eldridge discusses several historical examples of women who forged the self through the application of cosmetics. Madonna, “a chameleon and master of reinvention,” as Eldridge refers to her, has been well aware of her active role in inventing her persona: “I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.” And everyone, irrespective of sex or gender, should have the right, without conforming to a culturally-based ideal, to transform his or her body into a work of art that communicates internal life.
However, considering the proclivity to imitate the makeup looks of celebrities, both during the rise of Hollywood and today, yet another form of criticism leveled against makeup is that of feminist thinkers who have argued that rather than enabling them to represent their unique identity, the makeup industry forces women to conform to a limiting and exclusive ideal of beauty. Eldridge questions whether beauty in the “cyber age” erases the lines between its different incarnations, for “there is a move toward a homogenized, globalized beauty ideal, where perfection is more important than individuality.” Whether they are imitating the beauty routine of a certain actress or pursuing a look of “digitally enhanced flawless perfection,” have the historical restrictions on women’s self-representation merely taken a new form? Eldridge concludes her book by responding to the question in an optimistic way. She argues that the “extreme, almost cartoonish flawless look” is only one look among many that women today can don, and so long as various different looks are acceptable and deemed beautiful, makeup “can be a means of empowerment.” Moreover, the argument that the beauty industry prescriptively forces people to forsake the genuine self overlooks that identity is not an immutable quality but is in a constant state of flux. And like clothing, the different makeup looks created daily allow us to perform the various selves ever in motion within us. In the illuminating words of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, “a new or modified skin is a new or modified personality.” The face is thus a medium, a blank slate that enables us every morning to embody the multi-dimensional self.
While somewhat concealing its object, Eldridge’s book functions as an implicit response to the censure of cosmetics, creating an alternate narrative to that of critics who deem makeup practice a form of conformity, indecorousness, or deception – a prejudice that, as the story of the Algerian man and his bride illustrates, has yet to be fully overcome. Eldridge’s discussion of history insinuates the argument that painting the face is a subversive act, an expression of freedom, which must be extended to men and women alike. Women have the right to wear makeup today, because they should not be afraid to be seen, not be afraid that their modesty might be called into question, constructing their own etiquette guidelines. And as the disapproval of makeup has in part functioned as an attempt at suppressing women’s sexuality, its employment must be recognized as a demonstration of the woman’s autonomy over her body, of the prerogative to exhibit a carnal life. The implication of Eldridge’s reading of history is that as a progressive society, we must be most accepting of women’s self-expression, for history renders the practice of makeup art a feminist statement.
While her tone is generally objective, Eldridge periodically smirks at the nature of makeup criticism, remarking that despite the prevailing historical view that cosmetics were a form of deception, often “men secretly appreciated the effects of makeup when applied well and discretely.” As John Donne observed, “What thou lovest in her face is colour, and painting gives that, but thou hatest it, not because it is, but because thou knowest it.” Eldridge thus illustrates that when railing against cosmetics, critics cared less that they were being deceived than that the deception was not skillful enough. And the response of the Algerian newlywed to his bride’s bare face is a clear example of this hypocritical position on cosmetics: he does not like his wife au naturale, wishing instead that she would fulfill his ideal of beauty, which evidently requires the art of makeup, yet he simultaneously longs to remain ignorant of the fact. He desires that a woman have the appearance of art while concealing the artistry. Consequently, the true source of his discontent is not the deception, but that he was disabused of the illusion, that the artist, to borrow a phrase from Picasso, could not convince him of the truthfulness of her lies.
Jane Shmidt is a Ph.D. candidate of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches English and Russian literature at Hunter College and City College. She is working on a dissertation that examines the subject of lovesickness in medicine and literature.