Why do we wear makeup?

Eleanor often startles me with her questions. She asks about 50 questions each day, and though I can quickly rattle off an answer to most, a few of them each week stump me. This morning, she asked me for the second time why I wear makeup. There’s the simple response: It makes me feel pretty. But then there’s so much cultural baggage beneath it, about the portrayal of women in the media and the value we place on appearance.

Yes, I feel better about myself when I’m wearing makeup because that’s how I’ve been taught to feel. I rarely read beauty magazines or watch television, and I’m a skeptical consumer. But most of the successful women I see around me wear makeup, and I know that even if I don’t want to be judged on my appearance, I will be. Even the brightest, most powerful women in the world are. I don’t agree with these rules, but I play by them.

Makeup can be fun, too, of course. You can give the impression that you’re a little more sultry or serious or flirty with just a change of lipstick. It also bonds women. I remember teetering into the bathroom on heels at my prom to touch up my makeup with all of my friends.

Do I try to teach any of that to a 3-year-old? Soon enough, society is going to tell her — this child who I think is the prettiest girl in the world — that she needs rosier cheeks and fuller lips. If I tell her that makeup makes me feel pretty, am I implying that the opposite is also true, that I’m ugly without it? I want her to learn that real beauty has nothing to do with perfect skin and long eyelashes. But I also know that feeling confident, and using your appearance to show that confidence, is a source of power.

(Photo is my mom and I getting ready on my wedding day.)

2 thoughts on “Why do we wear makeup?

  1. Interesting post. Makeup has never been a source of confidence for me. It’s one more thing to worry about getting “right” (is my blush too dark? do I have lipstick on my teeth?) and one more thing to have to take off at the end of the day. I’ve pretty much quit wearing it except in two situations: when I’m dressed up to go out or when going to an event with a group of women. The reason then is the reason that you mention — I know I’ll be judged for my appearance in those situations.

    I wish my mother had been more laid back about appearance and makeup. It was the source of a lot of contention in my teen years.

    Good luck with the difficult questions!

  2. Sarah, maybe we should tell our girls that we put on makeup to be “fancy” instead of “pretty.” “Fancy” seems like something fun we do for ourselves when we want to be fabulous or stylish, whereas “pretty” seems like what we want other people to think about us. Then we can teach them that Beauty has nothing to do either. (Chris was just explaining this to Bea yesterday!)

    I have spent many many hours wrestling with myself to get myself thinking about myself as a subject and not an object. I’m ready to write the book on it when you are. I think about this all the time!

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