Sarah Graalman
Mar 8, 2016 · 6 min read

The Ungirly Notion of Make-up

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I love being a make-up artist. I feel powerful at my job. I am in control at my job. I’m good at it. I’m successful in bringing what has perhaps been stripped away from many women and occasional men. Dormant-lying confidence as they struggle with being seen as objects, being seen as powerful, or being old past 30. Women cut themselves down and apologize in the make-up chair for things I can’t see because I’ve come to realize what we see is often what society has projected on us. Sometimes we need to polish the lens to see ourselves clearly. Sometimes a little gloss does the trick. When they leave with their face on, they simply apologize less.

I am a free-agent makeup artist, meaning I do a little bit of everything: magazine, theater, television, commercials, red carpet, personal/private client, weddings, bachelorette parties, actor headshots, corporate headshots. Each scenario brings me into a new world in which I discover from my ‘fun makeup artist bubble’ a little something about society and how we each relate to the idea of beauty. It’s a pretty sublime bubble to exist in, from my perspective as a feminist. The industry is filled with strong, creative intelligent women and men who are passionate about their work. The beauty field is largely a ‘feminine’ field. It’s considered this because women and gay men are the largest users of beauty products. We grew up needing it, wanting it, while exploring ourselves and our personalities with it. Now we’re grown, working professionally in the industry, and we get to give back — teaching others how to love it, use it, and own it.

Occasionally, someone will say that working in makeup must be “so fun,” which is certainly is — I have a lot of fun. Sometimes the person saying it will make a little shimmy-smile when they say it. “Soooooo fun!” And I widen my eyes and I reiterate and say, “Yeah, it’s so fun!” But it my head I think, “It’s not a pajama puppy party.” It’s a legit world and huge industry and its value is immeasurable (for proof of that, apply makeup on a survivor of abuse, on someone who has suffered burns, or someone fighting through cancer). It is not girly to need, want, or explore makeup. “Girly” is a word I loathe as a grown woman. “Girly” immediately dictates that the colors/products as frivolous or purely youthful. For example, I love pink… hell, put a hot-pink lip on me and I can deal with any bullshit that comes my way, whether that is someone bumping me on the subway or some dude mansplaining life to me. Is having a hot-pink bullet in my purse to help me get through my day girly? I dunno. My brother still likes the color blue and last time I checked there was nothing “boyishy” about any color he likes. And how often do we even HEAR the word “boyishy”? IT’S NOT EVEN A WORD. When I think of the word “girly” I think of a bunch of kids going, “Wheeeee!” And that almost makes me want to roll my eyes like a teenager. Which I won’t do. Because I’m a lady.

Let’s cut to the world of the corporate headshot. This scenario has taken place 20 separate times, and every time it plays out nearly the same way. The women are excited. (Also, maybe 1–2 men, which always brings me joy.) As the day wears on, the straight men in the office pop their heads in and playfully chide the women getting glammed up. “Hey do I NEED more lashes?” <Chuckle chuckle.>” “What are you gonna do to me?” <Tee hee.> And—then the lines that get me every time — directed at one of the women in the chair, “Hey, you look FINE! You don’t need that stuff.” Or “Woah, hey that’s a lot of make-up!” Or “Woah, _______________ (some flippant and dismissive phrase).” It happens so regularly, I could make my own tape of it, walk in, press play, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between my canned bro-voice comments and the live ones.

It’s as though they’re saying “Aw, you cute women-girls in that silly chair.”

Having make-up put on for a picture — let alone a professional photo, certainly isn’t out of the norm. Furthermore, a woman in make-up certainly isn’t out of the norm. But having it done out in the wilds of the office? Seems it becomes a bigger deal than it should be.

I can’t tell you how many times the woman (often powerful, often older) waits for the men to end their doorway tap-dances and exit, so they can turn to me and say, “I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re here, and how hard it is dealing with sexism at this level of power.” I’m not making that sentence up. I ask, “Would you ever write anything?” And they respond, “I wish, but I can’t. It’d be too bad for business. But you’re here and thank god. I just want to look good.” Yes, a woman who has crawled and fought her way up a corporate ladder, being giggled at like a school girl because she dared to have a make-up artist show up for a professional photo. She struts out of the makeup chair, has her photo snapped, and she feels extra powerful on top of already being powerful.

When asked if I deal with sexism at my job, my response is, “Occasionally, of course, but at work — very rarely.” Yes, I deal always with institutional, societal sexism. But no one ever cuts me down in a board meeting. My co-workers and I delight in new shades and contouring techniques and no one makes me feel lesser for it. Occasionally on a job I will encounter fear and discomfort from a man needing powder. I try explaining why what I’m doing as a makeup artist isn’t always “feminine.” I’m not trying to make them “look like a girl.” Sometimes the product is for shine, due to lighting or the camera-type being used. Occasionally I deal with run-of-the-mill sexism — being snapped at by some powerful man’s assistant who wants me to fetch a water for his boss sitting in the bright light. Since I am the only woman in the room so I may as WELL be the one to fetch the water (which doesn’t so much bother me because I feel sorry for them, plus I have on my hot-pink lipstick so who really cares anyways). Aside from that I work happily, surrounded by other feminine types who want the subjects to look good.

This is why make-up isn’t frivolous, or shallow, or derogatorily girly. The beauty industry brings in billions of dollars annually — many women work and lead in this industry. It can be difficult navigating the world, being seen as weaker, or not being taken seriously for not being pretty enough or even for being too pretty. In other words, it is difficult being a woman. It’s 2016, and we still have sexism. We all know this. I simply no longer want to deal with the word “girly” for myself, as a 37 year-old woman who has countless lipsticks. Yeah, that’s a lot of make-up. It’s just the right amount, as a matter of fact, for what I do. I use it to make women feel better about themselves. I use it myself to to feel stronger. I don’t wish to defend the task of allowing a woman to be seen as “girly.” Make-up is a tool used to bring out both the stronger and softer edges of who we are. Those who wear make-up do it in order to articulate our personalities out to the world. Yes, it’s often fun. But it’s equally important. It is the lucky modern warpaint of millions who go out into the world everyday, hoping to be seen as exactly what we are — equals.

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