Featured image: Red lipstick has been associated with sexual arousal.
M ake-up, like many of the things you adorn yourself with, is a cosmetic tool designed to enhance your appearance. You wear it because you care what others think of you. Why are you shaking your head?
You do it for yourself, to make yourself feel better?
I’m not disagreeing with that.
Wait, what? I ‘cannot possibly speak on behalf of those who choose to wear make-up’? You’re quite right that I don’t wear make-up. And yes, yes—I’m aware that I’m a straight, white man who benefits in many ways from a patriarchal society. But, for now, please ignore where this opinion is coming from and look through me: analyse only my words. You can criticise me later.
The use of make-up reveals that your self-esteem relies on what others think of you. Permit me an attempt to explain why.
The purpose of wearing make-up
You decorate yourself with make-up to favourably sculpt your appearance. You cover something up which you don’t like but is there, maybe a blemish. You knowingly tamper with your face, a face which you woke up with, as you hope to optimise how people will evaluate you.
There are connotations of doing so. Wilfully executed or not, much of make-up’s style has the effect of ‘sexing up’ your appearance: that is, you effectively increase your value, your attractiveness, on a competitive, sexual market. Although this might not be your conscious intent, which is essential to highlight, the bodily signals you give off to your beholders reveal the standards you are operating according to. It’s thought that the reddening of your lips, for example, simulates the facial blood perfusion that occurs during sexual arousal. Applying rouge to your cheeks has the same effect. Items like high heels, too, exaggerate sexual attractiveness by increasing your lumbar curvature. Necklaces draw attention to your breasts, which have been sexualised, in part, because of the pleasure that can be physically stimulated during sex. Bras redistribute breast tissue to reduce sag and generate favourable obliqueness and size. The list isn’t exhaustive.
'How about no make-up in the workplace?...Isn't [it] sexually provocative?' Intellectual Jordan Peterson suggests that the act of wearing make-up in the workplace is a form of sexual display which enhances sexual attractiveness to men. His points are controversial but they are worth deconstructing if we are to understand such interactions between men and women, notwithstanding existing power imbalances and cultural paradigms.
Your reason for you wearing make-up, of course, doesn’t have to be sexually motivated. Still, these are the signals which you transmit. But who, or what, is demanding you to do so?
Wanting to look good
Your appearance is a physical expression of yourself which ties together your composed identity with current fashion trends and other social pressures with a single thread. It’s what you want to present to people in accordance with society’s standards. You conform to them because it’s how you find acceptance and thus self-satisfaction within their rules.
For our sins, appearance is overwhelmingly valued in society—increasingly so in the swipe-left-or-right-culture of the Social Media Age—and it continues to be the basis of our initial judgements of people.
There needn’t be shame in wanting to look good. A divergent belief to this would be dishonest, wishful, and idealistic—a well-intended but empty virtue which isn’t aligned with reality. We all want high self-esteem (self-evaluation of our worth)—who, in their right mind, wants it to be low? Being happy with how we look is totally conducive to that.
Make-up presents itself to you as a simple tool for boosting your self-esteem by subconsciously asking people to think more of you; and in that you find happiness. The question now is: at what cost do you invest your self-esteem in something determined by others?
Craving attention from people.
You apply make-up to your skin to artificially render a more-desirable version of your physical appearance. You do this because you fear the reaction to not wearing it, perhaps because of the unrealistic and burdensome beauty standards you carry around with you on a daily basis.
‘But I do it for me; it makes me feel good.’
Sure. I get that you’re ultimately embellishing your appearance to make yourself feel better. But how could it be only for you? Your view of the world starts within. Innately you look outward and away from your own face. Sorry to state the obvious, then—without looking at your reflection in the mirror or through the front camera of your phone, everybody, excluding you, can see your face. It follows logically from not being able to see your face that your make-up cannot only be intended for you.
You apply cosmetics to a face you cannot see; optimise a face that everyone else can. (Getty)
‘Why would I care what they think?’
Good question. I believe it’s how you believe other people will perceive you which determines your self-worth. You have your views of you; but you experience what you perceive to be theirs. It’s your route to the outside world: validation.
First, consider ‘worth’ as a concept. It’s an extrinsic property: it must be worth something to someone or something else or it has no definable value. You ascribe it to things (e.g. music, paintings, films)—things which you believe to be truly worth experiencing to others, whereby value is expressed beyond your interpretation of it. You do the same thing for yourself: you sense self-worth when you feel accepted by your environment—or, at least, you can conceive how you’d be valued amid society’s incumbent standards. Without it you are left uncertain of your place amongst them.
‘How good do I look?’ Let’s see.
Appearance might be what many consider to be a thin and vapid form of finding self-worth but this is irrelevant if you value it nonetheless. You want to feel attractive or be otherwise valued by others (or you’d always prioritise comfort and function). You fear negative judgement.
But how could anybody blame you?
Whether you like the idea of it or not, by applying make-up you are pandering to people’s perceptions of you. Improving your appearance in the eyes of others appeals to you because it promotes your self-esteem. Naturally, you want to be happy; and, in holding onto a positive evaluation of yourself, you find a route to this state of mind.
Internally, it feels good when you receive a compliment or a large number of ‘likes’ on social media or if you spot the enchanted body language of someone you covet. You now firmly believe that they like what they see in you, which makes you happy because it’s how you want to be seen.
Yet the endeavour for beauty is so often flawed. It doesn’t take much to offset your confidence—a negative comment, a noticeable effect of ageing, a disappointed date, now a dearth of social media ‘likes’. The disparity between the image you’re made to want and the image you actually have, which is out of your control, generates insecurity inside of you. You only wore a mask. It was never bona fide representation of you. You were never validating your true self: only enhancing it. It was always a risk.
A woman shaves her hairless legs; a man only shaves his hairy face. A woman wants thick and glossy hair; a man doesn't want dandruff. A woman tones her muscles; a man gains muscle. A woman accessorises; a man expresses his ideas.
Self-worth is an ingredient we yearn for in order to be fulfilled and content with ourselves. We could derive it from anything. Why appearance? Why would we choose to value something we’re victims of?
While the debate of free will rambles on in the realms of philosophy and psychology right here, right now, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter what we value as long as we believe it was organically our choice to value it and as long as we are happy with how we think we’re perceived: that is, we’re autonomous in our decision-making We could ultimately have no control over anything, no free will—nothing—but it doesn’t matter: we only need a sense of control and freedom to enact what we think are our preferences to feel empowered.
Contend all you want that you’re a free agent—an autonomous entity—who is independent and fearless of society’s glare and who wants to look good only for themselves. But you’d be forced to explain why you choose to masquerade ideal versions of yourself and express subtle sexual signals on a daily basis. That would be a difficult task.
Miley Cyrus is a self-styled feminist icon: 'I'm a feminist in the way that I'm really empowering to women.' Is this true? If she does promote female empowerment with such bold and superlative expressions of sexuality and 'femininity', women have to believe she chose, or, at least, believe she chose, to twerk and swing naked atop a wrecking ball, not the record label; else it's not empowerment. She's also a role model, a focal point of where standards emanate from in the public eye.
In actuality, though, no thought is disconnected from a preceding chain of mental events; no thought is protected from inflections of the outside world. You are a product of materialistic culture which distorts and exaggerates ideas of attractiveness—an external world you must interact with as part of your everlasting journey of finding yourself. You cling onto the idea of autonomy because it instils a sense of empowerment inside of you that allows you to rationalise what motivations are ‘authentic’ to you (originally yours): unique and self-aware, you are your own person and no one can tell you otherwise. But there is weakness in this: it avoids the plausibility of no motivation being truly authentic, misleading you and making you more open to manipulation. Conversely, it requires inner strength to admit to a lack of control. With this admission you can freely and clearly sieve through your mind to rationally decide who you want to be.
The debate surrounding make-up, then, hinges considerably on the idea of freedom. You wear it for yourself insofar as it’s to be accepted—but so what? Of what you believe to be your own accord, it helps you hide insecurities, building your confidence for coping with what you know to be a harsh world.
It’s difficult to believe that society doesn’t bear negative consequences from asking its participants to strive to reach the unattainable. Stratospheric beauty standards and pure ideals are imposed on us all of the time—constant reminders of how we’re ‘supposed’ to look, showcases of what we should to do for our expectant onlookers (even strangers).
The culture we seek self-esteem in has successfully normalised the psychopathic perfection of Instagram, while superficially-flawless celebrity role models continue to parade sexualised caricatures of exquisiteness. Even children are sexualised. Ceaselessly, we are pressed into worrying a lot about our appearances through the media and, unsurprisingly, society is ill from constantly trying to fight the difference between reality and expectation.
The symptoms? Eating disorders and other mental health issues continue to stem from negative perceptions of body image. To be feminine you should be small. Cosmetic surgeries are still on the rise and are becoming more readily available for public use. The widespread use of beauty apps like Meitu (literally: ‘beautiful picture’), which had been activated on over 1 billion devices by 2016, are being used to unrealistically manipulate appearance. Shallow judgements, born from private insecurities, endure.
This all points to an anxious population which dreads the scrutiny of public inspection.
Are society's beauty standards consistently attainable? What will you sacrifice to meet them?
If you are happy to participate and it feels as though you wear make-up for the sole purpose of pleasing yourself, the role of cosmetics in the promotion of self-esteem can only be good thing.
What is clearly wrong, however, is the passive coercion of people into participation against their sense of will. One arena for such interplay is the workplace, particularly corporate offices. Strict standards are enforced: women are instructed to wear dresses and heels, displaying their figures; men are told to be suited, symbolising power. There isn’t really a reasonable choice; thus high physical standards and sexual undertones are created by other people, not you, outside of your individual will, something which Jordan Peterson failed to mention when he discussed the role of make-up in the context of sexual assault in the workplace. Many standards are crafted by and for men—men in positions of power. But men, too, are victims of entrenched gendered paradigms which construct roles for us. For example, in the public eye they fall foul of favourable media attention if they aren’t in shape or rich. Anyone that disobeys any custom is socially sanctioned.
Do we find these attributes innately attractive? In general, even if there are evolutionary bases to what is perceived to be attractive, our current values are grossly distorted versions of them.
It takes a courageous person to make a stand. All battles begin somewhere. But is refusing to conform to societally-mandated beauty standards a battle worth fighting?
A brave Julia Roberts sports a natural look at the premier of Notting Hill (1999). Attraction is an irrational notion: we can't always provide a reason for it and ideals of beauty differ with culture and era (e.g. skin tone, eyebrow thickness). By fighting contrived ideals within a particular culture, like Julia Roberts here or by refusing to wear make-up, one sacrifices their own attractiveness in the here and now, as always, in the eyes of others.
The uncomfortable truth
Make-up conveys an idealistic version of yourself. By wearing it you choose to abide by superficial values which have extravagated and invented sexual signals. However, to call this a choice is charitable.
For whatever reason physical appearance plays a central role in our value system. In a way this is shame: the fact that someone can rarely leave the house without wearing make-up suggests a pervasion of crippling beauty standards throughout society.
Nevertheless, we do have physical bodies and, quite naturally, we form relationships with them: we’re aware that people will see how we look and judge us correspondingly with respect to whatever our shared standards happen to be. We hide fat, bad skin, bags under the eyes, spots, and more. Doing this can make us feel at ease because it relents some of the pressures of social sanctioning.
I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to care about others’ judgements like this, though—so long as the standards we’re operating according to aren’t crushingly unobtainable. Practically, with self-care, we can learn to have healthy, progressive relationships with our bodies, looking after it in ways that express our health and sexuality whilst not putting forward the idea that they form major parts of who we are as individuals.
‘Body positivists’, on the other hand, adopt an antithetic stance. As part of a well-intended drive towards female empowerment, they proclaim that only you need to like your physical appearance. But their claims are part of a wishful monologue in which they deliver sharable slogans. They encourage us to ignore others think. However, they neglect reality: you can only like your physical appearance if you think others do. You don’t encounter yourself: you encounter them. You curate your physical appearance in an unwitting dialogue with the people around you, communicating what you value and how you want to be seen. You are, however, in some way, always held hostage to how others see you. This is reality, though we can nobly choose to ignore it—whatever makes each of us comfortably happy.
We could also choose to use our time and money to draw happiness from other, less fleeting experiences than validation for how we look: self-esteem is derivable from a myriad of other things. As I’ve discussed in the past, it can be felt from making a difference or bringing value to society in our personalised ways. But other, ‘more-noble’ pursuits, such as academic and career endeavours, forays in the arts, and personal development in sport, are similarly egocentric and serve the same purpose. Intrinsically, then, there is no need to treat caring about one’s appearance as a bad thing: it can make you feel good about yourself like any other egocentric pursuit.
Coercion and expectation, instead, should be made the central issues in the debate, not wearing make-up per se. If someone doesn’t want to wear make-up, they shouldn’t be socially sanctioned for not wearing it. It’s an indictment of that world that they are. Equally, people should feel autonomous enough to wear it. But we should make sure that oppressive socialisation—the process of internalising beauty standards and thinking them our own—isn’t perniciously damaging to us in the long term. But is this possible as social creatures? We socialise with people and we have little control of how standards reach us. So we internalise all kinds of norms. Why just pick on make-up? It’s empowering to think we have ultimate control of our decisions but do we truly control anything? All we can do is sceptical of our desires, especially those which are born from norms that benefit others.
It's your choice now
Our ability to cater for our own long-term happiness is under question. In a bleak world of rocketing beauty standards we are inflicting low self-esteem en masse by pressurising people into the depths of insecurity and obsession and ripping away their self-confidence. Make-up offers reprieve—but only precariously, for it pleads for short-term acceptance with respect to artificial rules. The world outside is harsh and materialistic and hollow. So, until our values steer us away from make-up, you face an ultimatum: assimilate or rebel and face the consequences.