Chipping Away at Female Beauty Standards
Because I’m sick and tired of people thinking I’m sick or tired just because I’m not wearing makeup.
by Charity Lombardo
Yesterday I didn’t wear makeup and someone asked me if I was okay.
And then again, more specifically, “Were you crying? Your skin looks red.”
So this is the world I live in? A morning sans makeup application equals someone concerned that I’m ill? Lovely.
What’s worse is that my automatic thought process went something like this: “Quick, say you’ve been feeling sick,” or “Make up something fun you were doing last night and say you’re just super exhausted from all the amazing cultural experiences you were having with your friends.”
What’s EVEN worse is that the individual posing the question was a male. And before I could think of a clever response about how society has conditioned us to think of makeup as the norm, I found myself in the middle of a fake excuse dodging the embarrassing question altogether.
“Mmmm yeah, just feeling crappy today. That’s all.”
I gave in.
I gave in when I should’ve used the opportunity to step high up on my soapbox and preach nonconformity, inner beauty, female empowerment, and the like.
Because, no, I didn’t feel crappy. Maybe after I caught him staring at the small community of hormones that set up camp on my face overnight — sure, then I felt crappy (yes, I have pimples, you have them too). I simply didn’t feel like wearing makeup. End of story.
The sad thing is that I always felt liberated braving the world bare-faced — like a big “fuck you” to “the man.” But in this moment, I felt the opposite.
Standing there makeup-less, I felt my challenger’s eyes suddenly turn into little microscopes zooming in and out on all my pores, magnifying every imperfection. I felt him noticing my raw skin and how it’s different from the more refined face he’s used to seeing on me. And the next thing I felt was the sudden urge to sprint to the nearest drug store and wipe the shelves clean of concealer, anti-aging cream, and whatever other “miracle” gels I’ve put my faith in over the years.
Oh how I wish I responded with anything other than a fake excuse for why I might be looking, what he clearly thought was, worse than usual.
Like, screw me if a little au naturale is mistaken for a sickness, amiright?
After this quick but powerful encounter — powerful in that I felt 100% more self-conscious walking away from it — my immediate next move was to text the women in my life who I knew would understand.
And just as I expected, they did.
One reply read, “SAME. EVERY. TIME.”
Another one agreed, “It bothers me SO much. Always happens at work, too.”
The next chimed in, “There’s always that person who points out how different you look without makeup. And somehow it never feels like a complement?”
Mom’s reply was my favorite: “Men are turds.”
In three words, she summed up the entirety of the last three years. Or rather, every year ever.
I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew this wasn’t the first (or last) time I was having the #nofilter debate. It’s a timeless topic in the worst way. Because while those text messages were comforting, while they proved I wasn’t alone, they represented a deeper issue — one that inevitably and indefinitely circles back to the dreaded “s” word:
Here, let me give you some examples of how a woman might hear the “s” word:
You should look pretty for your man.
You should be smaller.
You should be less emotional.
You should know your place.
You should never fart in front of a guy.
Girls should have different (AKA less intense) rules in sports.
You’re a girl, you should know how to cook.
And so on and so forth, unfortunately.
These are the stupid, stubborn, century-old ideas that continually slow our progress in breaking the status quo.
Now maybe you think I’m being dramatic. Maybe you’d say this guy wasn’t trying to make me feel insecure and that maybe I should just let it go (see, there it is again — the “s” word).
Well, sorry. I can’t just let it go.
When someone, especially a dude, asks me if I’m sick or crying because I look a little less polished than usual, despite feeling great on the inside, that shit sticks around. Even if his concern was genuine, he still judged this book by its cover.
He reminded me that the notion of a woman only looking good, healthy, or attractive with makeup on is still alive and thriving. It’s a notion that fogs the lens through which a woman is perceived, fueling society’s expectation that we should always look flawless — even if flawless means unnatural. According to her article “The Makeup Tax,” Olga Khazan agrees: “Some women contend they only wear makeup to ‘boost their confidence,’ but the reason they feel less confident when they don’t wear it is that there’s an expectation they will.”
That moment — the one where I let another human rob any morsel of confidence I carried that day — is a moment that will stay with me forever. It will haunt me in my sleep. It will hijack my dreams. It will creep into my groggy morning thoughts as I wake up and stand before my makeup bag, playing a mental game of tug of war with the question: to hide or not to hide?
Now don’t get me wrong, I like makeup. Growing up in a dance school and performing in college, makeup was just a part of the gig — stepping into character, standing out on stage, embodying an otherworldly creature for the day. From the start, I saw it as an avenue for creative expression — a flowery idea that wilted as soon as I learned about the Hollywood beauty standard, made possible by witches like Photoshop and all of its magical friends.
As soon as I felt the effects of not being “that girl” in the magazine, I had to take a step back and reassess the true role of makeup in my life. I had to get back to seeing it as a creative outlet, a choice — not a ticket to perfection or a mask to hide behind. I had to learn to love myself for who I already was, not for who I could become by way of a sparkly bag of tricks.
I mean, the word itself — makeup — insinuates that something is lacking or missing and therefore needs to be filled in or made up for.
The Collins Dictionary says it best: “Makeup consists of things such as lipstick, eye shadow, and powder which some women put on their faces to make themselves look more attractive.”
Nowhere is it mentioned that makeup is used as a tool for personal expression; I guess looking more attractive is more important? At least it doesn’t mention that makeup helps women appear to be more competent. Because, yes, that’s a notion that’s alive and thriving too. New York Times contributor Catherine Saint Louis confirms, “Wearing makeup…increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness, according to a new study...”
I’m lucky to work in an industry where makeup isn’t mandatory, where T-shirts are worn by even the C-suite, and three-piece suits are a very rare sighting. But some industries aren’t like that. For example, a friend of mine who works in finance told me that, in her world, a woman not wearing makeup to work is the equivalent of a man wearing a stained shirt to an important meeting. Ha! Wait. Isn’t EVERYONE’S shirt expected to be clean? Because everyone wears shirts, not just men? Makeup and shirts are not the same. I smell bullshit.
I understand some companies have dress codes to keep their employees looking professional. But pressuring women into wearing makeup to work is a total double standard, and you know it. Nothing about an unmade-up face is intrinsically unprofessional anyway. “…and the fact that women are told they look tired or ill when they don’t wear makeup shows how deeply so many of us have absorbed the idea that women should have brightly-colored lips and cheeks,…while men can simply splash some water on their faces and walk out the door,” adds Allure editor Madeleine Holden.
But wait, it gets better. Research shows that attractive people even earn more and are more likely to succeed in the workplace. One study conducted by researchers Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner tested whether a person’s level of attractiveness relates to their level of income (spoiler alert: it does). Their study confirmed that, “…people who fall into the ‘attractive’ category are, on average, paid 20 percent more than their counterparts.” And also that, “…when it came to women, the attractiveness factor affecting their income was almost wholly determined by their makeup and grooming…”
Great! I love knowing my worth is partially measured by makeup, rather than, say, brains, talents, or unique viewpoints.
Ugh. We’ve got some serious stereotypes to kill.
Thankfully, the revolution has begun, we just need to keep it up. One of the prominent figures leading the charge is my girl Alicia Keys — seemingly the most down to earth of the A-list celebs who uses her platform for good. That Lenny Letter she wrote in 2016 detailing her decision to go #nomakeup was the very thing that gave females around the world (including myself) the courage to do the same. Here I thought going a few days without makeup was a bold move, but damn, Ms. Keys up and started a movement.
In many ways, her letter, in which she gets real about real struggles, is a personal declaration of independence, published only to inspire the masses.
“Every time I left the house,” says Keys, “I would be worried if I didn’t put on makeup: What if someone wanted a picture?? What if they POSTED it??? These were the insecure, superficial, but honest thoughts I was thinking. And all of it, one way or another, was based too much on what other people thought of me.”
Her letter moved millions of women and girls to challenge the system, scrap the slap, and march on with their naked faces forward. Soon after, big-time stars like Adele, Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, and Madonna posted pics of their own goo-free faces, gladly supporting the movement.
“’Cause I don’t want to cover up anymore,” says Keys. “Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
That’s the kind of courage that will spark a shift in thinking. So that maybe, one day, we can go au naturale in peace. So that maybe more women will appear bare-faced on TV shows and magazines to solidify the new norm. To adjust the collective mind’s eye about how women naturally look. And that however they naturally look is beautiful.
Remember, for every macho male manager who will ask if you’re ill just because you’re not wearing makeup, there’s a set of eyes to be opened to a bigger idea — we’re not here to look good for you. We’re not here to play along. We’re not here to be mousy or insignificant. And we sure as hell won’t yield to the standards set for us in nineteen-fifty-whatever.
We’re here to break them, loudly.
Burn them, indiscreetly.
Then bravely build our own.