I have a love-hate relationship with makeup. I think most women who wear makeup have similar feelings as mine. Like most, I have long felt the expectation that women are supposed to be “presentable,” if not as beautiful as possible, when out in public. This means having flawless skin at a minimum. Many of us are not fortunate enough to have naturally perfect skin, particularly in middle school and high school when young women begin to feel the pressure to be pretty. So, most young women learn to cover their blemishes and dark circles with makeup.
Beyond this, women are expected to wear makeup as part of the performance of their gender identity. Makeup, but not too much, is the expected norm. The media constantly presents us images of what we are supposed to look like, and you would be hard-pressed to find any woman in an advertisement, television show, or movie without makeup. Women have flawless makeup even when they are supposedly fighting for their lives and clearly would not actually have the time and/or supplies to perfect their look. This is so normal we do not even notice it until someone points it out.
The makeup industry is undeniably large and profitable. There are thousands of YouTube makeup tutorial videos, and one of the top-earning YouTube stars is Michelle Phan, makeup guru extraordinaire. Any quick Google search will bring up pages and pages of articles instructing you how to refine your smoky-eye look, how to contour your face like a pro, and how to get that perfect pout. Another search will tell you how there are studies claiming men prefer women with less makeup, but also that there are studies that suggest women who wear makeup are perceived as more competent, yet if they wear “too much” makeup they are perceived as less trustworthy. At the same time, there are more than enough women who can tell you they get told they look tired or sick on days they do not wear makeup.
What is a woman to do with all these contradictory messages? So those aspects are the “hate” part of my relationship with makeup. I do not like that I am supposed to wear makeup and always hide all my flaws. I do not like being expected to look beautiful if I want to leave my house. I do not like that it is assumed I wear makeup to look better for men.
But at the same time, I do like wearing makeup. I like that I can cover my flaws—this ability gives me a confidence boost. I like that I can change how I look if I want. I relish wearing magenta lipstick that matches my hair. I enjoy giving myself an alluring cat eye shape with winged eyeliner and smoky eyeshadow. Makeup can help make me feel strong, sexy, and fierce, which I like feeling for myself, not for the attention or approval of men.
Considering the confidence boost makeup gives me, sometimes I wonder why it is not socially acceptable for men to wear makeup. Surely there are guys who wish they could cover blemishes too? I think it comes down to one of the many double standards society holds for women and men. Women are expected to be perfect at all times, and men are not. Men are allowed to be flawed, complex human beings, so they are allowed to show their physical imperfections. Women are too often viewed as objects for consumption, rather than fully fleshed characters in their own stories.
But what if men were held to a similar beauty standard as women? We can see some of the answer to this in South Korea. Cosmetic surgery dominates the discussion of South Korea’s cultural obsession with appearances, but when you start looking at some of the reasons why, it makes sense. Just in terms of searching for a job, all job applicants are required to attach a photo of themselves on their resume, and if two applicants have similar qualifications, companies will hire the more attractive person. Even the government has posted that a “preferable appearance” is desirable in job candidates.
Not even getting into other factors such as dating and marriage, it is easy to see how South Korea would have a corresponding rise in the market for male makeup. In fact, South Korean men are the “top per-capita consumers of skincare products.” It is also fairly common to see male celebrities endorse cosmetic products. Also, when women are fangirling hard over the pretty boys in boyband groups like EXO, Big Bang, BTS, and SHINee, who are not only obviously wearing makeup but it is part of their visual branding and appeal, it makes sense that men would want to look more like those k-pop groups and have perfect skin too.
While I do not believe women or men should feel such immense pressure to have perfect appearances, it is interesting to see what happens with the market trend when it is socially acceptable for men to wear makeup as well.
That being said, I believe women and men should both be free to choose whether or not to wear makeup, along with any other fashion choice. Women should not be expected to wear makeup as part of a code of conduct for their gender. Men should not be ridiculed for “being too feminine” if they choose to wear makeup.
The way we present ourselves to the world does affect how others perceive and interact with us. Makeup is a tool that can enhance or alter our appearances, and thus it is a tool that can help us construct our identities. So if makeup is a tool that gives you confidence in the identity you create for yourself, by all means wear it, no matter who you are. But do not feel bound to it either. Make wearing makeup a choice for yourself, not necessarily as a response to societal expectations.
5 comments on “Makeup, Social Expectations, and the Construction of Identity”
Great article! I do feel the torn feeling that I HAVE to go to work with at least my under circles and red spots covered and at least eyeliner on. Lipstick, mascara and blush being extras.
At least twice a week I skip wearing make up to work. At first my male co-workers would ask why I looked tired, and the female ones looked at me like I was crazy. But over the years they’ve come to accept that I just like my face to be naturally my own now and then.
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