Disclaimer: I want to make it crystal clear that this post is about a specific practice and my views about that practice from a utilitarian perspective. It is not about judging the people who engage in this practice, or telling others what they should (or should not) do.
I firmly believe that we are each free to do whatever we want with our own face and body, as long as we aren’t hurting anyone.
Okay, now that’s out of the way. Here it is, my unpopular opinion in puffin-meme form –
I say this from an outsider’s perspective on the cosmetics industry. My mom rarely bought makeup when I was young because it was too expensive. I didn’t grow up with a bathroom full of beauty products. It wasn’t until high school that my friends started wearing makeup, but, again, we didn’t have disposable income to sink into skincare, so makeup wasn’t a regular topic of conversation.
In college, my female friends from high school started learning about makeup in earnest, getting ready for dates and parties. In contrast, most of my friends in college were guys. I didn’t really go to classically collegiate parties. So, once again, makeup never really came up as an issue.
Freshman year, I started dating a boy who couldn’t care less about makeup, on me or anyone else, the kind of guy who studiously avoids making gendered compliments about physical appearance. We’ve been together ever since. I’ve never felt the need to make my face (or any other part of my body) look acceptable for evaluation by a potential romantic partner, for which I am eternally grateful.
By the time we graduated from college, most of my female friends had adopted a daily makeup routine. Those who avoided the habit in college picked it up in their new jobs. That’s just how it is. Women put on makeup when they wake up and take it off when they go to bed. In contrast, I went to grad school to work for a female adviser who couldn’t care less about her hair, makeup, or clothes. Most of my colleagues were guys. Again, makeup never really came up.
Every so often, for special occasions or a bout of self-improvement, I’d buy new makeup from a drugstore and make a halfhearted attempt to learn how to use it. I’d look at the selfies posted by social media acquaintances and think, “It would be kind of nice to look like that, right? All flawless skin and sculpted brows.” Occasionally, I’d overhear female friends chatting about their favorite products, trading tips on lipstick shades, and think, “I’d probably fit in better if I could talk about that stuff too.”
But then I think I ask myself: what’s so wrong with the face I’ve got now? I’m a relatively healthy person. I take care of my body with exercise and nutrition. I feed my mind with books and news and interesting problems. I try to be a kind person, make monthly donations to charity, volunteer regularly. I’m neat and clean and practice good hygiene.
Why should I spend precious time and money to make my actual face look like a different, better face?
The answer: because everyone else is doing it. Humans subconsciously judge one another based on appearance, with an emphasis on our faces. And there are certain characteristics we naturally find more appealing, like facial symmetry. We can use makeup to create the illusion of those desirable traits. It makes us look and feel more appealing.
Now look at the woman who isn’t wearing makeup. The one with the blotchy skin, under-eye bags, and oily T-zone. She looks old, unhealthy, even ugly, in comparison. This could have implications in her social and professional life. So she jumps on the bandwagon: cleanser, toner, moisturizer, anti-wrinkle cream, foundation, concealer, blush, lipstick, mascara, and on and on. All to achieve a “natural glow.”
What is natural about applying a dozen different products, each of which contain myriad synthetic chemicals, around the sensitive orifices of your face?
We’re trapped in a beauty industry arms race. The more we participate, the more we have to keep participating. It doesn’t end until we die. And then the mortician puts makeup on our corpse to look lively for the funeral.
That’s why I think, as a society, we have to quit cold turkey. I know that is an easy statement for me to make, because I’ve never regularly worn makeup. I’m not giving anything up. But I genuinely believe the current state of the beauty industrial-complex is bad for us.
It tells us – women and increasing numbers of men – that our real faces are not good enough. We need to spend money, and generate millions of tons of waste that goes to landfills, to make our faces acceptable to society. Every billboard, magazine ad, and TV commercial reminds us: For the right price, we can replace our existing features with better ones. Then, we can be happy.
So why don’t we give it up?
That’s not an easy question. Makeup has a fraught history in the feminist movement, sometimes viewed as a tool of subjugation to the male gaze and other times as a bold act of self-love. I tried to see this issue from a different perspective, through the eyes of friends who do regularly wear makeup.
1. It’s naive to pretend we aren’t judged on our appearance.
We live and work in the real world. Everyone is making dozens of snap judgments about us, our bodies, our faces, our values constantly. We do this so much and so often, we don’t even realize it’s happening. Makeup helps us give the right cues, garnering more positive first impressions. This is a crucial advantage in business and personal relationships.
I have two problems with this argument. First, it’s kind of a tragedy of the commons. It seems innocuous if one person does it. I’m going to put on a little makeup so my date finds me more appealing. But, if everyone does it, suddenly we’re all walking around with a “better” face. The standard for a “normal, healthy” look has changed and everyone has to spend more time and money to meet it.
Second, if makeup was a natural response to how we are hardwired to judge people’s facial characteristics, men would also wear makeup all the time. But they don’t. Our use of makeup is highly gendered. It reflects existing power structures: women trying to look more appealing (and submissive) to male superiors. You can see this clearly in ugly guy, hot wife TV and movie trope.
2. It feels good to wear makeup.
I have a friend who loves makeup. She watches lots of YouTube beauty videos. She knows all about different product lines. She’s awesome and incredibly knowledgeable about beauty products.
After reading a bunch of posts by lifestyle bloggers, she decided to try an experiment: no makeup for seven days. At the end of the week, she didn’t have the epiphany she expected. She actually missed wearing makeup and was looking forward to wearing it again. It makes her feel confident and polished. It helps her feel good about herself. So why should she deprive herself of something she enjoys, something that doesn’t hurt anyone else?
Her experience is consistent with the data. A survey by GlossyBox, a makeup subscription service, found that 74% of clients wore makeup to feel confident.
In response to this sentiment, I would ask: What about it feels good? Is it the way people respond to you, when your face is fully made up, in person and in photos on social media? I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I just worry that we have deeply internalized the belief that “looking good” and “feeling good” are two sides of the same coin, and by extension, “looking good” is a necessary and meaningful part of the human experience. When we reinforce that belief, we take time, energy, and money away from other pursuits.
3. It’s a form of creative self-expression
From movie stylists to YouTube beauty stars and ComicCon cosplayers, it’s clear that people can create amazing art with makeup. Makeup can be a creative outlet, a way of expressing one’s personal aesthetic while developing an artistic skill. I’m not arguing against that.
But I think people who treat makeup as an artistic medium are the very small minority of people who purchase beauty products. Most people do it to look and feel good, according the standards of their social milieu and/or workplace. Many people do it because they feel they must.
A world where the majority of women rarely wear makeup is perfectly consistent with a world where makeup artists explore new forms of self-expression. I think of it this way: most people don’t paint with watercolors on a daily basis, but there are still talented watercolorists creating beautiful artwork for the rest of us to appreciate.
Beyond the social aspect, there are a lot of other benefits to giving up makeup.
- Women spend a huge amount of money on this stuff. One survey found that the average woman (in the developed world) spends $300,000 on face products over the course of her lifetime. You could fund a comfortable retirement off of that.
- The same survey found that makeup expenses vary by locale, with New Yorkers spending the most per day. Which tells us (again) that makeup isn’t just a form of self-expression. It’s a response to social pressures to look a certain way and spend a certain amount of money to do it.
- Collectively, the amount of money we spend on beauty products is HUUUGE. The industry was worth $260 billion dollars in 2017. All these creams, lotions, and pigments results in a huge amount of waste. Ballpark figure, 45% of trash in landfills comes from packaging, including a large fraction of beauty products in hard-to-wash, hard-to-recycle hard plastic cases.
- As consumers become more environmentally aware, the beauty industry is responding with more eco-friendly, organic products – a highly profitable trend. Which sounds nice, but wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t use those products in the first place, given that they confer no real health benefit to the user.
- The average adult uses 9 products every day with 126 unique ingredients. We don’t really understand the environmental and health impacts of these chemicals, in isolation or in combination. The FDA’s ability to regulate cosmetics is limited compared to its oversight procedures for food and drugs.
- Though these products aren’t harmful in small doses individually, as far as we know, there are no long-term health impact studies and environmental scientists are concerned about diffuse pollution of the ecosystem. Again, a tragedy of the commons. One person’s liquid foundation poured into the sink doesn’t matter, but millions of gallons over time is going to have some effect that we don’t fully understand. So why bother? What benefit do we get from using (literally) tons of synthetic chemicals in beauty products?
- Getting rid of daily makeup routines would also reduce the number of traffic accidents caused by women applying makeup while driving and the number of eye infections from contaminated or shared makeup.
I know this rant isn’t really going to effect anyone’s use of makeup. My 13-year-old “little sister” from Big Brothers Big Sisters loves makeup and posing for SnapChat selfies. and there’s nothing I could have done to influence that hobby.
I just hope, someday, we will all collectively agree that our faces are just fine the way they are. Probably right around the time we submit to our robot overlords and our brains are transferred to the internet. You know, because we won’t have faces anymore.