Two years ago, Healthista writer Courtney Welu made a conscious decision to never wear make up. Ever. Her reasons might surprise you
I was reading one of Healthista’s columns, as I try to do when new stories come out, about the show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and how our beauty editor Annabel emulates her as a beauty icon.
Mrs. Maisel, according to Annabel, fully embodies ‘the idea that women can be smart, contradictory and care about their looks.’
There’s something that bothers me a bit about this train of thought, because in my experience, women may be called vain for caring about their looks– but if they’re not wearing a perfectly applied face full of makeup, then they’re completely looked down on.
A study showed that when women wear makeup, they are perceived as healthier and more confident. The participants in this study also linked women wearing makeup with more prestigious jobs and earning potential.
This isn’t just a perception – another study from 2018 actually found that women who wear makeup are getting paid more.
There’s massive social pressure for women to wear makeup, both personally and professionally
It was also found that male customers tip waitresses who wear makeup more than waitresses who do not.
This article’s point of view isn’t totally misguided, but the thing is that there’s no societal pressure to, as Annabel says in her column about Mrs. Maisel ‘morph overnight into an activist comedienne who forgoes lipstick and waist-shaping underwear.’
Lipstick and waist-shaping underwear are absolutely the expectation for what women are supposed to look like. There’s massive social pressure for women to apply lipstick, mascara and foundation every morning, both professionally and personally.
Just go look on your Instagram – whether it’s monetised stars or your best friends, it’s a social necessity for women to look beautiful all the time. Beauty in our world means femininity and hiding any possible flaws.
Men have beauty standards too, but they don’t have to wear make-up to be considered attractive, or even human – women do.
Why I don’t wear make-up
I’m nearly twenty-one years old, and I’ve never worn makeup on a daily basis.
In the beginning, there wasn’t even a particular reason for it, other than that I didn’t see the point in spending all that time in the morning on my face when I could get extra sleep instead.
I was probably twelve or thirteen when this started setting me apart from the rest of the girls in my school. By the time I was in high school, nearly every girl I knew wore makeup to school every single day.
I would wear it occasionally, on special occasions – school dances, a choir concert, that sort of thing. However, even though I never wanted to wear makeup, there was always an unspoken pressure that said I should be wearing makeup.
I had a friend who had an eyelash curler, which I thought was the funniest thing in the world at thirteen. Why would anyone want to curl their eyelashes? She was obsessed with it though, and in turn I became obsessed with laughing at it.
I was the only one, though. Eyelash curlers were very much the norm for thirteen year old girls, as was eyeliner and red lipstick. When all other girls could talk about were their eyelashes, I didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. I didn’t care about my eyelashes. It set me apart from the other girls.
Nearly every girl I knew growing up wore makeup every day
Being different put pressure on me to try and like the others, but I mostly ignored it. That didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. There were many times I would notice that I’d get treated differently because I didn’t wear any makeup.
I was in school plays when I was in high school, and plays were the only time I always wore makeup, because everyone had to, even the boys. During my first play, I wore a suffocatingly tight flowered dress, had my hair curled for two hours before every show, and had a face full of makeup.
I’d never gotten so many compliments in one night. Always accompanying the compliments was shock that I looked like that. I was suddenly given positive attention – and then I went back to school on Monday, and I was invisible again.
It wasn’t explicitly stated, but I felt judged by other girls. Both for not wearing makeup and for being passably pretty without it. I’d never compete in a looks contest with my bare face compared to everyone else’s, but if they were forced to strip their faces clean, my natural face meets a lot of beauty standards without me having to work for it.
I didn’t get treated differently by teachers or bosses of course, because I was a student, but I certainly noticed that girls who wore makeup were often treated as more mature than I was.
Makeup, in my experience, is a societal symbol of a girl growing up into a woman. Girls don’t wear makeup – women do.
Because I never wore any, I was still a kid.
Makeup is a symbol of femininity, and women must be feminine in order to fit into society’s standards.
Masculinity may be valued more than femininity in our society – but only when the masculinity comes from men. Women are expected to conform fully to femininity to be taken seriously, and makeup is a tool to get women to that pedestal.
Any trait that’s perceived as ‘masculine’ is beloved when men express it, but hated when women do. Think about the whole debate surrounding bossiness. Traits we value in boys are never valued in girls.
I tried to compensate for my lack of femininity by always being the smart one – you know the cliché about how there are pretty girls and smart girls, which is equally harmful no matter which trope you fall under.
I always felt like ‘the smart one’ and not ‘the pretty one’
Still, there’s this idea that I could never quite shake that I was viewed as less intelligent because I didn’t wear makeup. Not that I wasn’t book-smart, but that I was socially unintelligent and didn’t fit in and never would.
Because I turned my nose up at some of the conversations my female friends had, especially when it came to makeup and beauty, I stopped being included. Not just in these conversations, but generally. There was such a marked difference between myself and the other girls I knew – I don’t think either of us knew quite how to relate to each other but because they all had each other I was the one left out.
A huge part of this, of course, was boys. Boys never took much notice of me, and always went after the prettiest girls, the ones who fit in better than I did. I didn’t mind all that much. I had a casual disinterest in boys.
It still hurts when no one ever pays you any attention.
Another facet of society beyond girls having to be beautiful to be taken seriously is that girls are taught from a young age to measure their worth by how beautiful boys find them – even me, who has always had next to no interest in what men do or do not think of me.
I never felt unattractive because I didn’t wear makeup, but I did know that no boy would ever like me the way they liked other girls. Even though I had no interest in dating a boy, it was still painful to know that with my natural face I’d never live up to an ideal girl to have a crush on.
I didn’t care enough to start wearing makeup, but it still made me feel like I wasn’t quite a real girl, let alone a woman.
girls are taught from a young age to measure their worth by how beautiful boys find them
I still feel this way most of the time, and it’s upsetting. I am a woman, and want to be treated like one, but I’ve always felt such a huge divide between other women and myself. There’s always been too much that’s different about me, makeup being just one thing. I wasn’t interested in boys, didn’t dream about having children one day, didn’t care if I was asked to prom. I didn’t want to change myself to bridge that gap, so it led to me spending most of high school alone.
I tried to find my self-worth in other ways as l moved through my teenage years – by getting good grades, being friends with my teachers, eventually finding a group of girls to be friends with that did wear makeup every day, but at least didn’t make me feel excluded or idiotic because I didn’t. I still felt that separation, though.
I had a reputation for being the quiet one as well as the smart one, because at least then I could pretend the reason I didn’t fit in was because I was more mature than everyone else, even though it always felt like completely the opposite to me.
There were two things that really made my issue with makeup come to a head.
The first was that my younger sister, at age fourteen, was ‘discovered’ by one of the biggest modelling companies in the world. Even though we’re from a small town in South Dakota, quite literally the middle of nowhere, my sister has modelled in New York and Los Angeles. This year, she’ll model in Tokyo, and probably Milan and Seoul as well.
I was seventeen and she was fourteen when she started modelling, and my self-esteem took a hard hit.
my sister’s always been everything I’m not, the gold standard for pretty girls and to top it off, a model too
I don’t have low self-esteem – when you spend most of your life not fitting in, you get rather thick skin. Nearly all of my self-esteem issues come from my sister.
I love my sister more than most anything, but it wasn’t easy growing up next to her. She’s always been everything I’m not, the gold standard for pretty girls – she wears a full face of makeup every day. She gets up early nearly every morning to do her hair. She’s never met a boy who doesn’t want to date her. She is picture perfect femininity.
And to top it all off, she’s a model, too. It’s a tough thing to be told your younger sister is pretty enough to be a model, but you’re not.
She’s three years younger than me, but strangers almost always assume she’s my older sister.
In coming to terms with her modelling, I had the realisation that how seriously a woman is taken has everything to do with how feminine she is.
It didn’t matter that I was smart or quiet or funny, my sister was taken more seriously, especially once people found out she modelled. By strangers, by boys, sometimes even friends and family members.
Sure, others are aware that she can be immature, but other women know how to relate to my sister, whereas I’m a big question mark – so it’s easier to treat me like I’m not on their level in the same way that my sister is, so they don’t have to think about why I’m different and what that could mean.
There are many reasons for the complex dynamic between my sister and me, but the two of us move through the world in vastly different ways – and a huge part of that is that in our dynamic, she’s the pretty one and I’m the smart one. It doesn’t mean that I’m ugly and she’s stupid, but the world and the people around us treat us according to the boxes it decided we fit best.
None of this is said out loud, of course – and I’m sure if you asked my sister, she might tell you a different story about which of us is taken more seriously. The pretty one is more traditionally brushed off as stupid, but I believe the ‘pretty ones’ wield more social power than they know.
She might be brushed off as an immature teenager – but she fits in with other women and has more in common with them than I ever will.
Especially when it comes to boys. My sister has had two serious boyfriends – I’ve had none. In the eyes of the society we live in, experience with boys is a mark of female adulthood just as much as makeup is, if not more so.
That’s an experience I’m never going to have.
The root of why I never really fit in is simple – I’m a lesbian. Even when I didn’t know that on a conscious level, it has affected every interaction I’ve had in my life.
There’s no traditional rite of passage for me the way there is for women who like men
I’m a woman who’s never going to be with a man – but womanhood is so completely defined by men. So what does that make me instead? A perpetual immature girl? Most of the time, that feels like how I’m treated, especially when I’m inevitably compared to my sister.
There’s no traditional rite of passage for me the way there is for women who like men – I’m never going to experience life in the same way that they do.
Being a lesbian is a double-edged sword when it comes to makeup and femininity.
On the one hand, it’s freeing. I’m never going to fit in with society no matter how hard I try – so I can just let go and never think about mascara again, right?
Not quite, as it turns out.
All women are at a disadvantage when it comes to being taken seriously. Women are consistently devalued, but lesbians are doubly disadvantaged especially when it comes to standards of femininity.
I’ve never felt more pressure to be feminine than when I realised I was gay.
There’s no pressure on me when it comes to if boys will find me attractive, but the pressure intensifies when it comes to how potential employers, co-workers, friends and family members will treat me.
Everyone knows the lesbian stereotype – the man-hating dyke who’s not fun at parties.
If I’m a cliché, I’m never going to be treated like a human being, let alone taken seriously. If I act as feminine as I possibly can, maybe just maybe I can fit in on the fringes.
Which is a real shame, because I am a man-hating dyke who’s not fun at parties.
That’s not an acceptable career choice, however, so I’m left having to compensate. I’m gay, so I’d better be extra feminine so someone will hire me, so someone will treat me like I matter, so no one will be able to tell just by looking at me.
There’s extra pressure to be feminine and wear a full face of makeup if you’re a woman who doesn’t fit into what society thinks a woman should be – straight, cisgender, white, thin, conventionally attractive.
That’s what beauty is defined by in the world we live in, and when you’re not those things, you have to compensate somehow. One of the most common ways is with makeup. How can anyone say you’re not pretty or feminine enough when you’ve applied a thick layer of foundation?
Even if you don’t look beautiful as the world defines it, at least you tried.
Beauty standards are much higher for women who aren’t straight, cisgender, white, thin or conventionally attractive
Think about the beauty standards imposed on young black girls, constantly criticised for their natural hair or complexion. Girls who have a bit of extra weight and are made to feel like it’s their own fault.
Trans women are perhaps the group that has the most to lose from not being perceived as feminine enough, because so many people are looking for an excuse to tell them they’re not real women. The trans experience is vastly different depending on whether a trans person ‘passes’ as cisgender, which of course they shouldn’t have to do. There’s a much bigger price tag that comes with ‘passing’, both financially and emotionally. Cis women never have to think about the cost of multiple surgeries to be perceived as ‘real’ women.
What tool does society give girls who are different to fit in with the girls who naturally fall within society’s standard? Makeup.
In all honesty, I’m very lucky. Though I’m gay, I fit the rest of the moulds rather nicely. I don’t fit them as well as my sister, but enough people say that I could be a model too. I know they mean it and it’s not purposeful cruelty.
I’m cisgender and white. I look decently pretty without makeup. I have great skin. I stay skinny no matter what I eat. I’ll never compare to my sister, but no one does.
That’s really what made my decision for me. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be my sister. I’ll never be overly feminine. I’ll never fit in. I’ll never be straight. Trying to pretend I’m any of these things will make me miserable.
So why wear makeup and try to put myself through that? I’m always going to be not-quite-right.
I often feel like womanhood is a competition – but I don’t want to compete with other women. I don’t want to be a part of the system that puts down trans women, black women, fat women or other LGB women.
Womanhood is like an exclusive club that I was only invited to out of obligation
I also don’t want to compete against the women who fit all the moulds either. Just because they fit in doesn’t mean that they’re not victims of the machine that tells women they must be attractive to be treated with respect.
If women who wear makeup are getting defensive, it’s completely understandable. There are plenty of reasons that women decide to wear makeup, and I empathise fully with wanting to feel more confident and less insecure. But regardless of why you wear makeup, it’s necessary to come to terms with how that choice affects people other than yourself.
Womanhood is like an exclusive club that I was only let into because I knew a girl who knew a girl. I was invited out of obligation, and I’m hanging out on the fringes of the party and checking my phone, wondering what time I can leave.
Why should I have to pretend otherwise?
The combination of my sister’s modelling and my ruminating on what my sexuality would mean caused me to make the decision, probably around two years ago, that I wouldn’t waste my life trying to fit in – and I wouldn’t wear makeup ever.
I’m young enough that there haven’t been professional consequences to this yet. I don’t know what will happen in the next twenty years, or how I’ll look back on that choice.
I know that I’m happier the way I am now though, and if I’m going to be penalized for it in the future, at least it will have been for a principle I believe in.
Femininity and beauty
Makeup is a tool of femininity. What are the consequences?
For one thing, it upholds the gender binary, the idea that men are masculine, and women are feminine and there’s nothing in between.
Using makeup to define womanhood is an exclusion of masculine and androgynous women, but it’s also harmful to feminine men who want to wear makeup and still be taken seriously as men.
It’s a tool against the women who perfectly fit within the mould too, because even if you’re everything a woman ‘should’ be, makeup tells you that’s not enough.
The Atlantic ran a story about the ‘makeup tax’ that they explain as the phenomena where ‘women invest time and money into doing their makeup because it impacts their relationships and their pay checks. And while both genders tend to buy haircuts, shaving cream, and moisturizer, the price of makeup is something men never have to worry about.’
It is a literal price tag – cosmetics are a 60-billion-dollar industry – but it’s also the price of time and labour and stress that men don’t have to think about.
Women on average spend $15,000 on makeup in their lifetime according to a survey from Mint quoted in the Atlantic.
There’s pressure everywhere. Think of the makeup advertisement you’ve seen on your commute. Or a celebrity who tweeted on your timeline about a brand that’s sponsoring them. Or flip through a magazine and see dozens of airbrushed photos.
It’s as simple as opening your phone and scrolling through your Instagram feed. Think of filters as a kind of digital makeup – they exist for the same reasons, right?
Even if you’re everything a woman ‘should’ be, makeup tells you that you’re not enough
To me, the consequences of the relationship between makeup and femininity is a part of a bigger question – what does it mean if we associate femininity with beauty, maturity, intelligence and a woman’s worth?
Beauty standards exist for everyone, and certainly men have a lot to live up to when it comes to competing with Chris Hemsworth’s abs. The difference is that men aren’t treated like they’re less than human if they’re not attractive. Their worth as a person isn’t dependent on it.
Women’s worth is.
Little girls see airbrushed ads and filters of their friends on Instagram looking like twenty-year-olds at age thirteen all the time. What message does that send?
Girls growing up in the social media age have even more pressure to be perfect
When my cousin was ten, she talked my ear off about makeup for almost two hours. How much she loved doing makeup, how excited she was when her mother let her wear it.
I was of course the wrong person for that conversation – but I also find that attitude all too common. My cousin is twelve now, and certainly wears makeup most days. Little girls are expected to grow up so much faster today – and makeup, for girls, is the ultimate sign of growing up.
Why should she or the other girls her age think any differently? It’s not the fault of young girls or their parents. Society has told these girls from the time they were born that while women can be smart and funny and capable, none of that is taken into consideration unless she’s attractive.
That pressure has always been there for women, but it’s going to be especially pervasive for the girls who grow up completely in the social media age who can see picture perfect women on their apps every time they blink.
Getting taken seriously
So how do I get taken seriously since I don’t wear makeup?
I’d like to say I can do it all with my intelligence and force of personality, but unfortunately that’s just not true.
I certainly am still the smart one and not the pretty one. As outdated as that comparison is, it remains how a lot of people think of women. If I’m smart and responsible and capable, I can prove myself as competent and intelligent without having to be pretty.
Of course, it helps that my skin is clear, and I can spend two minutes in the bathroom in the morning and look presentable at work that day. I know others aren’t so lucky.
Being the smart one helps me in my family and small community as well as at work and school. That’s what everyone knows about me, my defining characteristic. If I continue being the smart one, I can escape notice in other ways.
I also choose to be in jobs or circles where the gender binary can blur, and makeup isn’t seen as an essential part of being a woman.
Last summer, I took a job in politics. The job itself wasn’t fun, but the environment of my co-workers was the best I’d ever worked in. For the first time, I worked in a place that predominantly had gay, bi and trans employees, where straight people were in the minority. It was never expected that any of us had to wear makeup, shave our legs or compromise our identities in any way to continue being employed there.
That’s not possible or feasible for most though, and even for me that’s just one job. Unfortunately at many of my other jobs, and certainly in the small community I’m from, I stay in the closet. It’s so much easier to just be a little off-centre of the girls I went to school with than to be entirely different from them.
I try to find jobs where makeup isn’t seen as an essential part of being a woman
Still, regardless of my job, where I live, or who I’m around, I always make it clear that I have principles that I won’t compromise, and strong opinions that I know how to defend.
Everyone knows where I stand on an issue, mainly because I don’t shut up about it. It’s one of my best and most annoying traits – if I have an opinion, you’ll hear about it. That certainly applies to makeup and the ridiculous beauty standards we have for women.
If anyone openly criticized me for a lack of makeup, I would call them out for it. Unfortunately, the ways society undermines women are more implicit than that.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential run is a great example of both explicit and implicit judgement of women’s attractiveness. No matter what policy Hillary was giving a speech on, there would always be room to talk about her looks.
Hillary went makeup free for a speech one week after the election, and everyone had an opinion on it, whether it was pride or derision. It’s impossible to separate Hillary from questions about how her appearance played a role in how seriously she was taken, even after the election was over.
Hillary of course isn’t the only woman who makes this choice – all kinds of women in the public eye are picked apart and criticised for their appearance in tabloids every day. They aren’t the only ones, though. That same attitude trickles down through ordinary women as well, all the way to pre-teen girls leaving each other mean comments online about their appearances.
At the end of the day, I don’t wear makeup and make it clear that I never will, because I shouldn’t have to wear makeup to be treated with dignity and respect, like I’m intelligent and mature, because I deserve respect regardless of what I look like and so do all other women.
Especially women who don’t have my privileges. Black women, trans women, fat women, every type of woman that is consistently devalued by society deserves your respect no matter how you feel about their looks.
I’ll never define myself by beauty. There are women who do – and while that’s certainly a choice you can make, it must come with the realization that it’s massively overvalued and you’re putting other women at a disadvantage when you do.
Women are so many things, clever and funny and kind and wonderful – and none of those things have anything to do with what she looks like.
Psychology Today reported on a preliminary study where women without makeup looked in their own reflection in the mirror every day, just to be present with themselves. After two weeks, they reported being more comfortable with their natural appearance, less concerned with wearing makeup, had less stress and more self-compassion.
If you’re tentative to go out barefaced in the world, you can just try being with yourself without makeup – and maybe work your way up to letting others see you, too.
I hope that the world becomes a place where women can look at themselves in the mirror and learn to think of themselves as beautiful. What I hope for more is that women realise that it doesn’t matter if you look or feel beautiful.
You don’t have to be beautiful to matter.