Makeup Activism: Resistance Through Beauty

I’m not going to lie, when I got into makeup it was for shallow reasons. Remember all those Shout magazines that said if you just covered those abominable dark circles you’d look and feel so much better?  Turns out what I actually needed was some sleep and therapy. These days I have a much deeper appreciation for my dark circles – for makeup too. The recent explosion of the beauty industry alongside the evolution of feminism and social media has recentered conversations about beauty and personal care to include social justice.

"Makeup is so much more than just simple paint on the skin. It is one of the oldest forms of art, communication, coding/decoding, social pressure, self expression etc. It has so many layers, the goal is to make people aware of that."
Eszter Magyar
@makeupbrutalism Founder

The most controversial makeup product has to be red lipstick. It had been and to a certain extent is still associated with sex work, loose women and promiscuous behaviour. From the Suffragettes fighting for the right to vote,  to Alexandra Ocasio Cortez bam baing with the political big boys to women protesting femicide in Chile, red lipstick is the ultimate badge of resistance for women. There is power in femininity and wearing something that has historically been used to shame us at the frontlines of pivotal change for women is the prettiest middle finger to the patriarchy I’ve ever seen. 

Beauty rituals were also used as a form of colonial resistance among women in Africa. In South Mozambique, the art of scarrification known as Tinhlanga was originally used to reflect on agrarian social change and to assert the importance of female affiliations in a male-dominated society. When the Portuguese arrived, the persistence of Tinhlanga challenged their missionary efforts to implant “civilization” through new standards of feminine beauty and bodily adornment.

Time and time again in histories about women on the front lines, people talk about how their  lipstick or perfume kept them sane in discomforting situations. A few years ago, my friend was in Kwale filming a project for an NGO where shegot to interact with the women and girls for over two weeks. On the last dayone of the youngest girls walked up to her – in full glam– and asked to do her makeup. She chose a sparkly green eyeshadow and lined their eyes with some homemade kajal her and her grandma cooked up. Topping it all off with a bold red lip. Sometimes in dire circumstances beautification rituals can bring a lot of peace, for some people it’s the only control they have.

Beyond the dance challenges and thirst traps of TikTok, there is  heavy discourse happening across the political spectrum and beauty bloggers are getting in on it. They saw that videos with beauty content were less likely to be flagged and so used that to their advantage. Everything from racial discrimination, #EndSARS, toxic masculinity and talks on gun reform have been addressed while applying the perfect cat eye.

Make-Up is a great way to grasp people’s attention and spread messages. It’s a non-threatening and a non-aggressive way to speak to all kinds of people, even those who don’t enjoy beauty. art is art and people love to see art”
Purple Haze
@purplehazemue

At the risk of sounding biased, the progression of makeup is pretty fucking cool. As we enter an age of unprecedented digital development, we have also entered the age of surveillance capitalism. Cameras are everywhere studying our faces and cataloging them without our consent, and makeup has become a key tool to combat this. It’s called Computer Vision (CV) Dazzle and the concept is inspired by dazzle camouflage used in WWI and WWII, and through artistic makeup and  asymmetric hair people are distorting their facial features to throw off the recognition algorithms.   

From Mozambique to Chile to Vietnam, makeup and beauty practices are being used as a form of protest and resistance towards violence committed against women and minorities alike.For many people beauty as empowerment is used in an act of refusal to be undone by the world. Doing your makeup on a day where you feel like garbage can be a declaration that you will not let your spirit be broken. Sometimes we need beauty to help us navigate the scariest and ugliest parts of our lives. Beauty is political  and we have to  define it for ourselves because there’s no  right way to be beautiful or use make up.

Footnotes
  1. Eden Noronha, “Beauty Activism Has Empowered so Many People to Speak Their Truth,” femina.in, August 17, 2021, https://www.femina.in/beauty/make-up/protesting-through-beauty-activism-has-madeachangeintheworld-203175-2.html.
  2. Heidi Gengenbach, “Boundaries of Beauty: Tattooed Secrets of Women’s History in Magude District, Southern Mozambique,” Journal of Women’s History 14, no. 4 (2003): 106–41, https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2003.0007.
  3. (Noronha 2021)
  4. Ibid