You’re Not Wearing Makeup For You
Psychology explains and how and why we believe patriarchal beauty ideals are our own.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a person applies makeup while quarantining from the novel coronavirus and no one is around to see it, does it reinforce societal beauty standards?
I’ve been contemplating the latter in isolation and the answer, I’m convinced, is yes. Wearing makeup at home alone does not prove we do it “for ourselves.” It proves we’ve been brainwashed into believing patriarchal beauty ideals are our own.
I am aware that this is an unpopular opinion, one rendered even more unpopular by the fact that I work in the beauty industry, and when you work in the beauty industry, there is a hidden clause in your contract that states: Everything Is Empowering. Everything! Bronzer, Botox, breast implants. Lip filler, facials, foundation. Everything Is Empowering because everything is a choice, and feminism is all about women getting to choose stuff, right? You see, “concealing your flaws” because you choose to conceal your flaws is very, very different from “concealing your flaws” because the media tells you to. Now it is Empowering. (Pro tip: For extra empowerment, reframe “concealing your flaws” as “highlighting your features.”)
There is a caveat to this clause and that caveat states: Everything Else Is Shaming. Everything! Questions, comments, curiosity. Warnings and what-ifs. I was once advised by an editor to remove the directive “Don’t Smoke” from an article about retinol use — though retinol does make your skin barrier more susceptible to free radical damage from cigarettes — because “it comes off as shame-y.” I apologized profusely because of course I don’t want to shame anyone into not killing themselves, their skin cells, and the millions of others affected by secondhand smoke. That would not be very Empowering of me.
Everything Is Empowering and Everything Else Is Shaming is a convenient narrative for the beauty industry because it allows us to cling to the comfortability of beauty standards while claiming “feminist” ideals. Here’s where that falls apart: Feeling empowered is not the same as being empowered. A captive can love their captor, but that doesn’t make their love healthy or safe or even real.
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Perhaps that’s why hearing quarantined beauty enthusiasts say, “I feel more professional-slash-productive-slash-confident when I start my day with makeup!” makes me uncomfortable in a way I can’t quite pinpoint. Yes, wearing makeup in isolation does make us feel more confident in the moment, psychologically speaking. (So will a bump of cocaine, by the way — which is not to say that wearing makeup and using cocaine are comparable behaviors by any means, but to say that not everything that momentarily boosts our confidence is fine and healthy.) The fact that makeup delivers such a powerful confidence boost should start a conversation, not end it. It should prompt us to dig deeper, to ask why it makes us feel confident.
Could it be that we’ve succumbed to a sort of societal Stockholm syndrome?
Could we have developed an affinity for the ideals that oppress us? Could we have swallowed the standards shoved down our throats? Could we have broken them down in our own stomachs and metabolized them into our own blood? Is that why they feel like ours?
Don’t get me wrong — the urge to apply makeup is inherently human. Ancient Egyptians used lipstick and eyeliner and brow pencil. Native American tribes painted their faces before Euphoria. The difference is, early experimenters — women, men, and two-spirits alike — didn’t pretend makeup was “self-expression” for the sake of the self. It was self-expression for the sake of others. Makeup signaled your status to the community or served a spiritual purpose in ceremony. It meant something. It was meant for someone else to see. It inspired the modern makeup-as-art movement, and that movement is wonderful.
But while adornment may be human nature, applying foundation in isolation just to “feel human” — a phrase that hurts every time I hear it, which is often these days — is not. How detached from our humanity have we become if we feel more human by covering up our human skin with synthetic skin? While we’re alone, no less?
“This is not the way it has always been,” Renee Ebgeln, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, writes in her book Beauty Sick. “Women did not choose this insane ideal. It’s simply what we’ve been exposed to from a very young age.” (It’s worth noting that the ideal Dr. Ebgeln speaks of doesn’t only affect women, but trans and non-binary people, as well.) The media’s seemingly inclusive but ultimately narrow view of beauty — thin bodies and big bodies, but always hourglass bodies; red lips and bare lips, but always full lips; white skin and brown skin, but always clear skin — “filters into our brains,” she writes.
“Our primitive brain is under constant assault and control by our culture,” agrees Judy Scheel, Ph.D., in a Psychology Today essay straightforwardly titled, “Culture Dictates the Standard of Beauty.” That we’d turn these standards on ourselves, then, is not only natural, but expected. Unavoidable, even. “Culture and media do succeed at deciding what is or ought to be visually desirable, regardless of our own intuitive draw or what we really want or find attractive,” Dr. Scheel writes.
In the same way, culture and media can dictate the reason we believe we find something desirable, including the media’s reason du jour: “I do it for me.” This is pushed on us via messages of personal empowerment repackaged as feminism: femvertising. The pursuit of beauty isn’t a privilege, it says, but a right — a right worth fighting for, because “[we] are more beautiful than [we] think,” as any Dove ad will tell us. Beauty isn’t about being worthy of the male gaze anymore, it’s about being worthy of one’s own gaze (which is the metaphorical male gaze — the capitalist, colonial gaze the beauty industry was built on—only internalized and with more glitter).
In this way, the media “sells … empowerment through individual brands or projects,” the Guardian reports. See: CoverGirl’s updated “I Am What I Make Up” tagline, or that Secret commercial that calls for an end to the wage gap with a dance sequence flashy enough to distract from the fact that Secret’s parent company pays its non-male employees 28% less than male counterparts. These campaigns are largely successful, because “the idea that confidence and self-belief is what [feminism] is missing” — rather than systemic change — “is seductive.”
The catch: “Products and surgery … cannot create self-esteem,” according to both Dr. Scheel and common sense. Not that that stops cosmetic companies, mostly owned and operated by men, from trying to convince consumers they can.
Men hold 71% of executive positions in the beauty industry. That percentage only rises when you look at who controls the market’s $532 billion: Seven major corporations own 182 of the world’s biggest beauty brands, and six of them are owned by men. This is who gains power when we gain “empowerment” from cosmetics. This is who decided to empower us with products in the first place.
My point is perhaps best illustrated by Dove’s iconic “Campaign for Real Beauty.” AdWeek reports the idea came about after a female team member explained how traditional beauty advertising impacts women’s self-esteem to Dennis Lewis, the creative director of Dove’s ad agency, like this: “Imagine thinking every day that your dick isn’t big enough.” It was this “compelling comparison [that] helped Lewis and Joerg Herzog” — two men — “create Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.”
The much-adored campaign does little to assuage that insecurity; rather, it preys on said insecurity to sell soap. I mean, Lewis and Herzog must have realized that the message “all women are beautiful” is as useless as the message “all dicks are big.” Sure, we can say it. We can even believe it, on some level. But there will come a moment when we won’t feel as beautiful as we’ve been told to feel, just as a small-dicked person won’t feel their dick is as big as they’ve been told it is. And when that feeling finally surfaces, Dove will be there to fix it, with a bubbly blend of potentially toxic methylisothiazolinone and endocrine-disrupting BHT. (Lewis, if you’re reading: Endocrine disruptors have been linked to undescended testicles, but that’s neither here nor there.)
“The message that ‘all women are beautiful, flaws and all!’ is really nice, but it isn’t fixing anyone’s body image problems,” confirms Dr. Lindsay Kite, the co-director of Beauty Redefined, in her TEDx talk on beauty standards and self-worth. “That’s because girls and women aren’t suffering only because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined — they’re suffering because they are being defined by beauty.” While, again, being defined by appearance isn’t an experience exclusive to women, this may explain why mental health issues like anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders are on the rise among young women in particular, even in the media’s Golden Age of Empowerment.
But what to do about it? Can we just… stop believing beauty advertisers? Can we uncouple self-confidence from buying and applying makeup? “Can we un-ring the bell, Pavlov, and go back to our own intuitive sense and primal lure of attraction,” as Dr. Scheel asks? “Probably not,” comes the psychologist’s answer. “So far, it seems that the media has succeeded in conditioning our response.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t try. That doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge that true confidence does not come from cosmetics. That doesn’t mean we can’t admit, in most instances, “I’m not wearing makeup for myself.” If wearing makeup was just about you — the real you, not the egoic you — would it involve primer that blurs the look of imperfections? As someone who used to claim “self-expression” as I caked on concealer, I can confidently say the answer is “no.”
I still cake on concealer (I’m only human), but I don’t call it self-expression anymore. I call it what it is: a momentary surge of the confidence beauty standards stole from me in the first place. A surface-level solution to a soul-deep wound. Essentially, a Band-Aid. Which is not a bad thing. Band-Aids help you heal.
So I slap a Band-Aid on the surface and I make sure to tend to the soul. I try to cultivate real confidence — the kind that can withstand an oil cleanser — with questions and introspection and meditation and self-exploration and all the other messy inner work. I do it so that someday, I can peel the Band-Aid back and find myself healed and whole and happy with who I am, as I am. I do it so that someday, I can separate society’s ideals from my own. I do it so that someday, others might do the same.
Because if a person applies makeup while quarantining from the novel coronavirus and acknowledges that it’s not actually all that empowering… won’t they be one step closer to authentic empowerment?
The answer, I’m convinced, is yes.
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