What’s wrong with barefaced cheek?

The other day I came across this article about men wearing makeup.

My initial reaction was … no likey 😦

But I wear makeup every day (except if I don’t have to leave the house)! I’ve even been known to post my nail art on Instagram!!

Hear me out before you smack down the ‘hypocrite’ line …

What’s the problem?

Why do I seem to not really ‘like’ men wearing makeup but seemingly, from my own practice of over a decade, have no problem with women wearing makeup?

The obvious possibilities could be:

  • I’m quite happy for men and women to exhibit different social behaviours (eg women wear makeup, men wear … suits and ties), and think there’s somehow something problematic about them switching roles? –> Doesn’t seem like a good reason
  • Or have I internalised the patriarchy such it’s a bad thing for men to look like women, because women are coded bad? –> Doesn’t seem like a good reason
  • Or am I simply expressing an aesthetic preference, of the sort that men could also legitimately express about women? –> Seems like my opinion is irrelevant, then
  • I think it’s a sign of insecurity? –> A common stereotype, but difficult to prove true or false

If these were my reasons, then my discomfort wouldn’t be justified and I’d have to retreat. But I’m not quite ready to give up – I think there’s something more to it.

I don’t want to live in a world where it is acceptable, much less celebrated, for men to spend an hour contouring their face before they leave the house, where men are late for dinner parties on account of a bad hair day, where I’m the one chivvying him to finish preening so we can leave (just replicating some stereotypes).

But I think it is also sad if women do that. The problem seems to be not men wearing makeup, but anyone wearing makeup.

Let me explain.

Some definitions first

Firstly some clarification; there seems to be a difference between:

  • improvement makeup (I’m thinking mascara, lipstick, foundation, bronzer, blusher, concealer, and all other permutations of coverage) which makes you look (to whatever degree) like a better version of yourself
  • costume-type makeup, the sort which couldn’t possibly be mistaken for one’s ‘natural’ features (like a blue eyeliner)

The latter seems to be about self-adornment, giving us additional features, in the manner of coloured nail varnish and piercings; the former seems to be about presenting an altered appearance as though it is our ‘natural’ appearance. Where people wear purely costumey makeup, it seems similar to dressing up, playing a part, or just adorning themselves. I’ll put this aside for now and focus on the other type.

What’s the problem then?

I want to go back to the point about why people wear makeup. I said it would be difficult to prove a point about people’s motivations; this is because I can’t possibly speak for every person. But if it’s possible that we do things for unhealthy reasons, we might as well examine the possibility so we can heal ourselves if needed.

So, why might people wear makeup?

  • Insecurity: we feel we can’t let others see this or that imperfection and need to cover it up or improve on it
  • Expectation or formal requirement: we think there’s an unwritten expectation that we ‘make an effort’ with our appearance and makeup is a way of making an effort – or we’re mandated to do so by an (unacceptable!) office dress code
  • Preference for looking better: we’re fine with our bare faces and if there was a makeup shortage we wouldn’t be going out in a balaclava, but we think that makeup simply makes us look better, and better is just better, so we wear it.

I think in the first two cases, we’re not really making a free choice; we’re constrained by what we think we ought to do. It seems like we could be wrong in thinking there are forces obliging us to wear makeup, but if they are indeed present, it seems like they shouldn’t be. Perhaps my sense that there is something wrong with makeup stems from the worry that people are wearing it out of compulsion or insecurity, that perhaps it’s a symptom of these. This might be true in many cases; in these cases, there is a root problem that should be addressed.

But then, the problem isn’t makeup per se but something else. So what about the last case, where that something else is removed: where we are sure that the person is not acting out of insecurity? Could anyone object to this?

It seems to me that an objector could take two approaches.

1.      Makeup as trickery

You could say makeup is deceptive because it presents you as other than you are.

I think this might be behind the concept of the deceptive seductress who lures men in with feminine wiles – if that’s a thing. I feel like it is. (For example, the Italian word for makeup, ‘trucco’, also means ‘trick’.)

This idea seems tempting at first, but really, we don’t think that people should present themselves ‘just as they are’ all the time.

We think that it’s good to ‘be ourselves’ in the safe environment of our close relationships – perhaps because only there are we invulnerable to critical judgement. But we don’t act ourselves in public. We have morality to restrain our violent impulses, and social etiquette to ensure our smallest interactions with others leave them feeling well treated. When we act in accordance with morality and etiquette, you could say we’re disguising our true selves. You could also say, of acting morally and courteously, that we’re acting in accordance with our better but still authentic selves, so perhaps by ‘true self’ earlier I meant something more along the lines of ‘naturally occurring’. So the impulse to shove people out of the way when they prevent you from getting on the Tube is a naturally arising but ugly blot on an otherwise good nature, the same way a zit is a naturally arising but ugly blot on a smooth cheek; both should be suppressed.

This seems sensible. But then, you can only extend ‘flawless coverage’ so far. Most of us don’t want to end by covering our faces entirely; in France, you’re (controversially) prevented from doing so on pain of legal ramifications. So, a little ‘deception’ with regard to our appearance isn’t necessarily bad, but common sense seems to dictate that deception should stop at the point it inhibits useful things like facial recognition and communication with others. (I might be wrong that there’s a difference of degree between makeup and the balaclava (etc) anyway; perhaps there’s a real difference in kind between covering imperfect features of a thing and covering the whole thing itself.) Anyway, this seems like a redundant point which we can largely ignore, since people rarely wear makeup that would really inhibit these things anyway.

2.      Makeup and insecurity

Here I am bringing back the spectre of insecurity that I dismissed earlier. I wondered whether there was a necessary connection between wanting to present yourself as other or better than you are (beyond what’s required for morality and etiquette, as above) and not considering yourself as aesthetically good per se. I’m not thinking that this would always manifest itself in the psychological feeling of insecurity, but I’m thinking there might be some kind of unconscious belief in the inferiority of your ‘natural’ state at work. But I’m not sure about this. It feels weak.

So I’m not really convinced by either of my own objections. I feel like we have to say that there isn’t anything wrong with wearing makeup per se if your reason is not crippling insecurity but that you just think it makes you look better, and want to offer that to the world. If we accept that there’s nothing wrong with presenting the best side of our character to others, if we think that’s in fact a good and charitable action, then why can’t we accept the same for our appearances? If you have any sense that it’s good to have more beauty in the world than less, then this is your case for makeup. This is an aesthetic reason, but you could tack on the moral reason that you improve your neighbour’s life when you add beauty to their day.

So far, I’ve assumed that makeup does in fact make people look better. But this is just one aesthetic preference! If you don’t even think this, then the aesthetic case falls down. But at least I think I’m happy that there’s no moral case against it, which is what I suspected to begin with.

Makeup and our other interests

There is one last thing to be dealt with, which is that even though I am struggling not to be cool with people wearing makeup, it still seems silly to spend hours and hours on one’s appearance. But then this is a separate question of proportionality and how we should spend our time. I think if we spend more time getting ready for a night out than we spend on the night out, or than we spend on reading, then we’re wasting our lives. It’s nice to bring beauty to the world with our appearance, but there are other things worth doing as well, some of them potentially more important.


There is definitely more to say on this topic, but for now let’s leave the moral of the story as follows: it’s nice for men and women to bring beauty to the world, but we should bear in mind that we already do so with our natural faces (to a few beloved beholders if not to everyone!), and we should beware of spending more time in front of the mirror than we spend reading. Simples!

PS: action points for myself

Does this all sound like a bunch of excuses that justifies me in continuing to both wear makeup and give the disapproving frown to men or women who in my opinion spend too much time bothering with such frivolities? Does it still sound like hypocrisy?

This is what I wondered. It’s good to be self-reflective sometimes. With the result that I’m trying a new experiment where I’ve cut down to concealer and tinted moisturiser only. Not sure I’m quite ready for a #nomakeupselfie yet, but baby steps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s