When it comes to special occasions like birthdays, New Year’s Eve, Christmas parties, and so on, it’s considered perfectly normal for people to dress up a bit more than usual, which often includes a more elaborate beauty look than the normal day-to-day one. Journalist and author Jessica DeFino believes the psychological drive for these maximalist beauty looks is the concept of self, as a “birthday is considered a celebration of one’s self, and cosmetics are sold to us as tools of self-care, self-expression, and self-empowerment.” Since the beginning of the year there has been an influx of TikTok users, mostly men, suddenly having a lot to say on the topic of “birthday makeup” (i.e., more elaborate maximalist makeup worn on special occasions), and it's predominantly negative. The phrase “birthday makeup” has been weaponized and used as a form of shaming people online, deeming them inauthentic, specifically women. Videos on the social media platform see men complain about being seen with their girlfriends when they have “birthday makeup” or feature podcasters making jokes about women’s appearances comparing their eye makeup to "raccoons." However, the natural no makeup-makeup looks that men frequently romanticize and praise are highly curated and fine-tuned. While men often don’t realize it because no bold or bright colors or glitters are being used, these looks can contain the same amount of products or effort expended as more extravagant looks.
There's a complex history of makeup use and what it signifies. In ancient Greece, women were discouraged from wearing lipstick as only sex workers wore it in public. In England in the 1500s, it was believed makeup held magical powers, and it was said that Queen Elizabeth I applied lipstick when she felt ill as it was thought lipstick could repel death. Naturally this created uproar among the church and the state, leading to Parliament passing a law that the use of makeup was both a sign of witchcraft and responsible for deceiving men into marriage, making wearers liable for punishment. In Victorian times sex workers were referred to as “painted women” and makeup was considered predominantly for sex workers and actresses. However, women of the period still wore makeup, but it was imperative it appear natural; cheeks had to look flushed, lips appeared bitten rather than fully painted, and eyebrows were lightly plucked and darkened.
Even in the 21st century sentiment exists that using makeup is misleading; the meme “take her swimming on the first date” (referring to the fact the water will remove all the heavy makeup) became popular in the mid-2010s. In 2017, YouGov America found 63% of men thought women mainly wear makeup to trick people into thinking they’re attractive.
DeFino suggests that “maybe men don’t enjoy obvious aesthetic intervention because it exposes both beauty and womanhood as constructs. If ‘femininity’ as defined by capitalist gender norms—naturally beautiful, good, pure, submissive and that the patriarchal gaze sees women as existing solely to service men and their desires. Men may not consciously think this, of course—but it’s embedded within us as part of patriarchal cultural conditioning." The use of beauty products violates the code of ethics that has trickled down across history that sees “good” women conceal “the labor they perform to make the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood seem natural," whereas a “bad” woman whose makeup is obvious “exposes the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood as unnatural.”
The negative online discourse around “birthday makeup” does not acknowledge the feelings of the women that are being slandered and why they may want to or enjoy wearing maximalist makeup. Makeup artist and founder of ISAMAYA, Isamaya Ffrench, explained to BeautyMatter that makeup is akin to “when actors explain that clothes help them get into their character” and that wearers “can highlight different aspects of their personality when they experiment with makeup, it’s so much fun. It’s also very empowering in the sense that it helps a lot of people to face the rest of the world, a bit like wearing a shield, and that can be addictive.” Brands like ISAMAYA and MAC were built on the joy of experimentation and bold makeup looks for the everyday consumer.
While at first glance this discourse may seem just related to beauty, it actually links to the debate around misogyny as a whole. DeFino explains that “misogynist society seeks to control women’s bodies. This is reflected in recent laws limiting abortion, the abortion pill, and trans people’s access to medical care. The coerced adherence to beauty standards—coerced because adherence to beauty standards often confers political, financial, and social capital—is just another way misogynist society exerts this control.”
In response to the online debate, some women have made a point to show their birthday makeup looks with pride, whereas across the overall landscape of beauty, DeFino identifies the emergence of “post-male gaze” beauty standards that cater to what she identifies as the “sale gaze,” which is “an over-the-top aesthetic signaling wealth, accumulation, excessive product use, and the general funneling of money into one’s face.” This aesthetic can be seen in recent trends such as bimbofication, bleached brows, and succubus chic.
Some would argue that misogyny surrounding makeup has decreased over the years—after all, wearing makeup isn’t illegal anymore—but why is there a cyclical debate every few years that sees men openly shaming women for their use of makeup? These men often face no repercussions and gain views, supportive comments, and a sense of comradery from other men online. It’s important to note that almost two-thirds of executives in the beauty industry are men, and it’s men who are the culprits behind the “birthday makeup” trend. The beauty industry can be known to play into tactics that make female consumers feel insecure, therefore leading to them buying cosmetic products, whereas with ISAMAYA, Ffrench states she wants to focus on creating “great products, but above all I want the vision of the brand to inspire as a whole.” When it comes to the opinions of the patriarchal gaze, she responds: “Just avoid people who can’t let you be, whether that’s men or women.”
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