“Put My Face On”: Why I, and Other Women, Wear Makeup

Makeup is a complicated cultural phenomenon: a safety blanket, a mask, the gauze on a wound, a watercolor painting- it is all of these things.

When I was on my silent retreat, I went 12 days without a bit of makeup.  I will be honest: this was probably the first time that has ever happened in my adult life- besides the last two weeks which have been makeup free for me (more about that later).

One thing that both horrified and fascinated me was the fact that I never got used to my own face while I was there.  It just didn’t look like me (or at least not a version I liked).  Of course, besides the occasional glance in the mirror, this was not a major topic on my mind; Most of my thinking was consumed by  avoiding the part of my body that felt like it was on fire for the last twenty minutes as I tried not to move.

Even before my retreat, however, I had become somewhat intrigued by the inordinate role that makeup played in my daily life.  I am not obsessive.  I usually put on four products (mascara, eyeshadow, concealer and blush), and I don’t wear a lot of it.  My routine is usually once a day. It takes about five to ten minutes.

However, I rarely leave home without at least concealer and a little blush.  If I did it would feel very strange, and in general, I am very uncomfortable with certain features of my face, namely my uneven complexion and the dark rings around my eyes (hence the concealer and blush).

As a person who tries to be mindful of my thinking and habits, I had to wonder: why does this mean so much to me?  Is beauty that important?  What would happen if I didn’t wear it?

Face Yourself

Photos by Jory Lust-George

I have been thinking about beauty standards lately (see the post Why You’re So Pretty Sucks: Being Mindful of Dangerous Beauty Standards) and wondering: what unacknowledged forces are at work here, and how do they affect people- myself included?

In response to my questions, I decided to post a survey online to my Twitter and Facebook feed about women’s personal makeup routines (or lack thereof) and their feelings on why they use it (if they do).  There were nineteen survey respondents, a fairly small sample size.  I did, however, have a range of feelings and experiences represented, which I felt was helpful for exploring different angles on the topic.  I was also able to see some patterns and some differences that were interesting.

When asked why women started wearing makeup, many people answered because others were doing it: friends primarily.  The most common time frame for starting was junior high.  This would mean that most women began wearing makeup around the age of twelve to fourteen because of peer pressure.

This concurs with my own experience.  Junior high is when other girls I knew began wearing makeup and when I started myself.  It is interesting that upon reflection, I probably began wearing makeup before I officially “became a woman.”

It seems from that point forward, the majority of women progressed through life like me: they never stopped wearing it.  Here were the responses on how often women said they wear makeup:

  • 42% said most days
  • 37% said every day
  • 11%  said occasionally
  • 10%  said never

Almost 80 percent of women wear it “most days” or “every day.”  The only other statistics I could find about how often women wear makeup were from beauty product companies.  One was a survey conducted online from their website by Pop Sugar.  They said, “59 percent of our survey takers leave the house without makeup at least once in a while. Fifteen percent, however, say they’re actually not wearing any makeup more often than not.”  In another study conducted by St. Ives they said that “67 per cent only go bare-faced twice a month.”

Both of these surveys have higher “full-time” makeup wearers than I did, but considering the surveyors and audience surveyed, this makes sense.  In my personal life, most women I know wear makeup most of the time.  Not loads of it, but some.

Here were the beauty products most frequently worn by those who wore makeup:

  • Mascara- 89%
  • Eyeshadow- 67%
  • Blush- 60%
  • Eyeliner- 56%
  • Concealer- 50%
  • Foundation- 44%
  • Lipstick- 39%
  • Other- 11%

According to Psychology Today, women likely wear mascara, the most popular beauty product in my survey and others like it, to enhance a feature called neoteny which I referenced in my blog post entitled Mindful Play: Why Adult Humans Are Really Giant Toddlers.  Neoteny is a youthful appearance, which is enhanced by characteristics such as large eyes and smaller noses- hence the prevalence of mascara and other eye products: women want to look younger.

Here is a more complete list of why women say they wear makeup (looking younger is not on the list, so that must be a subconscious wish).

  • 8 people said to hide tiredness, sickness, stress, blemishes, uneven complexion
  • 8 people said to feel beautiful and/or presentable and/or confident and/or happier
  • 3 people said to look better/less tired
  • 2 people said it’s fun
  • 2 people said to highlight a favorite features
  • 1 said for a special occasion

In general, the highest results were split between people who wanted to hide a quality that they didn’t like (be it a physical or emotional one) and people who were trying to enhance positive feelings and/or qualities.  While the word “feel” was used in almost half of the responses, the “feelings” related had to do with appearance at least some of the time, to “feel” beautiful, professional, presentable.  I will admit that for myself, the emotional component is what most rings true, and it is highly related to other’s perception.

If I labeled my own feeling, it might look something like,

When I wear makeup, I feel more comfortable because I know I am presentable and possibly even attractive.  Others are not (as) likely to look down on me because of my appearance.   


Photo by Brandi Lust

Taking this thinking one step further, how do women’s feelings change when they are not wearing makeup?  It isn’t hard to guess based upon the answers given, but as confirmation, in a survey by cited by Shape magazine and conducted buy the Renfrew Center Foundation surveying 1,292 women,

“44 percent of women experienced ‘negative feelings’ when they weren’t wearing makeup: 16 percent reported that they felt unattractive; 14 percent responded that they felt self-conscious; and 14 percent admitted they felt naked or as though something was missing without makeup.”

This isn’t surprising, especially considering that makeup can hide so much of what we wish we weren’t feeling (or are told we are not supposed to feel?). According to survey answers it can hide how tired we are, how sick, how stressed…  It can hide the things that show how hard we are sometimes trying to “keep it all together.”  It makes us look, and feel, like we do have it all together.

Here are a couple of quotes that I think illustrate my point:

“[Make up is a] band-aid / it hides those areas that are a little ‘injured’.” 

“Makeup makes me feel more confident. When I feel better about myself, I feel that I work more effectively. I also feel more confident when interacting with others.”  

“Makeup can make me feel confident and beautiful, but it also helps me hide things like exhaustion, sickness, and stress.”

In essence, for some women (like myself) makeup is a way to at times feel beautiful and at times try to hide (and hide from) the evidence of emotional pain and physical flaws.  There are nights out when smokey eyes and a pair of stilettos can make me feel like I am a more sophisticated and sultry version of myself. There are also times, however, and this is most of the time, when I am just trying to look presentable and hide the evidence of my thirty-four years of baggage from living as a human.

Not all respondents were like me, however.  There is also another side to makeup. It can be a form of self-expression, a way to create beauty.  One respondent said,

“Makeup for me is like an art because there are endless combinations and outcomes.”  

I read a number of other blogs that shared this perspective.  It is one I can relate to if I compare to it how I feel about clothes; I don’t wear the clothes that I wear for beauty purposes alone.  In fact, I was known in college for my “grandma sweaters” and I often hear complaints from my sister about my insistence on outsized garments.  However, I express my self through clothing.  My sea glass on a long silver chain, my shift dress with layers of gauzy fabric, these represent something other than stereotypical beauty to me; I am artistic, an individual, a free-thinker and a little bit of a hippie. Of course, I know that these expressions are a facade; we are all FAR more complicated than any article of clothing could ever portray.  (I am also a responsible mother, professional, student, business owner.) But the play, as long as I don’t take it seriously, is fun.  In a Marie Clare story about a woman who was giving up mascara, I found this quote that is closely connected to my own feelings about clothing:

“See, the kind of beauty I’m interested in has been moving toward a reductionist approach… That could look like a stroke of electric-blue liner that’s not really a cat eye. A stamped-on mouth the same shade of orangey-red as an old-school subway seat. Blush applied nowhere near the apple of the cheek. What’s appealing about this new pared-down-ness is that it’s based on the idea of minimum effort for maximum impact: If I’m going to take the time to mess with products, it better do something noticeable to my face, right?”

Ok.  I can dig that.  It sounds like art.  It’s how I feel about a giant, billowing scarf that in some ways could be seen as an affront to good sense, but in other ways can creates a striking sense of presence for which I have an affinity.

The most intriguing perception for me shared in the survey, and one I also understand on a visceral level, are those who have decided to opt out of the makeup system system altogether.  I find these women admirable in their ability to disregard the societal constructs that bind so many of us.  One woman said,

“Make up is a silly routine. I know it is supposed to accentuate beauty but seems like a lot of work when we are all naturally beautiful…”

In concurrence, on the website Man Repeller, Medine (the sites creator) articulated her “no makeup” stand as a decidedly unpolitical statement, a form of self acceptance that echoes this sentiment: there is a beauty under the layers of stuff we put on our faces that is perhaps more personal and authentic.

“I’m not making a statement. I’m not trying to act like the most extreme, hyper-literal and violent version of a man repeller…  I am comfortable with how I look. I don’t hate what I see when I look in the mirror. Even if legions of others don’t agree. I have accepted the reflection that reliably bounces back at me for its perks and its flaws. I understand that there are thick, dark circles under my eyes. I have grown to appreciate them. I have noticed that my nose grows a little hookier on a near-monthly basis. That’s fine. I know there are wrinkles ready to stake their claim as full time residents on my forehead any moment now. My dad has those, too, and I find that endearing.”

And my first, and most personally intriguing, response to the survey:

“I never wear makeup because I do not want to feel like I have to ‘make myself up’ before seeing other people… I don’t want to become someone who requires, even a tiny amount, of something fake added to my realness in order to feel like I could be with other people… and because I want to, in this small way, encourage good self-esteem for others as well. I think the more of us who don’t wear makeup (regularly), the better the overall self-esteem of society will be.”  

Wow.  That is a position I have never had directly articulated to me.  I have friends who don’t wear makeup, and we have talked some about it, but for the ones with whom I have spoken, it seemed less like a conscious decision and more like a default of life. “I don’t know why I don’t.  I just never started,” is a statement I have heard a few times.

This kind of articulated position makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, as does the view of makeup as art, as does the desire to put our “best self forward.”

I have no problem with makeup, however, like clothes or possessions or anything else in the material world, I think that when it “owns you” is when it becomes a problem.

Part of my personal journey is to see what I can let go of and still be me. I want to slough off all of the layers and find out what is underneath.  Makeup, in this context, seems like a good way to start.


Photo by Jory Lust-George


What layers are you ready to slough off?  

This is post two of a series, Being Mindful of Dangerous Beauty Standards where I attempt to explore the intersections between mindfulness and social action via my experience as a woman.  

2 responses to “Put My Face On”: Why I, and Other Women, Wear Makeup

  1. chelseapoole

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart because of some things I’ve been going through for 6 years. I personally love makeup for the mere fact that it’s fun! Like any other fashion piece we would use to “dress up” or to express our personalities, for me makeup can be the most exciting to work with because you can do it so differently. However, I have definitely struggled with “needing” makeup for a long time. I have struggled with acne ever since I was 17, and truth be told, it has only gotten worse over the years. I get small breakouts, and even cystic break outs. Looking people in the face has many times been a struggle for me. Feeling self-conscious in this way has brought me down emotionally because I would normally consider myself a confident person, so when I feel I can’t be myself because I get stares, or I feel disgusting, has been really hard for me.

    I have experienced about every phase of the emotional roller coaster this causes for many people. I’ve spent countless amounts of dollars on antibiotics, topical creams, face washes, treatments, regimens, and even natural solutions. My conclusion: this issue does not define my beauty. The people in my life who love and enjoy me, do so because they see ME as a whole person, and not just what I look like. I’ve learned that my confidence does not come from my appearance, but in who I am as a person, how I respond to others, and how I live out my values. Appearance fluctuate. My breakouts come and go, some days worse than others. I can’t base my moods and confidence on something so fickle. It is too draining.

    This is a long response, but I had to share some of my personal insights about this topic! I love that you are always willing to discuss hard topics, and even topics that encourage your readers to “take a look in the mirror” and evaluate things in their own lives. Thank you for sharing your research, and more so, your heart!

    • Learning Labs Consulting Post Author

      Chelsea, thank you so very much for sharing your own story and insight on this topic. The struggles of womanhood- beauty, perception, judgment of ourselves and others- is a shared narrative for so many of us. I think that having this space of vulnerability and authentic communication is a way to empower each of us to break through the painfully constructed reality that our beauty lies on a surface level: we know, in our hearts, that it doesn’t, but society does not make the journey to believing it easy! We don’t have to be alone in this.

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