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A brief history of communities using beauty as protest


TextLakeisha Goedluck

From the Suffragettes’ use of red lipstick to the natural black hair movement and South Korea’s #escapethecorset campaign, we dissect the most significant acts of cosmetic rebellion in recent history

With the help of make-up, the body and face have also been used at pivotal moments as mechanisms for protest and dissent. Different beauty practices have helped to foster a sense of community and draw global attention to pressing cultural issues. For instance, select artists have recently started to “CV Dazzle”. This is the practice of obscuring key facial features with geometric make-up to disrupt the algorithms used by surveillance cameras in order to render a person undetectable. As the number of cameras is set to go up to one for every 11 people in London by 2025, this form of protest is a way of defiantly demanding privacy in a society that’s becoming increasingly watched.

In a similar vein, artists like Cinta Tort Cartró have started to paint their stretch marks in order to regain agency over their own bodies; women are turning what were once sources of insecurity into artwork. In relation to this, the body positive movement is still gaining momentum on Instagram. Users are still circulating images of their bodies with the hashtags #EffYourBeautyStandards and #CelebrateMySize to reject ideas of conformity. Commending naturalness is also at the centre of the natural hair care movement. Black people have taken to Instagram to share images of themselves rocking afros and braids in a bid to retaliate against the discrimination that they face from various factions of society.

Then there are those who have chosen to partake in the body neutral movement instead. Rather than focusing on outward looks, people are choosing to post pictures of themselves performing physical feats like dance or running. The aim is to show that bodies facilitate life and that there’s so much more to them than just what they look like. 

For individuals to use their appearance in this way is fundamentally personal, so what better way is there to show your deep-rooted passion for a subject? A recurrent theme when it comes to protests that have taken place in modern times, here’s a look at the manifold ways that beauty has been used as a vehicle for activism.

SUFFRAGETTES GET LIPPY

Over the course of history, societal opinion surrounding red lipstick has constantly shifted – especially within Britain. During the Elizabethan era, red lippy was believed to ward off death. By the late 18th century, the cosmetic was considered to be used by prostitutes only. In fact, the British Parliament threatened to annul the marriage of any woman caught wearing it and acting flirtatiously – oh, and this also came with the presumption that she was practising witchcraft. 

A couple of centuries later, red lipstick was still largely seen as taboo and reserved for women of an “unsavoury” profession (read: sex workers). So, the Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 – otherwise known as the Suffragettes – used this colour of lipstick to convey their subversiveness and intent to wreak political havoc. Between chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to post boxes and going on hunger strikes while imprisoned, the Suffragettes were known as a militant faction that refused to be silent. 

As a result, in the UK and across the pond, a red pout quickly became synonymous with female empowerment. In 1912, beauty mogul Elizabeth Arden famously handed out her signature ‘Red Door’ lipstick to the women of NYC marching for suffrage. Later, during World War II, the group even debuted new shades with names such as “Fighting Red!” and “Patriot Red!” to keep morale high when access to cosmetics was relatively low. From that point onwards, the symbolic nature of red lipstick has stayed relatively consistent. From Hollywood starlets of the 1950s to high fashion campaigns of the 21st century, a red mouth is now largely considered as a sign of boldness, beauty and independence.

BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL

In the mid-20th century, large, freshly picked afros were ubiquitous amongst African-Americans who had just begun to wear their hair in its natural state. This was due to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s being in full swing stateside, where the term “Black is Beautiful” circulated widely as black Americans began to embrace their natural attributes in the name of black pride. This was in direct retaliation to the white influence that had historically been thrust upon them – particularly in regard to beauty. 

During the era of slavery, black people were made to straighten their hair in order to mimic white hairstyles; there was this Eurocentric idea that straight hair was the paragon of beauty and that any other hair texture was “nappy,” i.e. ugly. To combat this misconception, afros became akin to crowns, as kinks and curls came to symbolise political activism, communal power and the desire to rebel against assimilation. Notable figures of the period such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Audre Lorde were routinely seen sporting impressive ’fros.

More than half a century later, attitudes towards natural black hair are still skewed. Black people are routinely subject to discrimination from institutions because of their natural hairstyles which are often deemed unacceptable. As a result, the natural hair movement has had a resurgence within the black community – the effects of which can be seen across social media. Hashtags such as #NaturalHairCare and #VoiceOfHair are frequently used by millions of Instagrammers, while pro-black accounts such as @afropunk regularly post an “AFRO OF THE DAY.” 

PATRIOTISM IN PUERTO RICO

In Puerto Rico last year, people took to the streets to decry the actions of then-governor Ricardo Roselló. The politician came under fire for allegations of fraud, money laundering, homophobic and misogynistic conversations happening within his administration. In response, Puerto Rican women artistically advocated for his resignation by covering their faces and bodies in their own interpretations of the national flag, perhaps as a sign of ardent patriotism. Whether engulfed in flames, accompanied by political statements or teamed with black tears to potentially symbolise mourning, the collective effect of the looks was extremely powerful. 

On Instagram, users shared images of their handiwork captioned with the hashtags #RickyRenuncia and #RickyVeteYA in an attempt to go viral and generate global awareness around the governor’s corrupt behaviour – together, the hashtags accrued over 226K posts. Artists even replicated the protesters’ make-up looks to deliver the message to an even wider audience. As a result, publications around the world picked up on the beauty aspect of the protests – The New York Times, Business Insider and Teen Vogue all mentioned how the make-up looks served as a pivotal technique. In July 2019, Roselló stepped down – arguably proving that just like the pen, the make-up brush can be mightier than the sword. 

CUTTING OFF COSMETICS IN KOREA

In South Korea, women are expected to adhere to a certain standard of perfection when it comes to beauty. Flawless skin, large eyes, a slender figure and long hair are all hallmarks of this ideal look. Traditionally, South Korean women are also required to spend hours doing their make-up. However, a larger proportion of them have grown tired of this rigidity birthed from patriarchal beliefs and have chosen to fight back against their nation’s unrealistic beauty standards. 

The “Escape the Corset” movement emerged in 2018 and is centred around going make-up-free and rocking short hair to visibly rebel against the misogynistic constraints that South Korean women are subjected to. For example, the prospect of securing a job is often based on a woman’s level of beauty and being attractive enough to be married before 30 is a major societal expectation. 

South Korean photographer Jeon Bora has made it her mission to document this form of revolutionary feminism and has displayed her work several times. Bora held an exhibition for a female-only audience in Gangnam early last year, and she explained to NPR: “I wanted this exhibition to destroy the socially defined idea of a woman.” 

Of course, the movement has also been largely recorded on Instagram. Accompanied by the hashtag #escapethecorset which has over 500 posts, South Korean women continue to upload pictures and videos of their shorn hair and smashed make-up palettes to show defiance – yet another example of conflating beauty with social media to stick it to the man. From ABC to The Guardian, the movement has gathered enough traction to become pressing global news. 

TIKTOK TAKEDOWNS

At the end of last year, American 17-year-old Feroza Aziz made headlines for uploading a TikTok make-up tutorial which had a hidden agenda. What at first appeared to be a snappy lesson on using eyelash curlers, quickly turned into a public political announcement about the discriminatory treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. 

Aziz’s broadcast instantly went viral, although it was speedily taken down by the Chinese-owned platform (allegedly, for non-political reasons). Nonetheless, she’s part of a growing number of TikTok users proving that all you need is make-up to make a stand. User Sofia Porzio (@sofiastillspams) can be seen attempting to do as much make-up as she can in 60 seconds while talking about gun reform in the US. Similarly, TikTokers can watch Meera Sahu (@meerasahu29) paint different sections of her face in various colours to symbolise different skin tones in order to address racial equality. In short, the kids are getting crafty when it comes to beauty-lead activism on the app. 

Often heralded as the “woke” generation, today’s teens are arguably drawn to using TikTok, in particular, to air their grievances because of its time constraints. Videos are permitted to be between 15-60 seconds in length — meaning that when it comes to creating content for this platform, the more creative, the better. Although protest-based TikTok posts of this nature are still a relatively new development, they’re an interesting way to address socio-political topics amongst Gen-Zers and beyond. 

A GESTURE FROM THE JOKER

This year, protesters across the world have adopted the same look: a white face, oversized red grin and blue diamonds painted across the eyes. The influence behind this startling make-up choice stems from Todd Philip’s film Joker (2019) – an origin story in which Joaquin Phoenix depicts the infamous character’s evolution from downtrodden misfit to spokesman for the disadvantaged of Gotham City. 

For many, the clown’s guise has come to symbolise rebelliousness – a shared outlook amongst protesters whose agendas differ from country to country. In Hong Kong, people have been wearing Joker masks or painting their faces with his likeness to defy a government ban on face coverings during public gatherings. In Beirut, Lebanon, the street art collective Ashekman have created posters with their rendition of the Joker holding a petrol bomb and plastered them all over the city. The intent is to provide the oppressed in society with an emblem of defiance in the face of the elite, as Mohammad Kabbani, one half of Ashekman, explained to CNN

Contrarily, British people have treated the so-called enemy to the Joker’s look instead. Posters bearing the photoshopped face of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the clown’s make-up are being used to represent feelings of discontentment towards his leadership. In this sense, the Joker’s image is synonymous with villainy rather than valiant behaviour.

BRAIDS AS BALACLAVAS

Regular demonstrations in Hong Kong began in June 2019 after the government announced that there were plans to allow extradition to mainland China. As a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been allowed certain liberties because of this unique setup. Therefore, this change in law has caused concerns based on the freedom and safety for its citizens.

Although the bill was withdrawn in September, the people of Hong Kong are now demanding increased democracy. Protests have turned violent, with buildings being vandalised, petrol bombs being thrown at the police and officers firing live ammunition. As an attempt to crack down on this activity, the government has introduced a ban on face coverings at public events. 

Aside from the aforementioned Joker make-up and masks, women, in particular, have been using their hair to conceal their faces. Tutorials, like the one shared by DW News journalist Cherie Chan on Twitter, show viewers how to flip their hair forward to create a braid that allows the eyes to be seen and nothing else. These how-to videos have been circulating on messaging platform Telegram, encouraging protestors to go DIY with their dissidence.

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