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August 09, 2016 7:00 am
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“Are you okay? I’ve noticed you haven’t been wearing makeup recently.”

I overheard this at work, said by a male colleague to a female colleague. The concerned comment, while tedious on its own, quickly turned even more sour as the man advised her to take better care of her appearance. Or else she won’t be taken seriously professionally.

In a predominantly female workplace I, perhaps naively, expected the reaction to be one of outrage. Instead, she seemed relieved by his honesty. “There are just different standards for men and for women,” she said.

I tried to speak up about it, but the words felt like mush against a brick wall.

My colleagues just didn’t want to hear it. They respected the man, and my feminist ranting had no impact.

I don’t work there anymore, but that moment has stuck with me. I have to wonder what kind of influence these different standards really have on us.

Of course, we’re all aware that men and women lead different lives. There are the anti-rape rituals that women structure their days around, the gender pay-gap, slut shaming, and any myriad of daily double standards. But there was something about this particular hostile workplace action that really hit home. Because, you see, he’s right.

Not wearing makeup probably will have a negative impact on her career.

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Makeup isn’t the only beauty business that has an impact on women’s ability to do — well — business. Beauty plays a role in determining how competent women are perceived to be.

We know that having a BMI above 27 leads to workplace discrimination against women (it’s 35 for men, FYI). Too beautiful women are viewed as vapid and vain. So wearing makeup would improve my colleague’s career prospects to a point, after which too much makeup makes her look like a joke.

It’s a fine line that women walk. And it takes a small arsenal of equipment to walk it.

If makeup is an employment prerequisite, who’s paying for it? I mean this literally — not just metaphorically. Career prospects are important, obviously, as financial independence leads to all-around positive outcomes for women. However, it seems like some kind of cheap trick when women are forced to spend their hard earned cash on cosmetics. Anyone who’s been to MECCA Cosmetica knows that ‘professional’ face paint doesn’t come cheap. Will our employers provide a cosmetic budget for us, like they reimburse cab rides? Or is makeup just another office expense to claim on taxes?

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Choice feminism doesn’t make the double standards any easier.

Framing feminism around choice means that it’s up to the individual to choose whether or not she wants to wear makeup. Any critical insight is swept aside with “It’s her choice” and a shrugging emoji.

Feminism in this context is about having the power to make your own decisions. But individual choices don’t always equate to genuine choices.

We live in a choice economy. Feminism based on choice allows women to ignore systematic oppression because of their own preferences.

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Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to limit women’s choices. And I certainly don’t want to put even more pressure on women to live up to certain ideals — I just think that when it’s mainly women who are the ones forced to make a “choice,” we have to wonder how genuine that choice really is.

Take shaving, for example. Women are told every day of their lives to hate and systematically remove their body hair. Yet feminism is about having the power to do what you like. I remember having someone at that same workplace stare at my unshaven legs. I felt so out of place and uncomfortable that I shaved my legs for the first time in over a year. “It’s okay,” a friend told me, “You’re allowed shave if you want to.”

Shave if you want to. Grow your body hair if you don’t. Simple, right? Not so.

How are we supposed to make a genuine choice about what we actually want and actually like when the popular dialogue so heavily condemns one choice, and so actively supports the other?

Not shaving is an act of defiance. But choosing between acceptance or defiance of social expectations is not a genuine choice when it comes to job security.

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These beauty “choices” have an even more severe impact on women who do not fit the white standards of beauty.

My leg hair, while embarrassing in that moment, is light and fair. I will not be ridiculed for it in the same way that a woman with thicker, darker hair would. Women of color do not benefit from choice feminism like I do because they do not fit white beauty standards like I do. When they “choose” not to shave, are they “choosing” to bear the brunt of gendered and racist discrimination?

If we want to facilitate real choices for women, we need to recognize that not all choices are created equal.

We need to combat the systematic ways that women are looked down upon for not living up to dominant beauty standards. We need to reward women for pushing boundaries.

Beauty discrimination can be shocking when it happens as blatantly as it did in my office, and yet it still happens. So while speaking up when you have the chance is important (and I wish I had felt comfortable being louder), there are smaller ways to challenge the notion of choice. Change the way you speak about your beauty regimen. Try to recognize your choices for what they are.

Are we making a free choice, or are we making the easy choice?

Emma Hardy is a Melbourne-based writer who enjoys art, hiking, and girl bands, and she has endless adoration for thoughtful, witty women. She hopes to bring something positive to the world; be that a smile, a hope, or a wallet handed in to Lost and Found with the money still inside. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter.

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