Alicia Keys’ and the no makeup movement

The movement should be lauded but it only scratches the surface

Alicia Keys’ recent essay on Lenny provides a narrative that is surely familiar to most women. It articulates the struggle and pressures of being a woman in feeling the need to meet accepted and expected images of beauty that conform to traditional notions of being a woman. In a brave move that should be praised, Keys’ decision to shun this in rejecting the need to constantly wear makeup equally opposes and challenges the social anxieties it presents for many women. Indeed, her attempt to spread a #NoMakeup movement is arguably inspiring many women but it’s the tip of the iceberg when considering the notions of beauty and femininity that women have long been subject to.

As a man, much of the the experience outlined by Alicia Keys, and shared with many women, is admittedly alien to me. Although as an aside, men are increasingly subject to further social pressures in body image and perceptions of masculinity. This is prompting many men to take dangerous steps to meet these perceptions which are rapidly damaging men’s mental and physical health at perilous levels. Sadly, as a relatively new phenomenon, these aren’t widely recognised. Nevertheless, for women this is something that has existed as far back as patriarchal stereotypes can be traced throughout history. 

Personally, I like to look good as much as the next person does. But the driver for that stems from my personal contentment and less so from the perception of others. During the winter months, I often grow my hair into a sometimes untamed but periodically shaped afro and shave less frequently than usual. There are occasions that I probably look at least a tad unkempt but on the whole, I don’t care and broadly speaking I’m not judged for it. It’s something I embrace with a nonchalance that is born out of incremental improvements to my own self-esteem and mental health whereby I feel more comfortable with myself, my actions and my appearance than I might once have been. Though for women, this represents a challenge that involves undoing centuries of expected conformity in one’s appearance and indeed traditional notions of femininity which are increasingly foisted in the face of women.

Social media has provided a further and damaging projection of what many women feel they need to meet with Instagram posts displaying what is brushed off as casual and effortless perfection of women. Subjects such as the Kardashians are photographed leaving the gym, looking as if they’re yet to break a sweat with not a hair out of place. Because that’s exactly how we all look after a workout, right? Then there are the voyeuristic photos (often posted under the guise of something that seems more principled than the superficial notion of merely getting your attention) that get posted to an audience of young women who naively seek to attain an image that’s manufactured by those who devote their lives to maintaining a plastic, paparazzi-ready facade

Makeup, hair, clothes, shoes and conforming to expectations of ideal body image present a rigmarole that women have to contend with on a daily basis. And rarely does society suggest it’s acceptable to dispense with any of the aforementioned. For younger women and girls especially, the message is damaging — if you don’t look like this, you’re slacking as a woman. It comes from the media but also wider society and even some men who fail to accept women with a natural demeanour that ignores the above. Similarly and lamentably, and in a further example of gender roles being dangerously reinforced, some women will admit to feeling naked or exposed without wearing makeup as it provides a shield that they literally feel unable to leave home without.

In a brilliantly honest but hilarious social critique of the expectations of beauty placed upon women, one of YouTuber Jenna Marbles’ early videos highlights the extent to which women go in their daily routines. It’s frighteningly accurate for many women and her satirical commentary provides the subconscious narrative for what many women feel compelled to do on a daily basis. Nonetheless, there isn’t anything wrong with wearing makeup. But there is a troubling issue with the extent to which it becomes a decision based on social conditioning and pressures and less about a personal choice, not to mention the effect it has on female mental health.

I’m in no way criticising women who wear makeup or makeup per se. It can enhance, accentuate or refine features and conceal what might personally be deemed a minor imperfection. And most importantly, it can provide a source of confidence that should never be rejected. No different to how I might get a haircut or have a shave when attending an event, makeup can be part of the effort women make to feel good about themselves. After all, we should all do what makes us comfortable and supports our self-esteem and no one should feel the need to apologise for doing so. However, that shouldn’t be confused with attempting to meet a gauge of beauty that isn’t our own.

As a celebrity, Alicia Keys is able to use her status as a vehicle for the #NoMakeup movement but her essay also shows the emotional growth she’s undergone to arrive at a point where she is able to embrace her new stance. Furthermore, let’s not pretend that even without makeup, Alicia Keys hardly falls short of the accepted notion of beauty. It’s just a more natural, and some might say less refined, version of what we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s also worth noting that Alicia Keys is an artist who has a huge talent that doesn’t require compensation based on her looks and therefore has further attributes upon which to pin her own self-confidence. Although this shouldn’t detract from the stance that she and many other women have taken in rejecting these social pressures.

It’s questionable if women have been so long subject to these expectations that the status quo can never be overturned. A natural look can be met with raised (and sometimes unnaturally shaped) eyebrows as if to suggest “didn’t you get the memo? We don’t do that as women” which is a sad reality. Many women even experience discomfort in showing themselves without makeup to their partner, family or friends let alone to strangers.

I’m sure #NoMakeup will get some welcome traction on social media. It’ll also likely result in many #NoMakeup selfies celebrating the rejection of having to constantly wear makeup out of obligation rather than choice which is the crux of the argument. More significantly, hopefully it can provide the seed for the wider debate on the social conditioning woman are subject to and the damaging impact it has on successive generations of females.