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How Makeup and Rumor Affect Women in Power

Wu Zetian (624-705) was the only legitimate female sovereign of China. Illustration c. 1690

There’s a reason that women who managed to gain power throughout history were often legendary beauties: they had to be beautiful to gain status, and once they were in power, their looks and choices helped set the fashion trends and beauty conventions they were then measured against. Egypt’s Cleopatra was a ruler who became known for her beauty, as was the Mughal Empire’s Nur Jahan. In ancient China, a woman known as Empress Wu, or Wu Zetian, went from an emperor’s concubine to the only woman emperor to rule in her own name in ancient China. She did this in part by leveraging the image of beauty and power she created. And in the 1500s in England, Queen Elizabeth I used makeup to create an image of a virginal, beautiful woman to help keep her power all to herself. These two women rulers in particular—though from different cultures and time periods—illustrate how makeup can help a woman portray an image of strength and sovereignty, and also how their political enemies can use rumors and stereotypes about makeup to undermine their power.

Wu used her image as a pretty teenage girl to first put herself in the position to be near the politically powerful as a concubine to the emperor. Wu was not from a notable or high-class family in China’s history—she was the daughter of a merchant who became a government official in the Tang dynasty. She was first a concubine under Emperor Taizong, who ruled from 598 AD to 649 AD, and then formed a relationship and became a concubine to Taizong’s son, Emperor Gaozong, who ruled from 649 to 683. Eventually, Gaozong removed his empress wife and installed Wu as his empress instead—a rare and risky move for an emperor at the time.

Wu was known to have been particularly gifted with makeup. Society women in China in the Tang Dynasty like Wu used white lead for face paint and cinnabar or vermilion to make rouge for their cheeks and lips. They would also pluck out or shave their eyebrows and draw on patches of a green shadow high on the forehead, called moth eyebrows. In the early seventh century, this style, which resembled the wings of the insect, was so popular that officials supplied a daily ration of twenty-seven quarts of pigment to the emperor’s concubines.

Over decades, Wu cultivated her image by wearing lavish cosmetics to indicate her rising status and increase her visibility in public. She slowly transitioned out of the conventions in her culture for a woman, which emphasized domesticity and patriarchal rule. As Wu gained status in the palace and increased her participation in government affairs, certain male officials said her social climbing made her untrustworthy when she tried to gain power for herself. This faction vocalized their opposition to her and worked against her as she eventually became emperor. This belief that women who use makeup are untrustworthy, vain, and obsessed with status persists today.

There are no paintings or images of Wu from her own time, but paintings of her from later periods illustrate her with thin painted eyebrows, with three lines painted below her eyes and three dots in the center of her forehead. What remains from her time are stories of the glamorous version of herself she created. Her natural beauty may have been striking, but it was a studied combination of makeup and charisma that drew people to her and created an image of strength, youth, and wealth. She used elaborate makeup to hide wrinkles and flaws in her skin and emphasize her status as emperor as she gained power in her old age. And when she was younger, Wu and other concubines used their looks to try to attract attention from the emperor—the man who largely controlled their lives. Beauty could be a strategy for women to gain a better life, and Wu used it in part to help control her future.

In the 1500s in England, Queen Elizabeth I used a white lead makeup known as ceruse to portray a white face with rosy cheeks to indicate perfect, virginal femininity. This trend inspired women at court to also sport white faces with pink cheeks and red hair like the queen. Looking a certain way helped women gain favor with those at court, receive material wealth, or marry into a higher class; ignoring social customs like using certain makeup could lead to being ostracized and falling out of favor.

Elizabeth never married and had no children, so there was no one to automatically succeed her as king or queen. Elizabeth felt that with the question of who would succeed her unresolved, she couldn’t risk allowing her subjects to see any evidence of her advancing age. As she aged, she became more sensitive about wrinkles and sagging skin, using ceruse to cover wrinkles or spots and controlling what paintings of herself were allowed in the public eye. Any image of her had to show white, smooth skin.

Elizabeth’s advisors claimed they were concerned about stability for the country if there were no set plan for succession, so they encouraged her to consider marriage and having children. But as queen, Elizabeth knew she had more power as a single woman. If she were to get married, she would have to submit to her husband, according to the predominant religious and cultural beliefs in England at the time. So to look like she wanted to get married, Elizabeth maintained relationships with eligible bachelors throughout Europe. She’d begin marriage negotiations and then she’d renege at the last minute. Her beauty and virginal image were key to these negotiations. In this way, Elizabeth used every tool she had to support the idea of marriage while maintaining the image of her sexual purity as a single woman, all toward the goal of holding onto her power.

Elizabeth’s beauty and power were so entwined that years after she died, people critiqued the monarchy by criticizing her looks. In the late nineteenth century, writers and painters began to depict Elizabeth as a vain spinster, ridiculously trying to hold on to her youth by using cosmetics and wigs. To chip away at Elizabeth’s power, these men claimed she didn’t fit into the image that she was trying to present.

Empress Wu and Queen Elizabeth illustrate how women in power can be undermined by their political enemies talking about their makeup and reinforcing stereotypes that belittle women who try to gain political power. Both of these women used makeup to create an image of strength, but they were also often portrayed as ridiculous because they used makeup to create that image. This pattern is often repeated throughout history, harming the women who try to lead, with repercussions for modern women in everyday life.