Made up


I have been reading a book by a female entrepeneur.

I liked the book.  I liked her open and candid way of writing, her enthusiasm, her honesty.

It fell apart, for me, towards the end of the book in a section on developing good habits, in particular, confidence.

This section began talking about doing whatever you could to make yourself feel confident.

That seems fair enough.  But reading beyond the surface it was actually a section on physical appareance and in particular, make-up and cosmetics.

The writer stated that she had previously thought women who wore make up and took care of themselves physically were vacuous and self-absorbed.  She wrote about how she had changed her mind, and ultimately opted for cosmetic surgery as well as spending large amounts on make-up and beauty treatments. This, she felt, was justifiable because it made her feel confident.

All of that seemed reasonable when I read it, though different from my own opinions.

But I’ve been awake for about an hour thinking about it, because there are certain assumptions underneath this which I find disturbing.

Firstly, women have rights to choose.  The right to choose what to do with their own bodies being crucial. 

My concern is the link that’s made between make-up and confidence.  The argument seems to be that wearing make up engenders confidence.

This may be true.

But why?  Why can’t people be confident without make-up?

There are ideas here about beauty, worth and value.

Physical beauty is, in many creatures, a way to attract a mate. Attracting a mate means the opportunity to pro-create, which means the opportunity to continue your genetic line, which means survival of the species.  This is part of our animal nature.


And the link between make-up and beauty is long established. People have been using cosmetics for over 7000 years.  In Ancient Egypt it was usual for men and women to wear make-up, as protection against the gods, and in Regency England men wore face powder and kept up with make-up trends in society circles.

In early Victorian times make-up was associated with a less desirable class of person, make-up was linked to “loose morals”, interestingly bringing in ideas of make-up and sexuality.  In the twentieth century this idea was overturned and embracing make-up became a way to embrace sexual freedom and claim sexuality (regardless of gender).

I wore make-up as a teen.  Usually kohl eyeliner and lip gloss.  Sometimes face powder or awesome eighties blue mascara.  I don’t recall wearing much make-up in my gap year (between school and uni, when I worked and volunteered).  After this I wore it (wear it) only for special occasions, weddings, job interviews, family celebrations.  Ironically these are times when I want to “look my best” which means that I am working from the assumption that I look my best when wearing make-up, which is the very issue I’m querying.

Why is this?

Obviously cosmetics is big business.  The concept that make-up is an “essential” seems built into our society.  If you go into any High Street chemists, such as Boots or Superdrug, the whole front half of the store is taken up by racks of cosmetics.  The product too, has a shelf life, so not only are there new colours and products to try, the stuff you already have will go past its sell by date and you will have to get more.  With big business goes advertising, plugging in to our primal fears of lack and not fitting in.  These are powerful themes enhanced by the barrage of social media and modern ideas of airbrushed, unobtainable beauty.

As I write I am beginning to feel that this is a colossal topic!

It raises questions around human beauty, self-worth, identity, commercialism, tribalism, materialism, culture, value, sexuality.

For me, make-up is a kind of mask.  It is a glamour I adopt to hide or enhance aspects of my physical features.  Mascara makes my eyes look larger, and more appealing.  Lipstick enhances my mouth, powders and foundations cover skin blemishes or uneven colouring.  When I put on make-up I feel I am hiding myself, masking imperfections.  It is a camouflage.  Underneath is the real me, warts (literally) and all. On the surface the “acceptable” face.

We talk about a face with make-up being “made up”, the same language we use to talk about fiction, a created untruth.

I wonder about the link between make-up, the desire to “cover up”, and shadow work. What exactly am I trying to hide?

Despite years of work on self-development there are still some situations where I would feel “wrong” without make-up.

Make-up is also work.  I’m in my mid forties.  My skin is changing.  One day I decided it was time to finally learn how to “do” make up.  I began looking up videos on You Tube.  Oh my goodness.  The woman in the first video began with a list of about twenty products, most of which I had never heard of.  This was going to be a costly endeavour! I then watched a video of make-up being applied.  It was being applied by a make-up artist.  This level of complexity was being shared as something anyone could achieve.  Seriously, who would have time?  It would take an hour, at least.  There were videos on “quick” make-up, advertised as being time efficient because it would only take half an hour.  Half an hour is plenty time to take a walk, prepare a meal, write a blog post, but to do make-up…I’m not sure about this as a valid use of our time.  How many things could humankind achieve if we gave up make-up? How many hours would be get back?

This isn’t about who can wear make-up.  Anyone can wear make-up.  However in Western culture, over the past century, make-up has come to be seen as an essential part of womanhood and femininity.

What is the link between make-up and sexuality?  I spent a long time as a teacher.  Not many children in primary school wear make-up.  In September of Year 7, when they  start the first year of English secondary schooling, not many girls wear make up.  By the end of the year, though, many do. I am interested in the connection between make-up and menstruation.  When girls reach puberty their interest in make-up seems to increase.

More questions.

I am a white woman. For the longest time the “skin tones” reflected in the make-up available on our cosmetics counters were for white girls/boys.  The idea that “normal” skin meant white skin raises issues around white supremacy and implicit racism. Which in turn flags up ugly issus around what counts as human beauty.  If there is no make-up for BME people what does this say about what is beautiful?

The rabbit hole deepens. So many questions, assumptions.  The challenge which comes when attempting to question culture is that our culture is who we are, the very eyes we see from, and re-training our vision from within the fish bowl can lead us in a closed loop.  I still want to know what it would be like to live in the ocean, unlimited.

Body image has become a hot topic.  That we should love the skin we are in (ironically a phrase from a cosmetic commercial) is taken as read.  We are told size does not matter.  Yet when people post their pictures of their stunning and diverse bodies they are, in all the images I have seen, wearing make-up. We question one definition of beauty while embracing it in other ways.

To return to the book.  Applying make-up has come to be seen as a sign of self-worth, self-care and a way of valuing ourselves. I feel this shows that big cosmetics firms have won.  They have convinced us that we owe it to ourselves to paint over the cracks. 

People say that they can’t go out unless they have “put their face on”.   Are we able to be our most authentic selves if we have covered up the face we were born with to make it fit some socially defined notion of acceptable appearance?

The rabbit hole winds on. And don’t even get me started on cosmetic surgery!

I don’t have the answers yet, but I have plenty of questions.

  • Why is make-up such an important part of our culture?
  • How much money and time are we, as a culture, spending on make-up?
  • What does this say about our cultural values?
  • How does make-up link to self-identity?
  • What does this say about our cultural identity, individuality and conformity?
  • What are the links between the cosmetics industry and ideas of human beauty?
  • How does this feed implicit racism?
  • What, if any, is the link between make-up and menses/ menopause?
  • How is make-up linked to sexuality and sexual dissidence?
  • How is make-up part of “women’s work” – in the same way that domestic chores and family caring (for children or elders) is?

I imagine I will still find it difficult to go to an important event without make-up.  I feel a sense of not being “properly dressed” if I do this.  This is my own cultural conditioning, my own notions of worth to work on.

I want to be able to stand, unmasked, real and raw, and face the world truthfully, whatever the circumstances, proud of the lines and shadows on my face, the story of my skin. 




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