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A Feminist Makeup Artist Reveals Why Women Are Afraid of Looking Overdone

“Just don’t make me look like a whore.”

I’ve heard this phrase in all its permutations for years. Sometimes I challenge the women who say it, but I usually know better.

Often I have to read between the lines, assuming that a mid-toned pink or warmer mauve is what they mean when they say “red.” If I give them the actual primary color they asked for instead (unadulterated save for a bit of warmth or blue to flatter the complexion), many women say I have made them look “like a whore.” One woman told her daughter she looked like she was about to go “walk the streets.” Another didn’t even finish applying the color before panicking, scrubbing at the lipstick with remover and scowling at me.

One day a woman tried shade after shade, utterly disorganized. Finally, she scrubbed off a lipstick with very little regard for her lips, and sighed. “You know, I think the lipstick is fine. It’s just that I don’t like my face.”

We sat in that moment together, stunned as it sank in. I thanked her for her honesty, and let her know we’ve all been there. Many more women just project that anger onto me, insisting that I must not be listening or am incapable of showing them what they know is out there in the world, to fix what is broken.

Often what’s “appropriate” is cultural, regional, unique to the neighborhood or office. Sometimes, it’s confidence. Maybe it’s style, like my preference for solid colors and clean lines over prints and lace. I know everything’s an option, but it wouldn’t feel right. Where do we decide we look like a clown, or a whore? What’s a whore look like? Remind me why that’s the ultimate insult.

Most of the time, I can feel the perceived difference between me and the woman in front of me. They say “you can pull it off, but I can’t.” The rest hangs in the air, unspoken: "You are more comfortable looking like a whore clown than I am. I have a reputation to think of."

As if somehow I have missed the same mandate we have all had drummed into us since birth: Be feminine, but not too feminine. Ornamentation is good, but don’t be flashy. Celebrate yourself, but only quietly. Be welcoming, but not too inviting. Keep that self-expression to a dull roar.

Some of my biggest heroes are sex workers (or clowns!) so the word “whore” doesn’t threaten me the way it’s meant to. It’s the sentiment that gets me down: the “at least I’m not them” in there. Sex work as an insult chips away at me each time I hear it. Is this the one group we can always claim superiority over? Where is the line between shades? Is it somewhere between crimson and claret?

Women I thought I felt a kinship with have dashed it in an instant by making cracks at some imaginary sex worker’s expense. Truth is, honey, most are too busy trying to survive (or getting well paid) to care for a second what you think—but I’m right here.

Cheers to the humans who like what they like, know what works and what they will enjoy wearing—and to those still figuring it out. Cheers to the women who don’t use any ornamentation at all, have no desire to, and won’t be told this makes them less female. Cheers to the men, the gender-queer, the trans humans who want to color their lips because life is short and it’s the presentation they want to bring to it—even if it risks their safety. Oh, and cheers to the cis men who know it’s absolutely none of their business.

It’s not easy to know the difference between self-expression and self-repression. My heart goes out to those whose light has been dimmed by people with power over how we choose to present ourselves to the world. Love to the women who wear what they want, even if what they want has “streetwalker” tattooed on that corner of the light spectrum for some reason nobody bothered to explain.

Femmephobia and “whorephobia” (or “accidentally looking like a whore-phobia”) seem to bubble up from our not-too-brightly painted lips without a second thought. Who put these ideas in our minds, and how can we get them out?

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