I realise it’s a bit weird to leave an academic blog stagnant for nearly a year and then come back with a post about makeup, but bear with me. This is actually a post mostly about perceived and performed professionalism.
Of late I have seen one too many uses of “she doesn’t need makeup to be attractive”, most intended as compliments (none addressed to me, interestingly) and I would like to set that phrase on fire. I am a woman who does not wear makeup, and I would like to set that phrase, and everyone who thinks it’s a complimentary evaluation, on fire.
1. Taking things literally
Allow me to begin by taking the statement at its face value: Lady X does not need makeup to be attractive. By implication, other women do. Presumably Lady X has particularly excellent genes: how is this a reassuring compliment to her? I can understand saying that to reassure someone who is hesitant about going outside (or to any given event) without makeup – it would be misplaced, for reasons I will cover in a minute, but understandable. But for the most part, these pronouncements are directed either at habitual non-makeup-wearers or regular makeup-wearers (sometimes by facebook meme generators that do not actually know anything about your grooming habits!), supposed to make those people feel better by comparison to other women whose beauty is presumably makeup-induced.
I hope you can see why this is bullshit. It does not reflect the actual state of attractiveness of many makeup wearing people, or their reasons, or the way non-makeup wearers get treated. Admittedly, I have not as an adult received much pushback for not wearing makeup: possibly this is because I am reasonably conventionally attractive? I think being visibly gender-nonconforming in dress or hair also affects my experience here: if someone’s going to give me grief they start with that.
Nor, as a lady deemed to be acceptably attractive in body and face, do I find it particularly ego-boosting to be told so, especially if the emphasis is placed on something I can neither change (my face) nor curate (I can decide how some parts of my body are framed or presented by the rest of my clothes). And I really, really do not like compliments that hinge upon comparison to other women.
2. Covert implication: also bollocks
Of course, my literal interpretation of that statement is missing something. The implication is not that other women need makeup because they are ugly, but they need makeup because they feel unattractive. The platonic ideal of No-Makeup Woman does not need makeup to feel attractive.
Well, that’s shit, isn’t it. We’re supposed to feel better because other people feel more insecure than us? (I don’t. See above re: teenage experience. Insecure people may lash out at the secure or oblivious.) We’re supposed to feel like we’re doing something right here? To celebrate having somehow escaped the pervasive self-image crisis of modern (western?) womanhood?
Nah. Sod that.
3. Completely missing the point: a primer
Plenty of people have written on why the wearing of makeup is not about feeling attractive, or not primarily. I haven’t saved many links because, well I don’t do makeup, so this section is not as well-cited as it might be. Makeup might be about feeling better in yourself, but that relies as much on artistry, colour combination, specific aesthetics as it does on ‘will people think I’m ugly?’ (This is why I still have makeup, and occasionally wear it to parties: I like pretty colours. Pretty colours on my face: good. Although whether it’s good enough to warrant keeping a collection of makeup that I wear twice a year, I am unsure.)
There is also a lot of pressure to wear makeup in the workplace and other social spaces. This Jezebel article gets it in a nutshell: a small amount of makeup is considered standard grooming. Women get pushback if they do not comply with this. (I don’t much: but either I’m oblivious, or my workplaces have been particularly tolerant.) I know I read once, but can no longer find, a particularly good article on how not all women have the same privileged capacity to say ‘fuck it’ to makeup. Summary: I, being white and reasonably healthy and average weight, would not get the same kind of pushback than women who are fat, disabled, or non-white do. Women in those categories, to varying extents depending on context, have to do extra work not to be read as sloppy, unprofessional, schlubby. I can give you a good cite for how this affects trans women: if you happen to be a trans woman who does not wish to wear makeup, or skirts, or is more butch than femme, your whole gender identity gets raked over the coals. Femininity grooming is pretty much mandatory for trans women, both in terms of access to medical help and in terms of asserting their gender identity in the public sphere. Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl talks about this and other ways that standard misogyny takes on particular forms as applied to trans women.
And, to be honest, I can see it might happen that the same mechanism falls on me: I am mentally ill. I always look tired, because I always am tired. The older I get, the more my face shows it. I happen to have bosses, students, colleagues who are pretty accomodating and whose assessment of my capacities doesn’t seem to be hugely impacted by this, yet. But the day might yet come where I decide that being seen to Put Effort Into grooming via makeup is a necessary way to signal to all and sundry that I haven’t completely Given Up (a terrible stigma for the mentally and physically ill, Giving Up or Letting Go).
Wearing makeup is rarely primarily about one’s attractiveness. Sometimes it is, though: I have known women (and men!) who felt their skin was hideous and should never be seen without foundation over it. These people often recognise that well-applied makeup is a separate aesthetic code: you could be objectively unattractive and yet have killer eyeliner, in the same way you could be ugly and have fantastic clothes. In my experience these women are often very attractive, but my thinking so or saying so does not change the fact that makeup is a weapon in their coping-with-shit arsenal. I don’t feel like praising the no or low-makeup wearing population at their expense helps anyone, here.
4. Not wearing makeup: also not about attractiveness
I did not decide to give up wearing makeup (in professional settings) because I felt I was attractive enough without it. I stopped wearing makeup because I could not deal with the weird reactions I got in an office setting if I alternated between makeup and not-makeup. I quote from an old blog post, made shortly after I began teaching:
The only professional setting where I wear makeup is conference dinners and the like, and not always even then. I used to wear makeup occasionally, when the whim took me, but now I reserve these whims for outside of work. People react really strangely to makeup/no-makeup fluctuations. If you wear makeup and then suddenly stop, people assume you’re lazy/disorganised/cranky or something similar. If you don’t wear makeup and then suddenly do one day, people assume you’re trying to Make An Impression, or that you’re sad or stressed and covering it up. Apparently people really want my face to look consistent. As I generally prefer not wearing makeup, that’s what I stick with.
None of this is about my attractiveness. It’s about social codes and following them, or not following them, and about people being particularly unsettled by fluctuations in one’s attitude to said codes.
I used to receive pushback for wearing or not wearing makeup when I was in my teens. From other girls, this often took the same form as it had when I was ten and not yet wearing a bra: she who has not kept up with her peers in adopting the incremental signs of progression from child to adult must be made aware of this failing. But of course, unlike the ‘training bra’, makeup is not an on/off question: if you do the makeup wrong you can be mocked for failure, or for trying to hard, or, or. This is not about my attractiveness, but about my age (I was younger than my peers), my intelligence (I stood out as a high-achiever in book smarts, ergo, people needed to take me down a few pegs in areas where I was lacking) and the disparity between my social standing among my peers (low) and perceived teachers-pet-ness.
From adults, the makeup pushback was not about my attractiveness either. It was about whether I was seen to show the right respect for the right situation. Wearing makeup to school was foolish (and, let’s be honest, a waste of time, since the only permissible makeup was nude shades – but I did my time trying to follow my peers in rebelliously wearing metallic blue shadow and being asked to wipe it off). Not wearing makeup to your cousin’s engagement party was, I was shocked to discover, Wrong. I just didn’t feel like wearing makeup that day, and ended up fighting with my mother over it. I won, because it’s easy to win an argument as a teenage girl by saying ‘are you saying I don’t look pretty enough the way I am?’. I completely missed, at the time, that the code being enforced was not about my prettiness but about showing respect by dialling up the formality of your grooming. I was applying makeup to please myself, when I felt like it, but not learning the implicit social codes that govern what situations require certain grooming signals as signs of importance or respect.
I have memories from my teens of being reduced to tears by my inability to get my eyes symmetrical, and giving up entirely. Now that I rarely wear makeup, I am out of practice, and the same frustration returns when I take it into my head to get out the mascara and eyeshadow and the like. I can’t do it properly, it’s easier not to bother. This, too, is not abut my attractiveness. This is about whether I can perform a skill that other people either manage naturally or make look effortless. This is about it being safer to outright defy a femininity code than to attempt to comply and fail. (And yet. I keep the stuff around, and practice occasionally, because I am happy to not wear makeup but am not yet happy with being someone who cannot apply makeup.)
Do I want to be seen as attractive, in social and professional spaces? Well, yes, sort of. Not specifically sexually attractive, but I want to be seen as approachable, or well-groomed and in control, or memorable (hot tip: bright red tall combat boots with otherwise feminine outfits are a great way of being remembered at conferences! Completely buzz-cut hair also works). I don’t need makeup to do that, but in my case the decision not to is not based on an assessment of my inherent attractiveness but a preference for using other tools: dress, nonconforming but interesting hair (which conveys I Put Effort Into This Look even if it is nonconformist), the curation of an online persona, etc.
I have the good fortune of being reasonably nice to look at, but that is a temporary state of affairs- I am in my late twenties and my face shows tiredness and stress more now than it used to. I will go grey, get wrinkles, get fatter or thinner, etc. Maybe one day I will decide makeup is worth the effort, as part of my professional ‘face’. I can already see the circumstances that might bring that about, and they aren’t about my innate attractiveness, and especially not about my sexual attractiveness. They’re about grooming, formality, compensating for perceived weakness, and perceived professionalism. I want to be seen as someone in control of her presentation. Right now it is easier to do that without makeup, for me. I am going to be very, very frustrated the day that changes, but it may.