Story by Elizabeth Thai, Guest Writer
I don’t wear much creative makeup anymore. I miss it, but I can’t be bothered to deal with the backlash, the rolled eyes, misinterpretations of low self-esteem, etc. In fact, I have to feel particularly confident to don the bold looks I like to create, and still, I almost feel ashamed—how could I rationally defend putting myself up for scrutiny and backlash again?
There is a tendency to expect, and I argue, prefer makeup that conceals its very existence such that it looks like one is not wearing any at all, but ineffably glowing. This I call natural makeup. I contrast this against any makeup style that deviates from this sense of realism in a conscious and bold manner that is unusual or in some other way striking. This, I call creative makeup. It is often marked by bold liners and striking colors, but is ultimately defined by one’s own motivation for the design. Such motivations often include intellectualizing and visualizing an artist’s emotion, or ‘going for a certain vibe.’
I used to cringe at the thought of natural makeup. I viewed one’s desire to pass off as naturally looking like an enhanced version of oneself as ‘fake’, or ‘boring’ at best. Sometimes, I still recoil at the lack of creativity when I, weary of the misattribution of personality traits (superficial) and lifestyle habits (clubber), stick to a neutral palette of just three colors: browns, blacks and a bit of pink. I know, harsh. But such was my retaliation against a restricted sense of beauty; one that I have been told to pursue rather than being compelled to, all for the name of being accepted. In my mind, there was no such distinction as everyday makeup and creative makeup; every day I wanted to play with the striking blues, reds and greens reserved for models in magazines. Despite vanity being sinful and creativity being ostensibly valued in an era of fashion marked by individual style, the desire to look attractive is more acceptable than the desire to be creative.
While I mostly wear makeup for myself, a part of me wears makeup for others, simply not for the reasons they would expect: to challenge and expand their concept of beauty. While saying that I wear makeup for myself might excuse my deviations from others’ concepts of beauty, eliciting a ‘you-do-you’ kind of attitude, it does not change the systemic discrimination against people who don creative makeup. My problem with this is twofold: Firstly, wearing makeup, no matter how bold or unusual, should not need to be excused; secondly, if the sole purpose of makeup is the enhancement of one’s looks, we preclude anything that does not align with one’s natural-born features from being considered beautiful. Isn’t our own inability to access certain kinds of beauty the very reason we sometimes dismiss it? Yet, through the appreciation of a restricted normative use of makeup we are perpetuating the inaccessibility of non-mainstream beauty.
Natural beauty itself is too often drawn from a narrow concept of acceptable mainstream beauty, and often biased towards Western standards. A disproportionate number of top models globally as well as in Asia have Euro-centric features—even Asia’s Next Top Model is over-represented by Eurasians. In judging makeup by its ability to assist us in conforming to a mainstream concept of beauty, we turn makeup from a tool of self-expression to one of societal oppression. In accepting the limits on beauty set by the fashion industry and social norms, we reify their systemic discrimination against those who do not fit within these limits. We cannot simultaneously blame the fashion industry and social norms for excluding us from feeling beautiful while we do the same to others.
I understand the importance of being sensitive to one’s environment, especially in the context of work where the pressure to adhere to specific (and often more conservative) requirements for appearance form part of one’s perceived professional responsibility. Some have argued that at school, they would like to focus on intellectual expression rather than physical appearances. I am not sure how this is at odds with wearing makeup and would in fact add that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. But, outside of theatre or fashion shows, it seems that there is no appropriate context for donning creative makeup except for the comfort of one’s own home.
Why must creative makeup be relegated to the private sphere? We recognize the creativity of other forms of (bodily) artistry such as tattoos, piercings and alternative hairstyles. makeup is not even afforded the artistic status to be able to provoke or reflect political change. makeup is like modern art, but without the benefit of assumed intellectual standing: pretty at best and complete rubbish at worst, but always empty.
The insult is made worse when the face is the canvas of rubbish and the person behind it is condemned for not only bad taste, but also bad moral character—the grossly extrapolated insult of being ‘whore-like’ is as much defined by appearance as by any act. To give an example, a friend recently remarked that a girl wearing heavy makeup looked like a whore, with the implication that the essence of what made her whore-like lay in the over-the-top makeup she was wearing and not any sexual history he was aware about. The viewer’s own lack of sophistication and failure to appreciate is not even an option.
If my last article was about being able to wear makeup and others being able to tolerate it, then this one is about being able to fully explore makeup and others being able to interpret it. Beauty should not be limited to mimesis and people should allow themselves to be enriched by the unexpected and the unusual.
If we are to take artistic status to lie in intention, then yes, sometimes makeup is not art. But, why impose this role on makeup rather than look for ways to expand our concept of beauty and find it in unexpected places? My point is that before judging others for not conforming to our expectations of beauty, we should check ourselves and ask how we can expand our definition of beauty to meet theirs. We don’t have to find everything beautiful, but the point is to not let our conceptions of beauty be limited by society’s narrow definition. For this way, the world becomes a more beautiful place, both in thought and in appearance.