When Is Wearing Makeup A "Choice"?


In most if not all contexts, I don’t really think wearing makeup is a “choice.” At least, it’s not a choice in the sense of a decision where the branching options are neutral and equally weighted and carry few, if any, negative social consequences, the way making a ham sandwich or a veggie wrap for lunch is a choice. Culturally speaking, the playing field is tilted pretty heavily in makeup’s favor.

The New York Times is hosting an online roundtable discussion of the question of makeup and women’s self-esteem today. Makeup is a consumer product, but rather than thinking about who profits from it and how it is sold to us, let’s think about how it makes us feel. Okay. Inevitably, one talking head writes:

“The point is that a harmless touch of makeup makes me feel better. I wear it for myself, not for anybody else.”

I find this way of thinking about makeup so exotic that I almost — almost — cannot conceive of it. As a kind of thought experiment, sure, I can imagine there are women who wear makeup truly and only “for themselves,” who would continue to do so even absent any the miasma of social programming and cultural pressure to wear makeup, subtle and not-so-subtle, that women face in mainstream contemporary western culture. Maybe there are women who truly indeed wear makeup “for themselves,” such that if our culture happened to transform overnight into one where the wearing of makeup by women was stigmatized, they’d continue to do it. Because it’s their choice! It’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever met any of these women.

And I’m certainly not one myself. I don’t wear a lot of makeup — I favor the “natural” look — and I don’t always wear makeup, but I’m honest enough to tell you that when I do wear it, it is not my “choice.” I wear it because a lifetime of being a woman and of bearing the fusillade of advertising and Hollywood and fashion imagery — when was the last time you saw a woman not wearing makeup on a billboard or on T.V.? — has left me with no illusions about the fact that makeup is, for women, considered standard in 21st Century America. A certain amount of makeup is “good grooming.” It’s the default. As women, we don’t have the choice to engage with the beauty industrial complex: it’s so ever-present in our lives that women who don’t wear makeup are commonly taken as defining themselves against it. To not wear makeup, for many women, is to invite misunderstanding or, worse, judgment.

I wear makeup because I recognize that I live in a culture where makeup is normalized for people of my sex, age, and profession. And that’s pretty much the only reason. When I don’t need to live up to that cultural standard — when I’m camping, say, or at the beach, or going to the laundromat on a Tuesday afternoon — I don’t wear makeup. I don’t wear makeup “for myself.” I wear it because of who I am and where I live and what my job is. The end. And if you don’t believe me that wearing makeup is considered standard here in the West, I would direct you to any of the myriad recent studies demonstrating that people associate women who wear makeup — especially, the “natural” makeup with which we are all familiar — with greater competency in the workplace, greater attractiveness, greater trustworthiness, and greater likability than women who are without.

I don’t think that acknowledging the overwhelming contemporary social bias in favor of women wearing makeup as a factor in the motivation to wear makeup is problematic. An act doesn’t have to fit into the paradigm of personal “choice” in order to have value, or in order to be worthwhile, or even in order for it to be personally enjoyable. (I don’t hate wearing makeup. Far from it, in fact. It’s a skill I can even take a certain pleasure in exercising.) But I do think it’s telling that society encourages women to frame wearing makeup only as a matter of simple personal choice — and as something that indicates self-love (“Because You’re Worth It”). (The pressure to frame the use of cosmetics within the discourse of individual choice reminds me, a little, of the pressure on women to never admit the lengths to which they may go to embody our culture’s equally stringent and fraught physical ideals: every skinny actress is always supposed to tell her interviewers that she eats burgers and milkshakes and never really works out. The ideal is always supposed to be “natural,” a matter of sheer, unperspiring excellence.) We’re only supposed to appreciate or be interested in makeup as a form of play and personal expression; we’re supposed to ignore the social and political contexts of makeup. I’m not interested in that narrative. I think it’s overly simple, and it does a disservice to the varieties of women’s lived experience in the complicated and politically inflected arena of what the women’s magazines refer to, grandly, as “beauty.”

I have a meeting with an editor this afternoon. I have to go put on some concealer and mascara.

Does Makeup Hurt Self Esteem? [NYTimes]

Photo via Shutterstock/Seprimor

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