To make-up or not to make-up?

// 16 July 2008

The recent media attention paid to Gwyneth Paltrow for attending a red carpet event au naturel centralises the social pressures placed on women to adhere to the rules of self-perfection. The story was shat across the pages of the vast majority of the nationals, with the Daily Mail condescending to praise Paltrow in a somewhat patronising, ‘good-for-her,’ fashion for “dropping the glam” in favour of a “sweaty, relaxed, down-to-earth look.” Surely, the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow, daring to step out-of-doors without a slab of cosmetics stuck to her face like a layer of sticky icing, is considered international news is, in itself, testament to the fact that too much emphasis is placed on women’s relationship with make-up? And why is it that we are expected to look effortlessly (but with effort) flawless all the time in order to be considered attractive?

Type ‘Gwyneth Paltrow no make-up’ into Google and you will be met with pages of reactions from around the blogosphere, many berating Gwynnie for her perceived faux pas and equating her decision with a downward turn in her career. But what’s the message here? Do we have to paint our faces in order to be perceived as successful? I wrote a blog post on this subject last year, and yesterday was asked to speak on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC Radio Five along with The Times journalist, Sarah Vine, who was “irritated” by Paltrow’s decision.

But what is the big deal about make-up? While I understand that many women feel considerably more confident when wearing make-up (it is, after all, like a mask), perhaps what needs to be addressed are the reasons why women feel they need to cover-up their perceived “imperfections” to begin with? That Paltrow, a woman whose face and appearance have been a commodity, felt comfortable enough to defy Hollywood convention in this way is refreshing in a celebrity world where vanity reigns supreme and airbrushing is considered as vital to survival as breathing air. She is not flawless. Her skin is not perfect. She has wrinkles. And yet she is still attractive precisely because she is real.

Personally, I rarely wear make-up, and only do so on special occasions or when going out in the evening time, not because of an inner compulsion but because I know that it’s expected of me to do so. If I don’t, I’m not seen as having made an effort, or having pride in my appearance. What’s wrong with me for not wanting to ‘make myself look pretty?’ Once we reach a certain age we are expected to adhere to a carefully delineated set of criterion that outlines the way women should look, and if we deviate from the widely conceived norms then we are automatically denied our femininity. I don’t have perfect skin. I am not beautiful. I’m probably less than average and I’m not confident about the way I look, but I am also not prepared to become slave to a band-aid beauty regime that offers no permanent solution to self-esteem issues, which ironically makes me feel more confident in itself.

Make-up does not change the person underneath, and I do not want to develop a dependency on it to such an extent that my daily machinations are orchestrated around throwing on the slap in the morning and frequent touch-ups. Friends and family members are caught in this cycle, convinced that their relationships hinge on the fact their partners believe that their eyelashes really are that dark and voluminous, and their lips really are that red and luscious, to such an extent that they are afraid to bare their pasty faces for fear of ending up alone. Of course, this is not true, but as women every facet of our lives have become so entwined with the way that we look that it’s understandably why some women can’t even leave the house without putting their foundation on with a trowel.

Surprisingly, as I have got older I feel more comfortable in my own skin, and I think this is partly because I have accepted that make-up or not I’ll never look the way I would like to, but so what? There are very few people who are completely happy with their appearance, it’s just unfortunate that society tells some women that this means that they are, in fact, physically repulsive, and have to do something about it.

In response to the Paltrow story, the Daily Mail offered a feature in which a Harley Street surgeon and celebrity make-up artist look at photographs of celebrity women – including Uma Thurman, Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen, to name a few – both with and without make-up, offering critiques of their appearance, and reasons why they look so ‘awful’ without it. I don’t see a problem with them, and I’m sure a large percentage of women choose not to wear make-up regularly owing to the fact that they literally don’t have the time to preen themselves all day, so making this news does nothing but perpetuate the idea that if you don’t paint on your face you are inherently flawed as a woman.

But what do you think? Make-up or no make-up? Do you believe this is something that has an influence on the way you are perceived by the outside world, and the way you present yourself in it?

Comments From You

scifilaura // Posted 17 July 2008 at 2:04 am

It seems rather strange to me that anyone feels so pressured into wearing something like make-up – maybe I have been rather fortunate in my life experiences so far, who says that you are an ‘inherently flawed’ woman if you don’t wear the stuff every day?

What is ridiculous is the Daily Mail – go and find some real news about things that actually matter!

Personally, I don’t wear make-up regularly, but if I am likely to be photographed at an event or going for a new job, I want to present myself at my best, part of which is looking my best. And for me this involves is evening out skin tone and drawing attention to my best features (note its not so much about ‘hiding’ anything), but this along with wearing a clean, flattering outfit too, for example.

Renee // Posted 17 July 2008 at 2:51 am

I never ever wear make up. I see it as a drain on the precious few dollars that I have. After reading the beauty myth some years ago I realize that all of these so-called imperfections were created so that companies could make a profit off of us. There products actually have no benefits and in a lot of cases will cause further damage to the skin.

Once you let go and totally embrace yourself for the way that you are it is amazing the confidence that will come. This summer for the first time I gave up shaving my legs and under my arms. At first I was totally self-conscious but know I know that there is nothing wrong with any part of my body and who ever does not like it is free to look away.

Redheadinred // Posted 17 July 2008 at 2:55 am

The taboo of not wearing make-up proves we still have a long way to go. It’s amazing, really. I mean, are we really so ugly if our skins are not 100% smooth and blemish-free? And why should they be? Men are not expected to have spotless skin or massive eyelashes. And what puzzles me most of all is that a lot of men seem to like it! I mean, if most of the men I find attractive covered themselves up with paint I’d be totally turned off!

Personally, I think it’s a worry of disapproval and adherence to expectations that make women feel they need make-up. I wear it very occasionally, but not really for the purpose of ‘looking beautiful’. My make-up is all bright, neon colours for artistic effect, but I’m not really interested in make-up just to ‘improve’ your look. I often sport green and purple eyelids with pink lashes, or orange lips and shadow! I also like to go for the 40s look with bright red lipstick :)

Eleanor T // Posted 17 July 2008 at 5:28 am

I honestly see nothing wrong with wearing make-up. If you use clothes to dress your body and give you confidence, why not use make-up to dress your face?

I agree it’s a shame more women than men feel they have to wear it to look attractive, but them I’m all for a little concealer and mascara on a man. Heck, if it gives both sexes confidence and flawless skin, why the hell not?!

Amity // Posted 17 July 2008 at 8:02 am

I’ve never worn a lot of make-up by any means but I did wear a little on a near-daily basis, even if I wasn’t going anywhere. In the last year I’ve stopped wearing it as a matter of course and only put some on when it feels like fun. This means I now wear it about once a fortnight.

At first it felt very strange, very naked, to go out without anything on my face but now I find it very freeing and it’s actually made me more confident, not less so. And when I do wear make-up it feels fun and new again and I enjoy it instead of doing it mechanically.

So all of that to say good for Gwennie! I wish more celebs didn’t succumb to the pressure to paint themselves up every single time they step foot out the door (though I understand why they do with the nature of the paps).

Jess // Posted 17 July 2008 at 9:37 am

I do wear make up if I leave the house. I feel ugly if I don’t and I think that people will judge me for it if I don’t. This is the main issue that I have struggled to deal with as a feminist – I have even shaved my hair off in a bid to “get over” the reliance on appearance – but I still put on the slap!! Please help!

Sian // Posted 17 July 2008 at 9:46 am

The Daily Mail never ceases to amaze me-‘sweaty’?!

I do think that most people (including me) use make-up as a mask to the world. But I also think that it’s a far less intrusive and potentially dangerous mask than, say, plastic surgery. I have some sympathy with the Times journalist’s view (although I personally wouldn’t write an article about it!) in that the women I notice not wearing make-up usually have fantastic skin (or skin better than mine!). I would love to have that. But even so I’m glad that GP has the confidence to do so-even when you have the looks privileges that she does there’s STILL the pressure that you might think you look ‘even better’ with make-up (Thankyou, Daily Mail). And it’s nice to have confidence in your naked face!

In my teenage years especially though, I think make-up helped me. At a time when I had zero confidence, putting make-up made me think I looked better and I was ready to see the world without sinking into a pit of my own anxieties. Even if make-up didn’t change what I looked like significantly, it made me feel better. Nowadays I have far more confidence (and less spots) and I do go out without make-up on occasion-and I forget that I haven’t got any on within minutes if I’m not near a mirror. Normally I wear foundation, blusher and mascara because I prefer how my face looks that way.

I honestly think there’s not much pressure on ordinary women to wear make-up though, I don’t think people notice whether you are or not, with the possible exception of people with blonde eyelashes who normally wear mascara(Me!) (please do tell me if I’m wrong though-that’s just the impresssion of one woman). The exception is in certain professional situations where I think there’s a pressure to wear it (I think there’s even a study on it somewhere!).

Our dependence on make-up can be completely over the top leading to damaging though. I know of two stories of women with blonde eyelashes that illustrate this actually; my boyfriend’s nan, when she was dying of cancer, always got her daughters to put her mascara on before her husband came in (and there wasn’t any pressure from him on this-but she was paranoid about it). And I read an interview with a very famous professional make-up artist in Vogue (Charlotte somebody, has lovely red hair) in which she said that this friend of her mother’s who, when she was a kid, had told her she looked like a bloody albino and she needed to get some eyelashes (and she sounded very grateful for this advice, not shocked at someone crushing the delicate confidence of a teenage girl like I was), and then she later said that her own husband has NEVER seen her without mascara!

Jennifer-Ruth // Posted 17 July 2008 at 10:21 am

“…so making this news does nothing but perpetuate the idea that if you don’t paint on your face you are inherently flawed as a woman.”

Of course! How would they sell us so much stuff if we weren’t all constantly aware that we are flawed? “Beauty” is an impossible standard that we can only aspire to, never obtain. After all – if Charlize Theron, Kate Moss, Gwyenth Paltrow (hmmm…only white women in that Daily Mail article…) can’t be perfect without make-up, then none of us stand a chance. Buy, buy, buy!

As Renee said above, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is a great dissection of this subject.

Personally, I quite enjoy wearing make-up, especially sparkly greens and neon yellows and stuff like that. It’s fun! But I can happily be seen without it. Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don’t. Of course, it is hard to be completely unaffected with the constant messages that we are fed about beauty, but I try to avoid them – I don’t read “women’s” magazines and such. It has helped. Five years’ ago I probably wouldn’t have been seen dead without mascara and foundation. Now, I don’t care half as much who sees me without make-up. As it turns out, people don’t generally seem to notice anyway…

Kate // Posted 17 July 2008 at 10:36 am

I don’t think that in ‘real life’ women who don’t wear much (or any) make-up are necessarily in the minority. Certainly in the cross-section of women I meet at work, the average woman wears either no make-up, or a little bit of lipstick or concealer. I wear pressed powder quite often to make my adult-onset acne less obvious, but it doesn’t make me dependent on make-up (though it does make me pissed off with my skin – how am I paying for my carefree teen years now!). I go out with no make-up all the time, whereas I’d never go out without ironing my clothes. I’d say that a greater tyranny for women over 40 is pressure to dye their hair. Of the five women in my office over the age of 45, four of them colour their hair to some extent, yet I have never seen three of these women in make-up.

chem_fem // Posted 17 July 2008 at 10:46 am

I don’t wear it very often (in fact you can count the number of times I’ll wear it in a year on both hands) but if I do it is normally because I expect my photograph to be taken. I’m really not very photogenic, mostly because I panic and think ‘eek what kind of smile shall I do’ and end up grimacing :)

I think make-up definitely helps me look better in photos. If only because it makes a grimace look a bit more like a grin.

Jess, I can completely understand having one hang up that is at odd with your feminism. For me it is marriage. I can’t get over wanting to do it.

Alicia // Posted 17 July 2008 at 11:39 am

I like wearing makeup. I wear it most days to work because I have a fairly dull clerical job and I feel that I am putting my own little stamp on the world if I have black winged eyeliner, or gold lids with turquoise flashes, or bright red lids. But I rarely wear it on weekends (I don’t think it does your skin any favours at all to wear it constantly) or on holiday and some days at work I just couldn’t be bothered.

Saranga // Posted 17 July 2008 at 12:55 pm

I never wear make up. Apart froma few teenage years where I wore a hell of a lot of eyeliner, sparkly eyeshadow and coloured mascara in on a night out, (because I was a metaller and wanted to distinguish myself from conventional beuaty standards) I have never ever worn make up.

I never get grief about not wearing it from friends or family but I suspect that is because they are used to me without make up. And cos they’ll get an earful if they suggest I should pretty myself up!

I now think I look very bizzare with make up on, and I don’t look like me. So I don’t wear it. I also don’t style my hair, but I do make an effort with girly clothes…

Laurel Dearing // Posted 17 July 2008 at 1:37 pm

i might sometimes outline my eyes for effect and understand if people conceal spots but thats really it and im 19 so i guess ive grown up with a lot of pressure. i was lucky in that one half of my year group that spend time together nearly all wore it and had a “popularity thing” and my half mostly didnt and couldnt care less if you did! since college they have started to be all insecure and wear it but i have not. i do put a LOT on for artistic purpose though. get funny looks with a butterfly on your face. screw it!

Sarah // Posted 17 July 2008 at 1:43 pm

The ‘comparison’ photos in the Mail article are obviously ridiculous – for one thing they’ve clearly chosen the ‘without’ shots to be ones where the woman was caught with an unflattering expression, while most of the ‘with’ ones are carefully posed studio portraits. Also the lighting is different, which makes a big difference to the appearance of their skin, and also they are obviously airbrushed/touched-up (look at the one of Davina McCall for example).

I don’t wear makeup – I don’t see the need, and am too lazy anyway. I think it’s fine to wear it if you want, but it’s bizarre that a famous woman venturing out without makeup should be a story in national newspapers.

badabing // Posted 17 July 2008 at 1:53 pm

I wear it for work, Because I have a very young face, and adult acne, so I wear it to avoid looking like a 15 year old kid. I view it in the same light as power dressing/ dressing to impress. Come weekend it’s baggy trousers warts and all! I love the variation personally!

Seph // Posted 17 July 2008 at 3:13 pm

I very rarely wear make-up and when I do it’s all-out kabuki style.

Recently i’ve started getting jumped on by the make-up stand people in shopping centres harping on about “nude makeup!” telling me that I should start slapping on layers of chemicals to make it look like i’m not wearing makeup, as opposed to say, the far cheaper option of wearing no makeup.

earlgreyrooibos // Posted 17 July 2008 at 3:31 pm

When I moved, I threw out almost all of my old makeup. I currently own one eyeliner stick, a lipstick, and three tubes of lipgloss. I maybe wear the lip stuff once a week, and the eyeliner for special occasions. I love it. I don’t have time in the morning to primp. I’d rather sleep! And really, what does wearing makeup have to do with my job performance? NOTHING.

My mother was shocked to find out I went to work without makeup. She saw it has terribly deviant. That made me a little sad. Unless I’m a model or a cosmetic salesperson, why on earth do I need makeup?

sianmarie // Posted 17 July 2008 at 5:42 pm

i used to not leave the house without make up – not go to the post office or to the park, certainly not to school/uni/work. now i wear make up to work most days and when i go out partying, but very rarely at weekends and i am certainly happy to go out without it. i feel so much happier about myself now that i don’t feel compelled to wear make up all the time, and a lot more confident in my appearance now that i don’t feel make up is the only way my looks could be viewed as “acceptable”. there is so much pressure on girls to wear make up in so many aspects of lives – for eg you are advised to make up for interviews; i think it is very difficult to escape that pressure. now i see make up as something to play with, i can have a go at painting my face in a new persona, which is fun (bright red lipstick a la marilyn? or green eyeshadow from the eighties?) but i can do that because i know i have a face and persona i am happy with under my “dressing up” mask.

Charlotte // Posted 17 July 2008 at 7:53 pm

I have started wearing make up daily, and it worries me. I used to firmly believe in reserving makeup for nights out or when I’m making a special effort, so as to avoid my ‘default’ being ‘madeup’ and to avoid a lack of confidence that would arise if I didn’t wear it.

However lately I’ve started wearing it to work. I try to make use bold, bright colours, so I can see it as accessorising in the same way I would with clothes or jewellery. I try to avoid make up you can’t really notice, makeup that aims to ‘make right’ and ‘imperfections’. Unfortunately I sometimes use that too. I don’t know why, I’ve just started looking at my face before I leave in the morning and thinking ‘oh I’ll just add a bit, it won’t take a moment’.

On a related note, the reaction women get from men (and some women) to putting make-up on on the train astonishes me. Just look in the londonpaper or London Lite (ok not the greatest publications) to see men telling us to ‘put the slap on before we leave home’ almost as seeing it applied actually repulses them.

I used to agree that I didn’t really want to see people putting on their makeup on the train but the more I thought about it the more I realised this reaction has some unpleasant implications. It’s as if men/women/whoever are in denial of what women look like without makeup, and simply don’t want to see the effort that has to be made when applying it. If it’s such a problem seeing it being applied, accept us ‘au naturelle’.

Putting makeup on is not ‘indecent’, It’s not like you’re getting DRESSED on the train. That is, unless you agree that you’d rather not be watching women submitting to the status quo and patriarchy of striving to look ‘perfect’… something which is after all not particularly decent.

On the other hand, if none of us wore it then there wouldn’t be the issue. So I’m as guilty as many.

SM // Posted 17 July 2008 at 8:55 pm

I have to say that in all the pictures in the Mail article the women looked far better with than without makeup. Mind you, I never wear it so I may be a tiny bit biased.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 17 July 2008 at 9:04 pm

Thing is, I think that the kind of people who scrutinise your make up/non make up are basically a bit insecure and usually a bit mean. On the whole, people are a bit too self absorbed to worry about how you look.

That’s my experience, and I LOVE make up.

Cara // Posted 17 July 2008 at 9:33 pm

Charlotte – yes, what is that with complaining about women putting on make-up on the train?! It’s not as if it’s nose-picking or something! Jeez. Sorry guys – I’d rather have a few more minutes’ sleep.

I sometimes don’t bother wearing make-up to work…not conscious, just get to the end of the day and realise I didn’t get round to it. If I do wear make-up to work it’s pretty natural, yeah I know that’s wrong (spend time and money on looking like you *aren’t* wearing make-up! Not to mention that women are supposed to look flawless). Actually even if I wear it for special occasions it’s quite natural. I would feel like I’m in drag wearing a lot of make-up. I don’t think it suits me.

And yeah – most women at my workplace don’t wear noticeable make-up.

SM // Posted 18 July 2008 at 10:37 am

I’m sorry- that made no sense. I meant they all looked better WITHOUT than WITH makeup.

Jane P // Posted 18 July 2008 at 12:04 pm

I think feminists are on a bit of hiding to nothing with makeup. However much I protest that I wear a bit of lipsalve, tinted moisturiser, and eye pencil which takes about 3 minutes daily, there will always be someone pointing out that by using ANY makeup, I am subscribing to a patriarchal notion that my bare face just isn’t good enough.

I do go out bare faced, but on a night out I also like to wear makeup. I enjoy the ritual. I further confess that I’ve had a makeup lesson and it was a revelation. Knowing what products to use and what really works (and some products are brilliant!) and particularly having someone objectively look at my face and seeing it in a different way has made all the difference. I now have a small makeup bag containing a few products that work for me. There’s nothing wrong with knowing how to create smoky eyes, and sculpted cheekbones for a few hours. I know it’s an illusion but it’s a minor one and I’m in charge of it.

Alex T // Posted 18 July 2008 at 5:43 pm

I’m with you on this one, Jane P. The whole point of feminism is freedom. Someone (Germaine Greer?) said that there are two types of freedom: freedom from and freedom to. I reckon we don’t yet have freedom from (meaning we don’t have freedom from critcism) but we do actually have freedom to – freedom to wear whatever the hell we want.

I’ve stuggled with all this over the last couple of years, and in the end I’ve decided that I like to wear make-up, and that I will not accept criticism of myself or anyone else for wearing it or for choosing not to.

tefelome // Posted 18 July 2008 at 7:59 pm

i usually wear a bit of eyeliner and mascara and lipstick, got so many different colours! i think it just makes it a bit more fun, pink one day and dark purple the next. i do go without make up lots though, and ive never considered it to be a mask for myself, as i dont wear much make up. but you do see some ladies with such a painted face that it must be some sort of mask, but if that makes them feel happy, then thats all good. personal choice i say. people say to me that if i was a true feminist i would not wear make up and fancy clothes, but i think thats rubbish, as long as it makes you feel happy, go for it.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 20 July 2008 at 5:11 pm

I’ve seen an article about a barmaid that had been working a while and the owners changed the rules so women had to wear make-up. She refused and was fired!

For newly applying staff that might be somewhere near acceptable, but she had accepted a job on terms that did not label her face as inappropriate for the workplace.

Alexa // Posted 20 July 2008 at 10:06 pm

I agree with Jane and Alex’s comments above. I love wearing makeup and experimenting with different shades of eyeliner or what have you, but I’m perfectly fine waking up in the morning and starting my day without makeup. I exercise without makeup (really, what would be the point). I used to feel uncomfortable around my ex-boyfriend without makeup, waking up with bad breath and all that, but I got over that and honestly I think that stemmed more from my own insecurities than anything else. I’m all for a woman’s right to choose – we make the final decisions about who and what goes in (or on) ourselves, and for people to judge a woman on the basis of whether she does or doesn’t wear makeup is ridiculous.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds