Why Wearing Makeup Is Not a Waste of Time – TeenVogue.com
In this op-ed, Lara Witt explores the power of makeup and explains why looking in a mirror is not a waste of time.
I remember being 12 years old and sitting on the couch in the room my mother kept as her boudoir; I loved to watch her get ready for dinner dates with my father. I was fascinated by her ritual: carefully applying foundation onto her deep brown skin with her fingertips, lining her eyes with black powder, and sweeping plum-colored blush onto her cheeks. I was entranced and enamored by the steps of beautification. It was a quiet celebration of her already lovely features. Watching my mother’s process became a way for me to come into my own ideas of femininity and beauty as I grew up.
Makeup became a part of my life when I was in my early teens. I would break into my mother’s collection of Estée Lauder and Guerlain and haphazardly apply navy eye shadow and smush lurid stripes of blush onto my face. It was fun and I got better at it as the years went on. It gave me another way to express myself and learn about the way I could change my appearance. As a biracial teen, I learned how to love my features and amplify my eyes and lips. I would tear out ads from magazines featuring Liya Kebede and try to paint out higher cheekbones. It felt like art, I felt like art and most importantly, it was a way for me to bond with my mother — with whom my relationship had always been complex and strained.
So when author Zadie Smith’s comments about makeup went viral recently, my ears immediately perked up. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Zadie said she limits her daughter’s time in front of the mirror to 15 minutes: “I explained it to her in these terms: You are wasting time, your brother is not going to waste any time doing this,’ she said. “Every day of his life he will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a sh*t if you waste an hour and a half doing your makeup.”
To be clear, Zadie Smith’s statements are valid and her parenting choices are her own to make — but I realized that her comments unearth a greater societal problem with how we view femininity and the expressions attached to it. My own evolution with makeup is perhaps unique, but I was lucky enough to learn about the male gaze early on in my teens because I had feminist teachers and family members who taught me about what sexism looked like. And while I may not have had the words then to describe sexism and the misogyny attached to makeup and the beauty industry, I understood that I shouldn’t do anything for anyone but myself and for my own pleasure.
As a biracial girl, learning about the male gaze and why I chose to wear makeup was essential because I needed to know whether I was wearing it for myself, or making myself more appealing to the white and male gaze. Conventional ideas of beauty have been dominated by eurocentric standards and anti-blackness, and some of our choices can be affected by these perceptions of ourselves through white standards of beauty and sexist expectations of what we should look like.
When I was 19 years old, makeup became even more important for me as a victim of sexual assault because the ability to change how I looked was how I reclaimed parts of myself that had been ripped away from me. After the assault, I struggled with years of self-loathing and self-destruction. I felt like parts of my body weren’t mine anymore;I felt like it was easy for someone to come along and control what I did and who I was as a person. I struggled with finding therapy and I began to compartmentalize and ignore my pain. Makeup was how I began reconstructing myself through the control I wielded with brushes, colors and textures. Makeup helped me reclaim myself and it was never, and still isn’t, a waste of my time. Anything that makes me feel good about myself, anything that makes anyone feel amazing about themselves, is never a waste of time.
Whether we notice it or not, sexism can teach us to devalue parts of ourselves that are restrictively coded as feminine or “girly” like makeup, fashion, “chick flicks”, communicating emotions and even celebrity culture. If it is seen as being something that women do, then it becomes less valid or worthy of praise. Fields that were historically dominated by women, like computer programing, only become valuable professional endeavors when men became a part of the field in the 1960s. We already demonize aspects of womanhood and shame boys if they enjoy makeup and dolls. That kind of binarist thinking of activities has to end and whether we notice it or not, sexism permeates how we view makeup.
Those of us who do love makeup and beauty are celebrating ourselves in different ways beyond gendered constructs and expressions. Makeup is always going to be a part of my life, not just because I like how I look with it on, but my beauty ritual is deeply enjoyable and a quiet, intimate moment for me. Makeup can be a valid form of expression for anyone — and I will keep reclaiming parts of myself and be grateful for my mother’s lessons in beauty. They are a part of who I am and I love it.