When the Prime Minister of Aotearoa took the stage at the launch of Labour's (since suspended) 2020 election campaign, she did so looking sensational in bright red lipstick and a bold power brow.
As someone who became a mother while in office, it would be nigh on impossible for Jacinda Ardern to hide her 'womanhood', and the fact she’s able to lean into it is a brilliant symbol of how far we as a society have progressed.
I know, there are far more interesting and important things about the PM than her love of a statement earring and makeup. But it’s not anti-feminist of us to appreciate a great lipstick, adjacent to her leadership abilities. And to see it as representative of a positive change in societal shifts.
Where once women in power were discouraged from wearing designer clothes and bold makeup for fear it would detract from more important matters at hand, there’s an increasing understanding that an interest in serious issues and in the frivolous do not need to be mutually exclusive.
Ensemble’s mission statement is ‘for intelligence and whimsy’ – we believe women don’t have to choose one over the other, and the majority of women like to engage with both.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore red lips (Stila Stay All Day Liquid in Beso) and gold hoops to be sworn in as the youngest ever women to serve in the US Congress, she used the conversation around it to highlight the work of Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor and to subvert the sexist and racist stereotypes her fellow American-Puerto Rican endured through her career.
"Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman," she wrote on Twitter.
Women have been conditioned to believe that the things we enjoy are frivolous and superficial. But makeup is a serious business. The beauty industry provides employment opportunities and financial freedom to millions of women and while there’s no doubt it still operates within a patriarchal system, it’s also responsible for making many women’s names – Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Charlotte Tilbury, Pat McGrath and more – part of the lexicon in a way few other industries (bar entertainment) have managed.
As an industry, it’s far from perfect. The beauty business has a huge diversity problem and has traditionally promoted unrealistic standards of beauty which through advertising and traditional media channels (namely print magazines) prey on our insecurities and unhealthy aspirations to be younger/thinner/whiter/shinier.
In recent times it’s the collective voices of consumers, harnessed mostly through social media, that are leading a backlash against this toxic culture. Social media however has concurrently led to a raft of new problems thanks to filters and apps like FaceTune, which mean blemishes and wrinkles are rarer than ever.
Yet makeup (or a deliberate lack thereof) as a tool can serve to empower, to inspire, to relax. It’s used to tell a story; the story of who you are, or who you want to be on any given day.
I spent much of my twenties at medical appointments and oncology check-ups. Preparing for these involved a mental game of determination and focus. I spent more time getting ready for a check-up than I would a Friday night out, determined I’d represent the radiantly thriving person I wanted the doctor to see, as if the healthy face I showed to the doctor could retroactively impact any test results I received.
Thanks to myriad of carefully applied concealers, cream blushers and highlighters (okay, and sometimes Valium), I had the confidence to walk through hospital doors and face whatever I found on the other side, reflecting the radiantly good health I was desperate to convey. (You can hear the sobering flipside of this on the excellent podcast Getting Better - A Year in the Life of a Māori Medical Student).
In my thirties, as a stay-at-home mother of small children, a bold lip would embolden me to leave the house, fortified by the vivid pigment to transform into someone who could hold a conversation about something other than sleep and feeding schedules. On reflection, perhaps this was more the Prime Minister’s modus operandi than representing her party colours?
Living in the Coromandel recently I wore not a skerrick of makeup for six months and that was equally empowering, defining the free-spirited, deeply relaxed person I wanted to be, a la Alicia Keys.
Interestingly going without is now my default back in Auckland now too. I don’t bother with makeup if I’m just popping up the road to Daily Bread for a hazelnut flat white. Putting it on for an external meeting has become part of the mental preparation for work mode in a post-Covid world.
Makeup provides opportunities for us to engage in creative storytelling with ourselves, and to celebrate the intelligent with the whimsical in a way that most cis males aren’t afforded. It gives us the ability to trial different personalities and opportunities for playful escapism. It’s frivolous, but not dismissive.