(from Harper's Bazaar, September 1992)
For thousands of years we've been decorating our face. But why?
Tina Gaudoin debates the politics of
Never mind the adage men don't cry. In this culture (by and large), men don't wear makeup. Elementary? Well, think about it. In 1991 American women spent $4.7 billion on maquillage and millions of hours on the choice of product and their application. For most of us, that's probably dollars and time well spent. Nonetheless, it begs the question: Why, and for whom? Is makeup part of our mating ritual? A pleasure enhancer? Or is it our protection (physically and metaphorically) against the outside world? Do we wear it for ourselves or for others? And, perhaps most important, are we in danger of becoming makeup-dependent? "If we did away with the cosmetics companies and advertising completely, women would reinvent the industry. Making up is quite literally in our genes; it's part of our genetic reproductive strategy," says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Fisher contends that in a society where males traditionally choose females, decoration and youth are immensely important. "From a Darwinian perspective, the male wants to pick the best-looking, youngest female with the freshest supply of eggs. A woman instinctively knows that it's to her advantage to look younger and that makeup can help." "Looking young and healthy with the help of makeup is second- best to being young and healthy," agrees Arie Kopelman, president and chief operating officer of Chanel, Inc. And while cosmetics bigwigs are obviously likely to be upbeat where maquillage is concerned, few of us would question the premise that we feel better and more attractive with, rather than without, makeup. ********************** Wearing makeup is not just about attracting a mate; it's the polilical implications of the ritual that need serious consideration. ********************** In our culture, it's not so much the wearing of makeup as the social attitudes relating to its application that rile many women. "Makeup is not just about decorating the face, which has long been a tradition in the history of humans," says Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman. "The issue today is, which sex is expected to paint, and for what?" According to Tavris, facial decoration has long been a rite of passage for war, religion, and sometimes beauty. What she finds alarming is that makeup is now regarded as a necessity for women. (How many of us feel improperly dressed and unable to face the day without going through our makeup routine, no matter how cursory?) "Women feel they have to measure up to a makeup standard," says Tavris. The implication is that failing to meet makeup expectations can be an indictment of one's personality or one's ability. "Consider the term make up--what it implies psychologically is that you are compensating for something you don't have," says Linda Barbanel, C.S.W., a Manhattan-based psychotherapist. "It's peer pressure; you feel you have to look like everyone else," admits one Bergdorf Goodman shopper when asked about her reasons for loitering at the cosmetics counters. Peer pressure or not, in makeup's defense is the fact that it has been around in one form or another for a long, long time. Cleopatra made good use of kohl and hair dye, the Elizabethans used a white lead compound to obtain a fashionable pallor, and the Victorians bit their lips and rubbed their cheeks furiously to effect the necessary high color. "As far back as we can go, we're finding vials of hair dye and pots of face paint," says Fisher. In other cultures, body paint, tattoos, or adornment such as neck rings, lip plates, or nosepiercing amount to much the same thing as Westernized lip gloss and eyeshadow (although, admittedly, it's often the opposite sex doing the adorning). Inevitably, the media take a good deal of flak for allegedly "coercing" women into believing that makeup equals social approval. Naomi Wolf, author of the much-touted The Beauty Myth, claims that it's not making up that she disapproves of, it's the idea that women have been "manipulated" by the media into feeling that they have to wear makeup in order to be "approved of and to look feminine." Wolf says that our idea of perfect beauty is warped because the embodiment of that concept is almost always coated in professional makeup. "In other cultures, makeup is a source of pleasure and delight--why not in ours?" she asks. But many women would argue that, for them, the application of makeup is quite simply a necessary, exceptionally pleasurable part of their day. "Forget the beauty myth. I adore applying my makeup--it gives me pleasure and confidence," says one Oxford graduate. "Feminism has nothing to do with it," asserts Gale Hayman, owner and creator of Gale Hayman, Inc. "Every woman wants to look her best, and, frankly, a naked face is not anyone's best look." Applied correctly, there is little doubt makeup can enhance features, and as Richard Hartigan, president of Lancaster Cosmetics so diplomatically puts it, can "mask minor imperfections." And it's not just women who benefit. Bob Mills, makeup artist for Pretty Woman, points out that actors are as dependent on makeup to hide facial flaws as actresses are. (Julia Roberts was not the only one submitting to shading and enhancing on the Pretty Woman set.) Tied in to the benefits of makeup is the idea that it reinforces self-esteem. "Makeup can have a great effect psychologically; it can literally brighten you up," says Mark Hayles, a New York-based freelance makeup artist. Nowhere is that premise borne out more effectively and convincingly than in the Look Good... Feel Better (LGFB) program. Implemented by the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association and the National Cosmetology Association, over the past three years the nationwide organization has helped 25,000 women afflicted with cancer to improve their appearance through hairstyling and makeup. Julia Rowland, Ph.D., director of the psycho-oncology program at Georgetown University, explains that cancer assaults patients' self-esteem and self-image and the program helps combat negative feelings by showing women how to look their best. Rowland points to ongoing studies that aim to prove that there is a direct link between healing and a positive self- image. Knots Landing's Joan Van Ark, the National Cosmetology Association's LGFB celebrity spokesperson, explains the lipstick theory: "When a woman reaches for her lipstick, we know she is back on the road to recovery." As testament to the power of makeup, some LGFB female cancer patients complain, somewhat ironically, that they look so "well" they fail to get the support they need. Directly related to that issue is the question of why painting our lips, highlighting our eyes, lengthening our lashes, and rouging our cheeks should necessarily alter our mood and self-perception (as well as others' perceptions of us) so radically. It seems it's the idea of what constitutes "perfect beauty" that figures so largely in the self-esteem and makeup equation. Our learned association between makeup and beauty begins very early in life. "As children, we're socialized to think that makeup equals attractiveness," says Rita Freedman, Ph.D.. a clinical psychologist and author of Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks--and Ourselves. (Remember how we were all compelled to wear as much of Mommy's makeup as possible because it made us feel "pretty" and "adult"?) "I remember my aunt telling me that the only reason to grow up was to be able to wear red lipstick," says New York film producer Nina Colman. "I wear makeup for myself and for my mom--she told me never to leave the house without it," says one Bloomingdale's shopper. Needless to say, our desire as children to look "just like Mommy" didn't escape the marketeers. Little Miss Makeup, a doll described by one mother as having "the body of a four-year-old and the face of a hooker," was one of the best-selling dolls on the market. So it's quite likely that our ideas of what constitutes the right sort of makeup are formed very early on, either by what our mothers wear or, in some cases, by our toys. "For children, glitz and tons of makeup win every time," says Roseann Radosevich, design director of girls' toys for Hasbro, who claims that in tests with children, dolls with what she describes as "flashy" makeup almost always come out on top in popularity. As well as being a tool to convince ourselves that we are pretty, confident, or even more mature, makeup is often a means of telling the outside world who we are and how we want to be perceived. "Makeup can send out incredible messages," says Ronnie Specter, the makeup artist responsible for the metamorphosis of Michelle Pfeiffer from nerdy secretary to empowered, half-crazed Catwoman in Batman Returns. Not only is makeup often fundamental to the story lines in movies, but, says Specter, it also enables actresses to get into character and to distance themselves from what thev are actually doing. "Makeup can become a barrier between the actor and the real world," says Van Ark. "I'd rather stand in front of the camera naked than without makeup." Ve Neill, who oversaw Danny DeVito's penguin guise in Batman Returns, claims that during the laborious process of applying the makeup and prosthesis, DeVito actually "became" the penguin, birdlike squawks and all. And, says Neill, the same principle (barring the bird face and appropriate noises) could be applied to women who literally "put on" their face and become not necessarily who they really are, but the person they want to present to the outside world. Women also tend to use makeup to express their personality and their needs. "Some women use makeup as a billboard -- they're delinitely advertising," claims Horst Rechelbacher, president of Aveda. But advertising what? Some experts suggest the prime target market is men. "Putting on your face gives out the signal 'I want to be attractive to vou. come and get me,'" says Robin Tolmach Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. Talk-show host Joan Rivers says that she only wears makeup for men. "Forget the idea that you wear it for yourself or for other women--I never even put on an eyelash for any member of my sex." "Women undoubtedly wear makeup for men. Why else would a woman ask her husband, 'Honey, do I look okay?'" says Borghese president Matthew Rubel. "It's not that the guy's an expert in makeup, it's just that she wants his approval." And whether they like to admit it or not, most men subscribe to the "she looks better with makeup" school of thought. "Men always say that they like the natural look, but when they're asked to choose, they inevitably go for the image that's made up," says Freedman. ************************ Women act as censors of other women, persuading them to toe the line. If you're wearing the right makeup, you're likely to be an okay person. ************************ But wearing makeup is not just about attracting a mate; it's the political implications of the ritual that need serious consideration. So integrated is the wearing of makeup within our social system that it invites value judgments based solely on the way a woman is (or isn't) made up. In the workplace, failing to wear what is considered the "right" makeup can have serious ramifications. Take the case of Teresa Fischette, a Continental Airlines flight attendant who was recently fired for refusing to wear makeup on the job. Although the case never went to court, the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union came out in her support. But this case is only the tip of the iceberg. One law school graduate describes how his top law firm interviewed for support staff and paralegals by determining whether they passed the so-called ha-ha test. "That quite literally means that if their appearance made you laugh when they came through the door, then they wouldn't get the job," says the graduate. And did makeup figure into this? "Yes, definitely." "You have to look right for the job. If you look frivolous at a bank, then customers will think you'll be frivolous with their money; but if you're in advertising, then you have to look fashionable," says Judith Waters, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Wearing makeup and looking put-together can also indicate respect for your future employer or for the person with whom you are meeting. "When I interview someone and she looks nicely made up, I'm flattered and influenced by the fact that she took the time," says Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president of Estee Lauder Companies. Wearing appropriate makeup might not just get you the job -- it could also make a difference to your earnings potential. Two studies, one of recent Harvard MBAs and the other of women of all age groups including those over 65 (on average the lowest wage earners in the country), illustrated that all groups could substantially increase their wages by wearing strategically applied makeup. Waters, who designed the latter study, contends that the older women get, the more necessary it is for them to use makeup to create the illusion of youth. "In our society we get used to a certain look, and if the skin doesn't look youthful, we unfortunately assume the brain is in the same condition." Somewhat surprisingly, within a social setting it's more likely to be women, rather than men, who respond negatively to women wearing what they consider to be inappropriate makeup. (How often have you mentally disparaged a woman who you think is wearing unsuitable makeup?) "When I see a woman on the beach wearing full makeup, I automatically assume that I won't like her because she obviously doesn't see life as I do," says one fashion editor. Market research conducted by Lancome found that female customers were frightened away from cosmetic counters by saleswomen wearing "too much" makeup. "Women were afraid to walk up to the counters because they didn't want to come away looking like the person who was selling the makeup," says Lancome's deputy general manager, Margaret Sharkey. "Women act as censors of other women, persuading them to toe the line," says Lakoff. "If you're wearing the right makeup, you're likely to be an okay person in the eyes of others." More often than not, she adds, it's the women who wear no makeup who present the biggest threat because they're sending out unnerving signals that suggest they have a high enough self-esteem without the help of makeup. So ingrained is the wearing of makeup in our culture that there may be a danger of women becoming makeup-dependent. There are tllose among us, however, who think that might not be such a bad thing. (Makeup does, after all, protect the skin against ever-increasing environmental pollution.) Nonetheless, empirical research suggests that the stories about the woman who rises an hour earlier than her husband to put on her face so that he may never see her "facially naked," or the woman who won't leave her house without makeup, are true. For some women, makeup may actually become a barrier against the outside world, one they feel unable to cope without. (Some women can't even make telephone calls without their face on.) "Makeup is a security blanket; it gives you some control over the image you present to the world. But just like dressing, there's a fine line between what's appropriate and what isn't," says designer Donna Karan. "Makeup dependency is generally a reflection of low self-esteem, and it means that a woman feels physically unacceptable in her natural state," says Elaine Hatfield, co- author of Mirror, Mirror: Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Being dependent on lip gloss and blush is one thing, but feeling the need to wear a full face of heavy makeup even when you're staying home for the day is quite another. "The human animal is capable of remarkable self-deception, so that when a woman looks at her reflection in the mirror, she will not see her makeup, only what she thinks of as her 'face'" says Fisher. Dependency aside, the word on makeup is essentially upbeat. That women have been socialized into feeling the need to wear makeup in order to be perceived as attractive and competent may be wrong and unjust, but it is a given; and if we choose to, those of us who wear makeup can use it to our advantage. To use the male vernacular: We can play the game. "Makeup is power," says Lea Seigel, a New York makeup artist. "A woman who appears to take pride in her appearance can command more respect and is perceived of as more authoritative." And makeup has other uses and advantages that most males wish they could avail themselves of, disguise and enhancement being two. "I know what my face looks like without makeup, and I don't want to do that to anyone else," laughs Evelyn Lauder. "Women don't have an addiction, they have a predisposition toward wearing makeup that is closely linked to the mating game," says Fisher, who adds as an ironic afterthought: "And the mating game is the only game in town...."