The Makeup Problem

A couple of years ago, I took part in an all-woman training session at my company on “how to present to executives.” A small part of the session consisted of the trainer giving us advice on “dressing for success,” including: “You should wear makeup – otherwise it looks as if you don’t care [about how you look].” I pointed out that wearing makeup is not an option for everyone. For me, it mostly isn’t.

I do know how to wear makeup, more or less. There was a fairly recent period in which I had learned to put on makeup decently, and even enjoyed the look. I wasn’t crazy about doing it every day – it took time that I didn’t always have to spare – but I usually did, and after I’d got in the habit, I felt odd when I didn’t.

Allergy season was always a problem. My eyes are sensitive to pollens, and, even with allergy pills and eye drops, they can itch and burn ferociously. Hypo-allergenic makeup doesn’t help: even if the makeup itself doesn’t irritate my eyes, it would nonetheless end up all over my face as I teared and blinked and rubbed.

Then I had chemotherapy for breast cancer. One side effect of chemo is that your eyes water, profusely, at the slightest irritation. During the months that I was undergoing chemo, I couldn’t be outside for a minute without looking as if I was weeping. This calmed down some after chemo ended, but my eyes are still more prone to watering than they used to be, at any exposure to outdoor irritants. I have to dab and wipe them constantly. No makeup survives that for long.

With all that, I’ve pretty much given up wearing makeup. Chemo also took away my eyebrows, which really annoys me, so I do try to pencil those in. Lipstick is fine, though it never lasts long. But eyeshadow and mascara… only for very, very special occasions, and only if I expect to be indoors.

I know perfectly well that some people (men and women) are judging me for failing to wear makeup. Deborah Tannen called out the problem years ago:

Heavy makeup calls attention to the wearer as someone who wants to be attractive. Light makeup tries to be attractive without being alluring. There are thousands of products from which makeup must be chosen and myriad ways of applying them. Yet no makeup at all is anything but unmarked. Some men even see it as a hostile refusal to please them.

Sometimes I want to wear a sign saying: “No, really, it’s not a statement! I would wear makeup if I could!”

But that makes me angry, too. Why should I have to apologize for not doing something I can’t? Why should wearing makeup or not, by choice or otherwise, even be a thing that anyone gets to question?

But… people do question my “decision,” and judge it. And that’s just one of many gotchas about being a woman.

One thought on “The Makeup Problem

  1. Ben in Seattle

    Wow, that sucks. It seems every day I learn of a privilege I’ve been enjoying all my life and never realized I had. I knew there was a lot of pressure on women to make themselves “attractive”, but it hadn’t occurred to me that one might even be considered “hostile” for not wearing makeup. I have never had to deal with that and I wish no one did.

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