Grace Jones
Singer Grace Jones, pictured in Face Paint: the Story of Makeup (Abrams Image)

This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Let’s begin with mascara. Do you go for glam lashes, extra-volumised ones or streak-free waterproof? if you wear glasses you’ll also need to invest in a paler pencil for the lower lashes – as well as a brush to emphasise those eyebrows.
As for your face itself? You absolutely can’t do without a base primer to cover blemishes before you apply foundation – and don’t forget a little concealer under the eyes to counteract dark circles. All that, of course, before you choose a blusher for your cheekbones. And then there’s that perennial favourite, lipstick. No wonder that the UK beauty industry is doing so well. Employing more than 1 million people and worth £17bn, it is forecast to grow 16 per cent by 2016. Consumers spent £8.9bn on cosmetics in 2013, and by 2017 that sum is forecast to reach £10bn.

None of which will surprise Lisa Eldridge, whose new book Face Paint: The Story of Makeup is an unapologetic celebration of the glories of facial subterfuge. Some may regard using makeup as trivial, others as vain. But, she argues, it’s something that has been practised right across the world for thousands of years.

“Anthropologists believe that the very first instances of face and body painting would have been a form of protection from the elements,” she writes, “or used as camouflage or as part of a ritual.” Paint was also used to instil tribal allegiances and to scare the opposition – like the blue woad used by ancient Britons, or the elaborate markings found on the faces of some African cultures.

It has also been a sign of wealth and social status: during the Renaissance, for example, a pale, white face – personified by Queen Elizabeth I herself – was a symbol of privilege; only the poor must work outside and expose themselves to the harsh rays of the sun. Gradually, though, the aim of decorative face painting has become beautification: the preservation of youth and the appearance of health.

The cosmetic colour most fraught with symbolism, of course, is red: flushed cheeks and pouting lips. There’s an obvious reason why. Blush on the cheeks and red on the lips, according to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, are sexual signals, mimicking youth, freshness and health. “Red, the color of blood, of blushes and flushes, of nipples, lips, and genitals awash with sexual excitement, is visible from afar and emotionally arousing,” Etcoff has written.

But red also signals rebellion and danger – so while a rouged face may be alluring, it can also be threatening. In ancient times, Eldridge argues, the freedom and rights accorded to women during a given period are very closely linked to the freedom with which they painted their faces. It was during periods when women were most oppressed that makeup was most unacceptable.

The ancient Egyptians not only sported incredibly exaggerated eye makeup; they also painted their lips a bold red with an early form of lipstick. Compared with women of later centuries, ancient Egyptian women had a fair amount of autonomy. They could own and inherit land and property, control their own businesses and instigate legal proceedings against men.
But in ancient Greece, where women had no rights and were considered the property of their husbands, makeup was frowned upon, considered wanton and immoral. Consequently, those women who wore it most overtly were prostitutes, who would redden their lips to heighten their sexual appeal and advertise their availability.

The association of makeup with lust is no doubt the reason why religions have tended to mistrust and condemn it. Islam traditionally regards the application of cosmetics as a sign of wickedness and conceit. At the height of its political power, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned lipstick, just as the church did in mediaeval England. Then, it was seen as an “incarnation of Satan” because the alteration of a woman’s face challenged God’s workmanship. Pictures of devils putting lipstick on women appeared regularly, and sinners would admit to lipstick-wearing at confession.

Part of this condemnation sprang from a fear of disguise and falsehood. In 1770, the English Parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, stating that women found guilty of “seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means” could be tried for witchcraft. In France, overuse of rouge became associated with the decadence of the ruling class. “I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world,” wrote Marie Antoinette in 1770. After the revolution such artifices were reviled, and thinkers like Rousseau urged a return to simple living and natural looks.

By Victorian times mistrust had hardened into disgust. Lipstick was condemned by the Queen herself as impolite. Yet by the mid-20th century it had been completely rehabilitated: no longer the garb of harlots, but the apotheosis of good grooming for respectable women.

In the 1970s came a new wave of disapproval – this time from feminists. The radical feminist commentator Sheila Jeffreys, for example, insists women should reject all beauty practices because their purpose is to emphasise our difference from and inferiority to men. “The creation of sexual differences through beauty practices is essential to affording to men the sexual satisfaction that they gain as they go about the tasks of their day from recognising ‘woman’ and feeling their penises engorge,” she declares in Beauty and Misogyny. “Beauty practices show that women are obedient, willing to do their service, and to put effort into that service. They show, I suggest, that women are not simply ‘different’ but, most importantly, ‘deferential’.”

It was a view enthusiastically endorsed by Naomi Wolf. In The Beauty Myth, published in the early ’90s, she attacked makeup as a “violent backlash against feminism that used images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement”.

What such hardened condemnation fails to recognise is that women may choose to wear makeup not because they’re unwitting slaves to the patriarchy, but because they feel empowered, even liberated by it. Early campaigners for women’s rights tended to regard lipstick not as a symbol of submission but as a bright red mark of freedom. In 1913 New York saw a huge demonstration of over 5,000 women demanding the vote. All wore bright red lipstick – a deliberate rebellion against male authority.

But one reason for the enduring appeal of cosmetics is, quite simply, that they make us feel better. Leonard Lauder, president of Estée Lauder, has observed that when times are hard, sales of makeup go through the roof. He developed his Lipstick Index after 9/11, and noted the same phenomenon during times of economic downturn. Beauty, it seems, is recession-proof. Even after the financial crisis of 2008, sales of cosmetics continued to grow. “Women were trying to make themselves look and feel better while trying to hold on to their job or find a new one,” says Vivienne Rudd, from Mintel, a market research company. “At the beginning, many assumed that the whole market would suffer, especially premium [products], but it held up well.”

So the passion to look our best has endured, despite the waves of puritanical condemnation and even the scorn of radical feminism. After all, as Natasha Walter makes clear in The New Feminism, the pressure to conform to a single, unadorned version of the female image is as stultifying as the old sexist stereotypes. Women, she claims, “however they dress, however they make love, however they flirt, can be feminists. They do not want to learn a set of personal attitudes before being admitted into the club.”

And rather than simply enhancing our features, makeup is also a way of changing them. Among the women Eldridge cites as her modern muses is Madonna, who famously alters her face each time she chooses a new persona. “I am my own experiment,” she asserts.

“I wasn’t born this way,” agrees Grace Jones, whose hallmark is multi-layered eyeshadow and exaggerated blusher. “One creates oneself.” Perhaps the most radical self-transformer of all was Amy Winehouse. Those huge black-lined eyes, retro-rouged lips and unfeasible lashes may have suggested wild defiance. But they also served to disguise the painfully shy young woman cowering behind them.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, by Lisa Eldridge, is published by Abrams Image