Women’s beauty has long been policed and dictated by men. Standards and styles have changed, public opinion about who should and shouldn’t wear make up has continually shifted, and the penalties or praise received by those who choose to use cosmetics have varied, but one thing has remained the same: Makeup makes the wearer powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it has inspired witch hunts and struck fear in the hearts of men across the world over the centuries. It still does, in fact – as is evidenced by the unsolicited comments women receive online when men think they wear too much of it. Let’s explore makeup as a magical art by looking back over its tempestuous history to understand why it’s still so powerful today.
Makeup-fearing men in modern times
Any woman who’s ever touched a device connected to the internet will have come across the term “cat-fishing” – and noticed the way it’s used to accuse women of making themselves look more beautiful with makeup on than they are without.
For some reason, the men who post comments accusing women of deceiving them with the help of mascara and lipgloss seem to believe that they’ve somehow been wronged when that woman has exercised her power to transform her face (a power which isn’t exclusively granted to women, by the way, but which most men seem to pass up for whatever reason, poor dears).
Isn’t it bizarre that these men are able to believe that we all wake up with two inch eyelashes, glittery cheekbones and bright red lips, and then have the audacity to accuse the women in question of being in the wrong?
At first, it seems baffling that these men, too afraid to embrace the transformational magic of make up themselves, feel entitled to provide their opinions about it at all. It’s actually not that bizarre or surprising though, if one considers the fact that men have always had a say in female beauty standards. The defensiveness displayed by insecure men when they encounter a woman who refuses to conform to their wishes is a clear sign of fear – fear about their loss of control over women, and fear about the power it implies.
Where does this fear of makeup come from?
To understand the root of much of the fear surrounding makeup, let’s look at the more specific example of lipstick.
The colourful history of lipstick starts about 5000 years ago, with a Sumerian Queen, who lived in modern day Iraq, and spread from there to Egypt and then to Greece. It was here that the politics – and many of the regulations– surrounding cosmetics began.
In a paper titled Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power Sarah Schaffer describes how lipstick became associated with prostitution in ancient Greece. “In what would become a prominent pattern in lipstick regulation, this first lipstick law focused on lipstick’s potential deception of men and undermining of class divides rather than on its safety for women. Under Greek law, prostitutes who appeared in public either at the wrong hours or without their designated lip paint and other makeup could be punished for improperly posing as ladies,” she writes.
So, basically as far back as ancient Greece men could be stupidly fooled by a little make-up into believing somebody was a completely different person, and this terrified them. They were afraid that they might fall or the wrong women and blur their class divides if women didn’t stick to wearing the makeup they deemed appropriate for their specific group. In a pattern that’s depressingly familiar, instead of making an effort to change themselves, the men who controlled society decided to blame the women and squash their personal expression with rules and regulations
Makeup, and lipstick in particular, then underwent cyclical dips and peaks throughout the rise of the Roman empire, and the Dark Ages. In some societies it demoted the upper classes, while in others it was commonly worn by the lower working classes. In many, it was worn by both men and women for considerable periods of time. That is, until the men got all nervous about it once again. At the start of the Middle Ages, religious criticism of lipstick gained widespread momentum, and since then, persecution for various reasons has been relatively common.
Makeup as powerful magic through the ages
In their book, Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven, Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman discuss some very real historical laws dictated how women used make-up, if they were allowed to at all .
“According to historian Jessica Pallington,” they write, ” in medieval England ‘a woman who wore make-up was seen as an incarnation of Satan’ because she was changing the face that God gave her”. Lip tattooing was outright outlawed.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500s, England saw a massive rise in the popularity of lipstick, with many women across the country trying to emulate the queen, who herself believed it had lifesaving powers. At one point, lipstick was so valuable that Schaffer writes of it being used as a substitute for cash.
“On the other hand, however,” she writes, “this belief in lipstick’s magical force caused the cosmetic to provoke the wrath of church and also state. Pictures of devils putting lipstick on women appeared often, and women frequently had to address their lipstick use at confession. One prominent text declared cosmetics usage a mortal sin unless done ‘to remedy severe disfigurement or so as to be not looked down upon by [one’s] husband'”.
Again, formal regulations were introduced to control women’s use of cosmetics, with Parliament passing a regulation declaring the use makeup to deceive Englishmen into marriage punishable as a form of witchcraft.
And this wasn’t only a European condition, nor was it void of double standards. Saxena and Zimmerman write that “in the 1700s in America, a man could have his marriage annulled if his wife had worn cosmetics during courtship – although in France at that time, going bare-faced was considered acceptable only for prostitutes.”
Women began to resort to more clandestine methods of attaining and applying less obvious cosmetics. “Clandestine beauty establishments at which one could buy lip rouge survived based on discretion; women would arrive veiled, get ushered into individual private rooms, and then smuggle their purchases back home for hiding,” writes Schaffer. Some also turned to non-cosmetic methods to enhance their appearance – such as biting their lips to make them redder, and doing “lip calisthenics” to plum them up. It’s no wonder, with all this sneaking around and forming secret communities of women, that the male fear of makeup as dangerous magic only persisted.
“Even after the age of literal witch hunts,” write Saxena and Zimmerman, “makeup remained a lightning rod for issues of politics, class and morality. By the 1910s in America, bright red lipstick became a symbol of defiance and women’s emancipation.”
Though it still symbolised femininity, as it had for ages, in the early 20th century lipstick became closely associated with the suffragette movement. Women began to publicly apply red lipstick in both America and England with the sole purpose of shocking and riling up the men around them. It was seen as so terrifying, in fact, that again it was almost banned by the male officials of the New York Board of Health in 1924.
Once lipstick had become a symbol for equality and female strength, there was no going back. Even today, bold lips can pack a punch, and lipstick has been used in contemporary movements which echo the suffragette movement. In Nicaragua in 2018, women and men wore red lipstick and posted photos of themselves on social media in an effort to show their support for the release of anti-government protesters. In December 2019, nearly 10,000 Chilean women took to the streets with blindfolds, red scarves, and painted red lips to to protest against sexual violence.
No matter the era, all the flack women receive about make up boils down to the same thing: men not wanting women to be in control of their own bodies.
It seems obvious to me, that something that has been so influential in societies across the globe, been despised and feared by so many, and yet has persisted until today must be magical. They called women witches for transforming their faces back when cosmetics were made up of ingredients like chalk and berries, so just imagine how powerful makeup users are now, with a multitude of colours, textures and application techniques at our finger tips. Our power has only grown.
Paint that bold lip. Go wild with the colour on your eyes. There’s something phenomenally powerful about a woman (or a man, actually) who does what she (or he) pleases, and paints her (or his!) face how she (or he) likes, despite the opinions of makeup fearing mysoginists – and that’s some real modern-day magic.
If you want to learn more about this kind of modern-day witchcraft, you can get Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven, here. Though this isn’t a sponsored post, but buying from this link will also support our publication!
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