When the Kardashian-Wests posted their Christmas photo, untold numbers of mothering “experts” felt the need to point out the calamitous mothering mistake Kim had made. That’s right, five-year-old daughter North was wearing lipstick.
One amateur child welfare advocate wrote on Instagram: “It amazes me that you canot (sic) see what a terribly bad mother you are. My child is 6 and has never NEVER asked to wear make-up because she still her inocents (sic). You gave (sic) ruined your daughter.”
And it wasn’t just the lipstick that had the People’s Court of the Internet deliberating on Kardashian’s mothering negligence. The colour choice also compounded her crimes against motherhood.
The lipstick in question was red – the colour of lust and Satan. Never mind that it’s also the colour of Elmo, Santa and one of the Wiggles.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of talk about Kanye’s poor “fathering” due to Lipstickgate. Instead, the focus was all on the bad mother.
I can relate. I wrestled with the possibility of being labelled a bad mother as my daughters – aged nine and four – spent their Christmas money on make-up kits, complete with lipsticks, blushes, bronzers and 70 different shades of eyeshadow.
I confess that I was worried about how people would judge me. I scanned my mental mother rule book about what age was socially acceptable for a girl to wear make-up, and concluded that whatever it is, it’s definitely not four and most likely not nine, either.
I imagined the disapproving looks as my daughters walked down the street smeared in tastelessly applied make-up, and how my mother friends would react when, prompted by my girls, their daughters started asking for make-up kits, too.
That’s when I realised that my concerns about make-up were more about me than my daughters. It was about me trying to control their bodies and appearance for my own benefit and not for theirs.
Of course, sometimes I make decisions about my daughters’ bodies when it pertains to their physical and emotional safety. I don’t let them play on roads or walk down the street naked, obviously.
But not letting little girls wear make-up is not about the safety of children. On the contrary, it can contribute to a harmful and risky assumption that other people’s decisions and preferences about their bodies matter more than their own.
One of the most fundamental lessons I try to instil in my daughters is that they are in charge of their bodies; they get to decide how they want their body to look.
It’s why I let them wear whatever clothes they like, even when I get judgemental looks from other adults. Body autonomy is also why I support my girls in refusing demands for kisses and affection from friends and relatives. The same goes for make-up.
The notion that pigment applied to a girl’s lips will destroy her innocence, setting her on a path to ruin, is absurd. It’s also misogynistic, victim-blaming and perverse. It perpetuates the idea that make-up – especially red lipstick – is a sexual invitation to men and that a girl or woman wearing makeup is “asking for it”.
This attitude also assumes that a girl or woman’s motivation for wearing make-up is to please men, rather than herself.
The rules about “acceptable” make-up on girls are equally absurd. Why is lip gloss OK but not lipstick? Why can a kid paint her toenails without her mother being trolled but not her mouth?
A girl can wear a full face of expertly-applied make-up for a dance concert and no one says a thing. Yet clumsily smearing some lipstick on her eyebrows, which is what my four-year-old does when she goes to the shops, and she is “growing up too fast”?
As I watched my delighted girls play with their make-up kits, I realised that as with a lot of things about parenting, the question about when girls are old enough to wear make-up is misguided. It’s not the “when” that matters but the “why”.
Why do my girls want to play with make-up? Not because they are sexualising or self-objectifying. Not because they are disguising their “flaws” or trying to please someone. For them, make-up is play, it’s a fun form of creative self-expression. Even the red lipstick.