Sunday, 30 August 2015

Madrid National Archaeology Museum: Greek gender roles and female invisibility

Ancient Greek women doing house chores (author unknown to me)
A couple of days ago I visited the local National Archaeology museum again, so today's post will be about Ancient Greece, and I'll be writing about the intense gender inequality of ancient Greek society, mostly by commenting the exhibit quotes and descriptions.

 The exhibit descriptions seem to have been written, in general, with the aim of critisizing the intense misoginy and strict gender binary of the ancient Greek society - Which is a good thing, sexism in history should be taken into account and critisized way more often. Especially when we're dealing with a society that's often way too romanticized and where women were recluded to the home, stripped of practically any human rights and relegated to the traditionally 'feminine' roles of house activities, making themselves beautiful for their husbands, and child-bearing. 

But of course, nothing is perfect: The first thing I'd like to critisize about the Greek area of the museum is that there are some examples of sexism by omission in the Spanish versions of some of these descriptions, by referring to the whole of humankind with only male terms: 'Man' vs 'Human', two words which shouldn't be synonyms. 'Man' used in this context is exclusive, seeing as there's no mention of women in the wording. Also, they take gender into account, which isn't necessary, either (the term 'human' doesn't include a gender connotation) - Not only is this excluding women, but people who identify as agender, non-binary and genderqueer as well. And lastly, it introduces ambiguity, because sometimes 'man' used in this context could be read as 'male' - and in a description about gender roles, ambiguity is even the more probable.

Sexism by omission and sexist language: The problem of  'man' as a general term (Source
Another thing I'd like to comment about the Greek exhibit descriptions is that sometimes the texts don't seem to critisize the misogynistic and gender biased aspects of the society as strongly or non-ambiguously as I think they should, and this could be problematic. Given that some statements seem to be written in a purely neutral way, or simply devoid of any direct criticism, they could be interpreted quite literally by people who don't exactly come to the museum to question their patriarchal-based and gender-biased upbringing. Like another blogger said here, people could easily read quotes such as 'I am grateful for being born a man and not a woman', displayed devoid of connotations against the inherent sexism of the quote, as a continued assertion of male superiority rather than as a feminist criticism of the sexism among the Ancient Greeks. In these cases, I think we need direct criticism, not subtlety.  

  • The sexism of the Greek gender binary
Entering into the Greek section of the museum, we are greeted by a statue of Apollo accompanied by this quote (translation below):

"Doy gracias al Destino,
por ser hombre (un ser humano) y no animal,
por ser varón y no mujer,
 por ser griego y no bárbaro
 (Diógenes Laercio I, 34)"

(Sobre la tradución española: La palabra 'hombre' es usada incorrectamente en lugar de 'ser humano', ejemplo de sexismo por omisión en el lenguaje. Además, en el original griego se diferencia entre 'humano' (ἄνθρωπος, "ánthropos"), la palabra usada en esta cita, y 'varón' (ἀνήρ, "anḗr"). En la traducción inglesa (ver abajo), se traduce correctamente como 'human being'. 

Por otro lado, la referencia a la obra está inacabada: Vida de los filósofos más ilustres, I, 34)

"Hermippus in his Lives refers to Thales the story which is told by some of Socrates, namely, that he used to say there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: "first, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian." [34] "

(Source: Tales de Mileto (ambiguo) citado por Diógenes Laercio en Vida de los filósofos más ilustres I, 34 /Thales of Miletus (ambiguous) quoted by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 34)

And the Greek original:

Ἕρμιππος δ᾽ ἐν τοῖς Βίοις εἰς τοῦτον ἀναφέρει τὸ λεγόμενον ὑπό τινων περὶ Σωκράτους. ἔφασκε γάρ, φασί, τριῶν τούτων ἕνεκα χάριν ἔχειν τῇ Τύχῃ: πρῶτον μὲν ὅτι ἄνθρωπος ἐγενόμην καὶ οὐ θηρίον, εἶτα ὅτι ἀνὴρ καὶ οὐ γυνή, τρίτον ὅτι Ἕλλην καὶ οὐ βάρβαρος. 16 [34] (Source)

Alongside the statue of Apollo and this magnificently narrow-minded quote, a gem from ancient times indeed, we find texts seemingly critisizing the quote by commenting on 'men', 'women' (both the traditional role and the antithetic role of the Scythian Amazons in 'mythology'), 'animals', and 'foreigners':

"El hombre:
El varón define su identidad a través de conductas que entiende como virtudes. Debe ser agresivo, competitivo, autocontrolado, sociable y respetuoso con los dioses, excelente en suma. Los inmortales, espejo del comportamiento masculino, encarnan estas virtudes en su más alta expresión."

"Men:
The male defined his identity through forms of behaviour which were regarded as virtues: He was supposed to be agressive, competitive, self-disciplined, sociable and respectful to the gods. In sum, he was to be excellent. The immortals - the mirror of male conduct - embodied these virtues in their highest form of expression."



"La mujer:
El mundo femenino representa una amenaza, podría subvertir el orden del varón. La mujer se concibe como irracional y caótica, un ser que se deja llevar por sus impulsos y emociones. Necesita ser socializada a través de la educación y el matrimonio. Sólo el hombre puede inculcar los valores de la femineidad domesticada. Es el contrapunto social."

"Women:
The female world represented a threat, something with the potential to undermine the order of men. Women were regarded as irrational, deranged creatures who allowed themselves to be carried away by their impulses and emotions and had to be socialized through education and marriage. Only men were equipped to inculcate the values of domesticated femininity. Women were the social counter-model."



"Las Amazonas:
Mujeres guerreras que viven en los confines orientales del mundo, las Amazonas rechazan vivir bajo el dominio masculino. Representan la alteridad absoluta frente a la mujer sometida y a la convivencia ordenada de la sociedad griega. Son mujeres salvajes y bárbaras. Son el contramodelo mítico."

"The Amazons:
The Amazons were female warriors who lived at the eastern ends of the world and refused to live under male domination. They represented absolute otherness, the opposite of domesticated women and the orderly coexistence of Greek society. Wild and barbaric, these women were the mythical counter-model."


"The scene depicts the struggle between Theseus, the young Athenian hero, and Hyppolita, Queen of the Amazons. During the years of Pericles' government, this legend was used to simbolize the triumph of civilisation, embodied by Athens, over savagery."

I choose to read phrases such as 'wild and barbaric', 'the orderly coexistence of Greek society' and 'the triumph of civilisation over savagery' as sexism that it's being critisized, but it's highly ambiguous and very poorly worded and expressed, with the problems I was talking about at the beginning of this post: People who don't come to the museum to question gender roles and sexist mindsets could perfectly interpret phrases such as these as not being critical at all, and could exit the museum thinking that 'Yes, the Amazons were wild, barbaric women because they didn't want to obey or be with men, in the orderly Greek society (because gender roles are traditional, have been there for centuries, and rock my socks), and that makes them barbaric and savage. Also, they're wild and barbaric because they were warriors, which is a monstrosity because women aren't supposed to be warriors, dude! They should be having children and staying at home like the civilized and orderly Athenian women!'   Don't tell me we don't have way too many individuals in our modern 'orderly society' who still think like this.
  • Daily life and gender roles:
Ancient Greek women and traditionallly 'feminine' roles: Weaving and making clothes, keeping beautiful for the males (Author unknown to me).

Most of the exhibits were focused on daily life and the often rather ambiguously critisized gender roles having to do with education (the men's world), feasts and parties (the men's world), the home (the women's world), marriage (the women's world, and the turning point of her 'career'), children (the women's world) and death (more or less gender neutral, although the women are the ones who should be lamenting). And like I said before, the descriptions are generally either purely neutral, seemingly critical but ambiguosly worded, and, only sporadically, directly critical.

 This more feminist approach can be found at the very end of the exhibition, at the 'touching objects' area (which is also aimed towards blind people), and very clearly reads "Female invisibility vs Male visibility":

(Female invisibility/ male visibility)


"Las principales actividades de la mujer ateniense tenían lugar en el ámbito del hogar. Bajo la tutela del esposo, después de haber estado bajo la de su padre, se encargaba del gobierno de la casa y de la educación de sus hijos mientras eran pequeños. Rara vez salía del hogar.

Como contrapunto, y frente a esta invisibilidad social de la mujer, el hombre participaba plenamente en la vida pública. Recibía ya desde la infancia una esmerada educación, participaba en el gobierno y en la defensa de la ciudad y podía relacionarse con sus iguales en el gimnasio, el ágora o el banquete, ámbitos específicamente masculinos."


My (free-ish) translation:
"The main activities of the Athenian woman took place at home. First under the guardianship of their fathers and then of their husbands, they were supposed to take care of the house and of the children's education while they were young. They seldom left the house.

As a counterpoint to this female invisibility, men took an active and full part in public life. They received from their childhood a thorough and careful education, participated actively in the government and the defense of the city, and were able to socialize with their equals in the gym, the agora or during feasts, all areas which were exclusively masculine."

Now, I think this is adequately worded as being informative and historically objective, but also critical ('female invisibility', 'male visibility', 'they seldom left the house', 'as a counterpoint men took an active part in public life', 'were able to socialize with their equals',...). This doesn't give the ambiguous vibe that maybe gender roles are cool and acceptable because it 'the ways things were (and are)' and 'part of an orderly society'.

More excerpts from the gendered Ancient Greek daily life shown in the exhibit

"El banquete:
Las relaciones sociales de los varones griegos giran en torno a la bebida en común, la fiesta del simposio. Dentro del ocio colectivo masculino, el simposio reúne a varones de una misma clase social para compartr amistades, intereses y placeres. (...) Las reuniones se prolongan hasta el amanecer, entre cantos, poesías, charlas de filosofía y política. Las heteras, cortesanas, amenizan el banquete. Ellas son también parte del ocio masculino. (...)"

"The banquet:
Social relationships between Greek men revolved around drinking in fellowship, at the symposium.  Part of the male collective leisure activities, the symposium gathers men of a same social class in order to share friendships, interests and pleasure. (...) The reunions go on until dawn, amid songs, poetry, philosophy chats and politics. The hetairai, courtesans, liven up the banquet. They are also part of men's leisure."
Greek  men at a party, entertained by high class female prostitutes (hetairai), dancers and musicians. 'Free' and 'respectable' women were not allowed to take part in these feasts at an equal level, the sole role of women in Greek feasts was to entertain and serve men, catering to their every pleasure (Author unknown to me).

"La buena esposa conviene que mande en los asuntos de puertas adentro de la casa...sin prestar atención a los asuntos públicos...Una esposa de vida ordenada debe considerar que las normas de su marido le han sido impuestas como ley de su vida."
                                       (Pseudo-Aristóteles, Económico, 140-1, Rose)

"A good wife must only govern those matters from within the home...without minding public affairs...A wife with an orderly life must take into account that the rules of her husband have been imposed to her as an inevitable fact of life."

"La boda:
La boda es el rito de iniciación a la vida adulta para las mujeres griegas y la consolidación de su destino social. Representa el abandono de la infancia, de su estado de doncella, y el ingreso en el mundo ordenado y reglamentado del varón. Su papel será dar hijos legítimos y perpetuar la familia. Las etapas de la ceremonia escenifican este cambio: la ofrenda de los juguetes infantiles, el baño ritual, la espera y el rapto nocturno por el novio, el alegre cortejo en carro nupcial hasta su nuevo hogar, en el seno familiar del marido. Allí se despojará de su velo de pureza. El ajuar, la dote y los regalos materializan el lenguaje simbólico y el prestigio social del momento culminante de la vida femenina."

"The wedding:
Marriage was the rite of passage through which a Greek woman entered adult life and confirmed her future social fate. It represented the end of her childhood and maidenhood, and her induction into the rigid, orderly world of the male. The woman's purpose in life would be to bear legitimate offspring and ensure the family's continuity.
The different stages of the marriage ceremony enacted this transition: the offering of children's toys, the ritual bath, the wait and the bride's nocturnal abduction by the groom, the festive procession in a nuptial cart to her new home, where she would be surrounded by her new husband's family and the veil symbolising her purity would be removed. The dowry and wedding gifts expressed the symbolic importance and social prestige of this moment, the high point of a Greek woman's life."

The worrying ritual of 'abducting' the bride glorifies sexual assaults, violence against women and lack of equality in a relationship. The inspiration for this troubling and misogynistic ritual comes from the abduction and rape of the poor Goddess Tethys by the jerk and scumbag Peleus, a human who hasn't been taught anything about consent (we also know that a society is deeply patriarchal when not even goddesses are safe from being assaulted by male humans):
Because abducting and sexually assaulting a woman is so romantic, and something to glorify and to have as the ideal model for every wedding. Naturally.
"El mito de las bodas de Tetis y Peleo:
El rapto de Tetis en presencia de sus hermanas, las Nereidas, es el preludio de la boda más gloriosa de la mitología griega. (...) La imagen idealizada del mito, frecuente entre los regalos nupciales, se utiliza como referencia modélica para la novia ante tan decisivo tránsito (sí, muy "romántico" todo)."

"The myth of the wedding of Tethys and Peleus:
Peleus abducted Tethys in the presence of her sisters, the Nereids.  Afterwards the lovers (ahem...lovers??) celebrated the most glorious wedding in Greek mythology. (...) The idealized image of this myth, commonly featured on wedding gifts, was upheld as a model for the bride in this life-changing transition (oooh, I'm being symbolically abducted, it's soooo romantic!)"


                                                          
"Las edades de la vida:                                 
El ciclo vital, desde su comienzo, el parto y la infancia, hasta el final, la vejez y el llanto por la muerte, son tareas de exclusividad femenina. La vida se gesta y se cierra en el oikos.
El cénit de la existencia en Grecia es la juventud. En ella se alcanza la más perfecta expresión de la femineidad y la masculinidad. Dos destino diferentes se diseñan para los hijos: la niña, ya mujer, regresará al oikos; el niño, ya hombre, se integrará como ciudadano en la polis
Las distintas etapas de la vida están marcadas por ritos de tránsito, protegidos por Ártemis y Apolo y regulados por códigos sociales y religiosos que sancionan los distintos grupos de edad y de género."

"The stages of life:
The circle of life, from childbirth and infancy to old age and the sorrow of death, was the sole prerogative of women. Life as conceived and came to an end inside the oikos.
In Greece, youth was the zenith of existence, the most perfect expression of femininity and masculinity. Two different fates were reserved for children: The girls, on reaching womanhood, would return to the oikos, while the boys were destined to become citizens of the polis on reaching manhood.
Each stage of life was marked by rites of passage, protected by Artemis and Apollo and governed by social and religious codes that distinguished each age group and gender."


  • Clothing


It's also worth mentioning that, while Greek male depictions are often of men with bare torsos, bare legs or fully nude, bare female torsos in the exhibit were pretty rare, mostly associated with female idols or the marriage section (the case of the female torso above). Greek women's clothing was actually very restrictive (patriarchal 'modesty' mindset acting as a way to control and repress women's autonomy and sexuality), something that many people, accustomed to seeing female nudes in Greek statues and idealized depictions of Greek fashion, may not be familiar with. Short tunics were only acceptable in places such as Sparta, ankle-length tunics were the norm. Hairstyles where the hair was partially or completely covered by a cloth or headscarf were also common (open hair or even loose strands were hardly worn), and women, especially married women, had to cover their head and wrap themselves in an himation (mantle) when going outwhen they were actually allowed to be out, that is. Not dissimilar to the idea of today's burkas, the himation is 'a garment of decorous modesty' which disguised the shape of the woman's body in public, and which Hetairai also used as 'provocation' (in the same way veiling is used in 'exotic dancing' in the Near East).  This is quite a different idea from the idealized woman wearing the light tunic that we're so accustomed to seeing in Neoclassical and modern depictions of Greek culture, and not at all dissimilar from the religious-based head and body coverings typical of Patriarchal Monotheistic religions. (There's a section on male and female Greek clothing in the pdf below)
Bronze statuette of a veiled dancer wrapped in an himation
"The Himation is a kind of cape, which can cover the whole body, if necessary. Especially adult, married women use it to cover the head, the shoulders, and the shape of the female body in public. (...) The Himation is a sign of social status and morals, similar to the Palla used later by Roman women." (Source)
Interesting contrast between the men's freedom of clothing (they could have bare torsos, bare legs or be naked) and female clothing (ankle-length tunics and frequent use of headcloths and mantles worn over the head and wrapped around the body when out). (author unknown)
"Outside the house, the hair is always put up and made into a bun on the neck or the back of the head. Additionally, the hair is held back by a band wrapped around the head or by a bonnet/hairnet to keep the hair in place. Very few women are depicted with loose strands or even open hair." (Source)
Janet Stephens' Grecian hair tutorials show how the hair was often partially or completely covered by cloths, as part of Ancient Greece's modesty mindsets for women. Even if the hair was not covered by a cloth/headscarf/hairnet, women usually had to cover their hair with an himation when going out, and it was rare to have loose strands or open hair, as opposed to the idealized depictions that we are accustomed to seeing in statues, 18th and 19th Century art, and movies.


"Greek women were expected to fully cover their bodies. For instance, a woman would not gird up her chiton like a man and display her legs in public." (Source)



And to finish the exhibit, there were some images of the goddesses Athena and Ártemis as a refreshing change from these enslaved and embowered Greek women. Only certain mythological female characters such as these couple of goddesses (who are Pre-Hellenic anyway) are allowed to take some of their own life choices, get involved in crafts, learning and martial arts and remain unmarried while hunting in the woods or taking arms, though. Unfortunately, empowered goddesses in Greek mythology aren't the proof we need to think that Ancient Greek women could do such things in real life.


To finish this post, I'd like to share an excerpt of The Ancient City, by Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge, about the (oppressive) role of women in Ancient Greek society. My book is in Spanish, so Spanish translation only, sorry!

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Gender bias and female invisibility at an Archaeological museum shop

Nearly one year ago, my mum and I visited our local Archaeological Museum, which had recently been restored. At the end of the visit, we went to the shop to browse and found a couple of items that we ended up buying: A fabric bag with a print of the Greek huntress goddess Ártemis for me, and a beautiful statutette of the Greek warrior goddess Athena in her chariot that I got for my mum to celebrate her upcoming final Master's proyect presentation :). 

Unfortunately, both of the labels and/or description of these items suffered from gender bias and sexism by omission. They are yet another couple of examples of how so many women - be they mythological, historical or contemporary-, are made invisible in this society, and of how the gender bias mechanism can work in order to promote gender estereotypes and make women - especially empowered or unconventional figures  - literally non-existent:


This is the Ártemis fabric bag, plus a cardboard cut-out of the goddess holding it. Now, I don't know who is in charge of labelling the products in these kind of shops, but to anyone who knows just a bit of Classical mythology, a depiction of a woman with a bow is probably bound to be the goddess Ártemis, an athletic and warlike goddess who hunts and runs in the woods apart from the other deities (and bonus points if she wears a short tunic, has lunar symbology or a tiara on, or is accompanied by a dog or stag). However, this bag was labelled as 'Bolsa arquera' ("Archeress bag"). The figure on the bag is recognized as being female, which is something (I guess the breasts are too obviosuly visible, although that isn't always a sure way to recognize a female figure as female! I've seen figures who are pretty obviously female being labelled as men because it suited the status quo or because the labellers were being blinded by gender bias). She isn't, however, described as the 'Goddess Ártemis', she's just a random woman with a bow. Ignorance, laziness, or, more worryingly, an example of female characters and names being erased just because? I guess ignorance and laziness played a bigger part in this case, although I do think that female invisibility can often also play an important part, if only in a subconscious way.


The Athena statuette is a more worrying and blatant example of gender bias and female invisibility. Once again, to anyone who knows just a bit of Classical mythology, Athena, warrior goddess of wisdom and crafts, should be nearly automatically recognizable because she's just such an iconic image, nearly always represented in the same way, wearing a long tunic, carrying owl symbology and armed with helmet, spear and shield. However, this statuette, which is very much obviously Athena in a chariot, is labelled as being a freaking male warrior (the label originally read 'Guerrero (en) carro', or "Male warrior (on) chariot"). Not only isn't this figure recognized as being the goddess Athena, iconic as she is in her depictions - but she is labelled as being a man even though she is quite obviously a female (from the traditional female tunic to her face and hair). Why? Maybe because the labellers just saw that it was a figure carring weapons and automatically assumed that it had to be a man, because a woman being a warrior just isn't in the traditional gender roles agenda, so it isn't even a possibility? I find this example of gender bias worryingly blatant because there are people who continue assuming that warrior-women are unnatural and even non-existent "in real life", but they at least keep recognizing and accepting that there is a Greek goddess called Athena who's dressed as a warrior and has warlike attributes. It's such an iconic figure, most people have been taught to recognize and accept her, even though they may consider that she's just an exception among women (and yes, warrior-women are not the norm in a male-dominated world with gender roles, not at all, but that does not mean warrior-women did not and do not exist).

And there was an additional incoherence factor in this case, because when we purchased the figure, the item was described as 'chariot of Athena' in the receipt, but it was 'Male warrior (on) chariot' in the description's item, the one everyone could see. 

Fortunately, I went back to this shop this past May and found out that the label of Athena's figure has been changed since then, and now it reads 'Atenea (en) carro' ("Athena (on) chariot"). Given that both me and my mum complained about this issue when we first saw the misgendered and misnamed label, we think our complaint may have been effective and a factor that resulted in the label being correctly changed. If that is so, hey, feminist complaints may turn out to be effective sometimes after all :)!


Friday, 14 August 2015

Feminist ramblings: High heels, make-up and 'choice feminism'

This post has its origin in my criticism-reviews of the Plain Jane episodes, but this particular discussion turned out too long, so I decided to move it to a new post. So here I am to ramble a bit about heels, make-up and the so-called 'choice feminism'.

I have many problems about the inherent sexism of high heels (I did quite a lengthy (and depressing) study about high heels in history a few years ago, I might be uploading the Power Point in the near future). Their constraints on mobility and ill health effects should be reason enough to make quite a few people want to steer away from them. It's also part of the compulsory female uniform in many jobs, and anything that's being forced into me because of my sex is enough to make me wary about said item. And then there's also the fact that a high number of women wear them because they've been told it makes them look and move in a sexier, more attractive manner - and, although some claim that they do it for themselves, because they want to feel 'attractive' for themselves, or because they feel 'more confident' - high heels are nearly always related to and have their origin in the necessity of being attractive for men - while being as mobility-restrained as possible, which I guess also comes in handy. Personally, I'm not a fan at all.
So appealing
Other things such as make-up come from a similar background, and yet many women, myself included, often wear it thinking we actually do it mainly for ourselves, so these issues are undoubtedly more than a bit problematic when it comes to discussing if they're 'feminist' 'choices' or not - Especially when it comes to believing that any choice is 'feminist' so long as it's a woman making said choice.
See Source for the rest. An everyday feminism comic by Ronnie Ritchie.
 In my opinion,  the main problem of the so-called 'choice feminism' involves not realizing that all choices are rooted in something, in this case, patriarchal upbringing, and that women are perfectly able, disregardless of their sex, to make choices that are either simply 'non-feminist', or just plain 'anti-feminist'. Feminism is NOT simply 'about choice'. This doesn't only refer to heels and make-up, but also to other even more controversial issues, such as women who 'choose' to wear female-only religious headcoverings, or women who 'choose' to be an escort/stripper, for example. According to 'choice feminism', in any of these cases people shouldn't be able to point out the inherent misoginy of some of these choices (be that misogyny conscious or not) because they're automatically accepted and 'tolerated' because it's a woman who's making the choice, and that's enough to make said choice a political statement. I personally disagree with such a thought. Like I said, not only are all choices rooted in some sort of mindset - But also, women as well as men can make choices, out of their own free will, which either ignore feminist concepts or plain promote or help perpetuate patriarchal values - in a conscious way or not.

 About the 'choice' aspect, yes, there's a difference between being forced or feeling like we have to wear make-up or heels everyday (this can be extrapolated to other issues) because we owe a certain kind of attractiveness to the world and to men, and wearing them only when we feel like it, because we feel like it that day, and in a more self-oriented than men-oriented manner. But choices don't come from a void, we grow in a patriarchal-based, stereotype-ridden atmosphere, and if many women choose to wear shoes that are usually painful and difficult to walk in, or to try to cover all their natural pores every day before going out, we should maybe think why so many women can't feel as equally attractive or confident in shoes that are healthier and comfier, or why they can't feel as confident if they don't wear at least some subtle make-up to cover their skin every time they go out.


  That's why I can view these as 'choices', but not as 'feminist choices'. Wearing make-up is not particularly 'anti-feminist' at the best of times, as long as you don't go preaching about the utter necessity of wearing it to look good and be desirable to men, but nor is it a 'feminist statement' in most contexts, because it really doesn't do much for the emancipation of women, apart from the potential act of self-expression and rebellion that comes with applying gold eyeshadow or red lipstick and saying 'I'm doing this for myself, not you'. Also, men are not told to wear make-up or high heels to be attractive, so those choices are pretty much gender-based double standards, another reason why we shouldn't call them 'feminist'. Some of these choices shouldn't necessarily affect other people, unless we force them to do the same thing because it's what's expected of us as women, But they are choices that are rooted in a patriarchal society which views women as decoration, never 'good enough' unless they are adorned and flawless, and we should always bear that in mind. 

See Source for the rest. An everyday feminism comic by Ronnie Ritchie.
 That being said, I do consider make-up to be less harmful than heels. As long as make-up is a 'choice' that can be solely artistic, or a 'fun' form of self-love or self-expression that we don't force on others, and that we don't do as a necessity because we feel 'too ugly' and with human flaws without it (there is always the unhealthy notion, however, that make-up also exists to cover up all the human imperfections that women shouldn't be having. More on that later). Heels, however, remain painful, potentially very unhealthy for our bodies, and mobility-contraining. 'Choice' or not (which does not imply 'feminist'), I personally can't see a person wearing such a torture device as a form of 'self-love' or 'confidence'. Plus I think that heels are still potentially very harmful to women's status in society, a very powerful tool in male fantasies in the role of sexualizing and constraining women's bodies. How many women are being shown in 'artwork' and the media wearing high heels even though the context hardly calls for such shoewear? High-heeled warrior-women or female superheroes, anyone? Sure, most of these women are also shown with flawless skin, but at least that won't make them die in the first five seconds of a potential battle!
Extremely battle-friendly
So at the moment I'm much more optimistic about make-up becoming more of a 'freer choice' for some people than heels, to be honest. At least you can walk freely and without pain while wearing lipstick and mascara. Personally, I enjoy make-up as artistic fun, and try to make it self-love oriented, not so much pore-concealing and flawless skin oriented. I don't feel like needing or having to wear make-up everyday, or the same amount (eyeliner vs naked eyes, for example), which I think is a very important point, not being pressured into thinking you need it because you're a woman.  Because if someone feels like she can't feel confident or comfortable without it, then we should seriously consider if that person is doing it 'for herself', or solely pressured by society to be considered as an acceptable woman.

Also, makeover shows such as Plain Jane and the like (like I said, this rambling has its origin in the criticism of a Plain Jane episode) are utterly simplistic in the sense that they go from 'girl with no make-up who feels insecure and is unfeminine' to 'girl with make-up who feels confident, sexy, and gets the man'. Make-up should not be a thing that you must like and put on every single day just because you're a woman, it should  be a choice (and I'm not talking feminism here, I'm simply talking about choice, if you wear make-up without liking it, to please someone else or because society says you're 'unattractive' without it, then I think you're not in a very healthy situation). Something that you use if you enjoy experimenting with your face in that way (and not necessarily all the time, there are people who like make-up, but who don't feel like they have to wear it all the time). Not something that you must apply on your face all the time in order to look good and attract men while you're at it. 


So apart from the fact that it shouldn't be a compulsory thing that I should do because I was born a woman, let us stop using simplistic clichés where you're insecure and feel bad and ugly if you don't wear make-up, but turn into a confident woman after caking foundation, mascara and lipstick on. I can record hair tutorials with 0% make-up on, upload them on YouTube for everyone to see, and then decide to put on powder foundation, eye make-up and lisptick to go for lunch with my mum. No simplistic 'choose this or that' sexist makeover needed, and no man involved in my motivations, thank you very much. Let's stop being so damn dualistic and simplistic about everything, and making women feel like they have to do certain things in certain contexts all the damn time!
No simplistic 'choose this or that' makeover needed. I enjoy make-up, but I also feel good about my no make-up face!
And before I finish for today, there's one more thing I'd like to comment about the topic of make-up and 'beauty', and particularly about the new trend of 'natural beauty'. Lately, there has been an increasing amount of activism against the utter pressure that women face about having to wear make-up to appear 'flawless' and 'beautiful', and that's great. Gendered obligations are not OK. However, I've been noticing more and more people (women and men) who tackle this issue by commenting in videos and posts that 'she is (as/more) beautiful without make-up' or the bit worrying 'She is still beautiful (without make-up/at her age/at her weight)'. While these people's intentions generally seem to be good and with the aim to empower women into not having to wear make-up to feel good (or into accepting their age or weight), I think it's worrying that telling a woman that she's 'beautiful' is still considered as the utmost form of praise. It is as if, make-up or no make-up, we're still being evaluated first and foremost because of our appearance. Complimenting a person about their appearance in a respectful, non-creepy way is generally an OK thing to do, and it feels generally good to receive such compliments, but haven't we thought about the fact that a great number of people seem to tackle the issue of 'women should not be forced to wear make-up' by saying simply that 'they're still beautiful without make-up'?

Plus this is really a no-win situation for many women. They can be told anything from 'You should wear more make-up, you look ill', to 'You wear too much make-up, you'd be prettier without it', People, and men, still seem to think that all this is exclusively intended for them, for them to evaluate.

 Some people, men and women alike, are actually turning this 'anti compulsory make-up' activism into a 'compulsory non-make-up' one, claiming that 'women are more beautiful without make-up' and that 'women shouldn't wear make-up'. This trend of 'natural beauty' is becoming steadily more aggressive, or so it seems to me, belittling women for wearing make-up, calling them empty-headed, vain and stupid (no sexist stereotypes there, no, not at all), and sometimes claiming in a rather aggressive way that 'no make-up' makes you somehow 'more feminist', same as not dyeing your hair and not shaving instantly makes you 'more feminist' (once again, I wouldn't claim so easily that a woman is more or less of a feminist because she decides whether to wear or not to wear make-up, dye her hair or shave).

Some of the men who have joined the ranks of the 'natural beauty' trend (notice we're always talking about 'beauty' here), choose a more demanding and egotistical way of telling women that they're 'more beautiful without make-up' (because they're here to decide how we should look, after all), also claiming that women 'lie' to them when they wear make-up, so they shouldn't, because hey, they're making an investment here and how are they to know that women happen to have human pores underneath their foundation and flesh-coloured eyelids (intense sarcasm)! -, and also because I guess that they think that all women put on make-up to please them, so if they don't like make-up, then what reason should women have to wear it? Women are here to decorate the male world, people!

  Some women reply to this saying 'I wear make-up for me, not you' (examples here, here, here, here, here, here here and here), and in this light I can say I do relate to this, and that I can see the potentially feminist implication of wearing make-up because you like it in a purely aesthetically way or as a rebellious form of self-love, as opposed to wearing it, or not wearing any, to please someone else. Of course, the same would apply to women deciding not to wear make-up as a political statement: 'I do not have to wear make-up as the compulsory requirement to try to appear 'flawless' for anyone and I have no need for make-up to feel confident about myself.' Or simply 'I don't like make-up, so I don't wear it' (examples here, here, here, here, here and here).
I agree with this mindset. People (especially women) who like and choose to wear make-up are always influenced to a greater or lesser extent by gender roles and societal rules. But even so, it's high time people (especally men) realized that many women actually do wear it because they feel good about themselves, not to please others or to be desirable.
The key of the matter here is, I think, not turning anything into a compulsory thing, something that is done solely to please others, or, indeed, a war between two sides. Because both of these postures are not contradictory at all. You can enjoy experimenting with make-up without feeling like you have to wear it every day, or without feeling 'unattractive' without it!
I switch between no make-up (glasses or not), 'natural' make-up and more elaborate or colourful make-up. It should be about what you like and how you feel good, with no disempowering motivations. 
  • So, can make-up be seen as a feminist statement in certain situations? I think it can, same as no-make-up as a political statement, mainly as a response to men who demand that women either wear or not wear make-up, and who think that our decision to either wear or not wear it is motivated only by how they view us and how desirable we look to them. I resent men either telling me wear or not to wear make-up. It's a choice that doesn't come from the void, it has gendered roots and implications, but it's still a choice that I'm able to make without taking men directly into account.   And yes, gendered roots aside, it can be an artistic, self-expression area as well. 
  • And Is it always a feminist statement or choice? No. In many cases I don't think it should even be called 'feminist', because it doesn't do that much for the equality of the sexes, which is what feminism is really about. Both feminists and anti-feminists can enjoy wearing make-up. And in any case, even though some women can wear it solely for their own aesthetic reasons, it's still a choice rooted in a patriarcal environment, and a gendered choice as well.  That doesn't make the choice 'anti-feminist', but it's something that should be born in mind. 
Btw, now I'm rereading this, the rambling nature of this post may give the idea that it seems that what I'm trying to say is that 'make-up is better than heels'. That was not my original intention, but speaking about that matter, I personally am not a fan of heels and do think they are potentially more harmful that other gendered 'beauty' aspects such as make-up, yes. Make-up can also be potentially very harmful, and it is in many ways, of course. The 'make-up empowerment' activists may not take this into account, but in our current society make-up is an important part of the women-focused, normative, gendered pressure to look beautiful every day. That's not what I would call ultimate empowerment, and that's why I generally try not to mix the terms 'feminism' and 'make-up'. 

 But I simply cannot see the pros of heels, not even in the cases where it's shown as a 'political statement' against men who are 'intimidated by them' (intimidated by the woman's height, maybe, but by what else? Intimidated by her inability to run or move well? By her pain?). Heels and make-up may be both gendered and they oppress women when being normative, and they share common patriarchal roots. But feminine heels, which are always thinner and higher than male heels, seem to have the eternal and gendered aim to make women 'sexier' while constraining their mobility and endangering ther health (and they're related to extremely mysoginistic practices such as foot binding). While make-up has been and can be a non-gendered beauty aspect depending on the period and culture (18th Century noblemen wore make-up routinely, for example, and so do some current cultures, men and non-binary/queergender people nowadays).


However, one word of caution about the 'more non-gendered nature of make-up'. Because one thing is to praise the self-expression possibilities, fun and artistic side of eye and lip make-up looks, which have been non-gendered in some cultures and periods - But other very different, and far more serious, thing is to take into account the way women are pressured into making their skin completely flawless with make-up: foundation, powder, concealer, blush, highlighter, all that myriad of products designed to make people think that women should have no pores, pimples, scars, discoloration, redness, or any other imperfections. Men, considered human beings with all their human rights in this society, are allowed such imperfections to a greater extent than women. But women are not seen as persons, but rather as pretty objects of decoration which should look flawless and inhumanly perfect every single day - for the men. And the gods forbid a woman has human pores or human pimples on her skin! That is a source of tremendous pressure and lack of self-esteem in so many women. The non-gendered side of make-up through the ages has been more related to eye make-up, blush, lipstick and the like - The more artistic, decorative areas, the ones which may actually have a say when it comes to self-expression, self-love, artistic aims (men did wear and do wear foundation and powder in certain times and contexts, though). But it is the women who have been most forced throughout history to hide their natural human skin in order to make it look 'flawless' - often endangering their health with poisonous 'beauty products' such as lead-based foundations. And that isn't about self-expression, or self-love, or art. It's a very sexist double standard.


These issues may seem simple, but I think they're way more complex and less simplistic than many people - 'Choice feminism' included - think. After centuries of a male-dominated mindset with a lot of gender roles, it's hard to say that something is 100% gender role free or that we truly make a choice solely for ourselves, without being influenced by something else. The key in the matter is, I think, to be aware of that (especially because many of these choices can unconsciously promote a lot of double standards, misoginy and gender roles, and we should bear that in mind). And as for me, I'd try to choose the things that'd make me as happy as possible without harming others and, if possible, without relying in a major way on what society and any source of mindset-ridden authority may say I should be doing because of my sex and my gender.