Joanna Cunningham explores how modern women of all ages feel when they wear makeup, and whether our society has affected our thoughts on looks and beauty.

Makeup has been a part of society since the ancient Egyptians reigned, around 7000 years ago. From dramatic Cleopatra-esque eyeliner before the Roman Empire began, to the white-faced Georgians of more recent centuries, makeup is everywhere and always has been. Although these long-gone times may seem too far in the past to even comprehend, they go to show how important looking good has always been.

Historically, makeup was for the wealthy, who constantly had to dress to impress to create a lavish image of themselves. Nowadays, though, makeup is a little different. It’s become a lot more accessible, so everybody can wear it – rich or poor, old or young, male or female. It really is engrained within the fabric of all modern societies.

When we look back at those historical times of old, this obsession with how we look seems completely normal to us. It’s what we’re used to. That being said, with the invention of social media in recent decades, has makeup become an unhealthy tool, making people feel inadequate in their own skin?

Take myself, for example – I’m fair skinned, with fair eyelashes and eyebrows, but ever since I reached the age of around 11, I felt uncomfortable going anywhere without mascara on. It seems almost unbelievable that, at such a young age, I already felt embarrassed by my complexion, as though everybody would stare at me if I went without it. Upon interviewing thirteen women, a number of them, including Hannah (29) and Izzy (19), agreed that they couldn’t live without mascara due to their fairer eyelashes. This is actually the one item that the majority of our interviewees said they couldn’t live without, so it seems that thicker, blacker eyelashes are important to a lot of people. With this in mind, we have to question the psychological impact that makeup has on the women of today. Do they feel inadequate in their own skin because of the expectations makeup has left on us?

After interviewing a number of women, of all ages, I wasn’t shocked to hear that a lot of them felt selfconscious to leave the house without a dash of their go-to makeup item. I also wasn’t shocked to hear that most women felt they would look unprofessional if they weren’t wearing makeup in their workplace.   Although this is the case, it seems that many women do enjoy applying and experimenting with makeup, especially with new eyeshadow looks. Izzy even likened makeup to art, and I have to agree with her there: makeup has become a way of expressing oneself through a creative medium. Instead of painting on a canvas, people are painting their faces. There’s nothing wrong with that!   In this way, our obsession with looking good and following makeup tutorials and trends has opened many avenues for women and men to take on a hobby and a career in something they adore. This is the beauty of the beauty industry – it provides people with common thought and, in this way, we can certainly see the benefits of how it has shaped our society.

That being said, we have to assess the elephant in the room: the way social media thrusts makeup products in our faces as “musthaves” to change our appearance. This inherent need to change the way we look is so apparent when we take on board the reasons many of these ladies had for wearing makeup. Some of these reasons included hiding imperfections (Jayne, 47), feeling less selfconscious about their acne (Sophy, 23), to make themselves feel less bare (Hayley, 47), a pressure to look good all the time (Dawn, 47), an armour for social events and to make themselves look older (Hannah), or, in other cases, to make themselves look younger and more attractive (Maria, 50). With this huge list of reasons to wear makeup, it really makes us wonder whether we’ve taken it too far – is it healthy to want to change our appearance to feel more comfortable?

Almost every woman I interviewed said that social media had impacted them in some way, shape or form. There were the more inspired reasons, such as Micha (20) and Ffion (19), who said that social media had shaped the way they applied their makeup, providing them with ideas on how to change up their looks. This is certainly one of the more positive ways that social media has affected our society, as there are constantly new ways to get creative.

On the other end of this spectrum, there were a number of women who felt that social media, particularly Instagram, had made them feel selfconscious about the way they look. This tended to be the younger women, like Chloe (21), who said that if she saw more women online without makeup, she would feel more confident to follow their lead. Izzy also said that it can be difficult when you see effortlessly pretty women splashed across your timeline. This is so true, and when we are subjected to makeup wipe adverts wherein the women “take off their makeup” but are clearly still wearing it, this does get a little ridiculous.   However, herself and Naomi (21) both agreed that they take these images with a pinch of salt.

Nowadays, we are privy to the tactics that women use to make themselves appear more stereotypically attractive online. Nipping and tucking their bodies, as well as widening their hips and breasts, and whitening their teeth is pretty commonplace. Although we hear time and time again that we should just ignore it, it can be difficult. It truly does take extraordinary women, like Jameela Jamil on her social media accounts, to make a stand for all women of today.

It’s definitely an ongoing battle, so another question we have to ask our society is whether the expectations on women are different to that of men? Picture this: you walk into an interview for a standard desk job and aren’t hired, despite the fact that you’re clearly qualified for the job. What went wrong? Well, you might be surprised to know that some men, even those in the younger generation, would still turn away a woman if she wasn’t wearing heels and makeup to an interview. I know, it’s unbelievable, but this is something Ffion (19) overheard a young man saying during a university seminar. He made this statement, meanwhile claiming it would be acceptable for him to rock up in jeans and an undone shirt. It really is appalling that, even during this enlightened age, there are still men with this misogynistic view on women. Yes, looking smart is a great way to get a job, but why should wearing heels and makeup have anything to do with this? If I were to turn up wearing flat sandals, minimal make up, and a smart outfit, why should this affect my opportunities? The short answer is, it shouldn’t.

Of course, this is certainly an extreme case, and only one of our thirteen women mentioned anything like this occurring. However, there were still a good few of our interviewees who agreed that the expectations on women in the workplace were definitely different to that on men.  

With that in mind, a number of our women also commented on backwards views of the way men are also “supposed” to look. In our society, there can often be a connotation between men looking groomed and being gay. This is, naturally, absurd, and a number of our interviewees, like Amy (25) and Micha, agreed that grooming was seen as much more of a feminine task within our society. Dawn advocates for her husband as a great example of this, as he would perhaps feel a little less “masculine” if he spent too long looking in the mirror each day. This just goes to show how the social expectations placed on people are not isolated to women alone; men have been tailored to feel the opposite and may feel as though they’ll be mocked by their friends if they take too much pride in their appearance.  

Although this may be true for some, some of our interviewees said that the men they know definitely worry about the way they look just as much as women. Patricia (75) says that, when she was working back in the day, all of her male friends would glance at their reflections in the shop windows, just as the women did. So perhaps this idea of femininity in grooming is not as ingrained as we might have thought. Hayley does note that, in 2017, the male grooming industry was valued at a whopping $50 billion! That’s an enormous figure, and advocates the idea that grooming is for everyone. We have to remember, though, that men are not expected to slap their faces with makeup to look their “best”.

This begs the question, which we’ve asked time and time again, does today’s society have a healthy relationship with makeup? Many people, especially in the younger generations, feel that experimenting with makeup is a way to express themselves, and I would totally agree with this. I absolutely love experimenting with eyeshadow, and I own loads of palettes for the job. But, when it gets to the stage where people aren’t feeling comfortable leaving the house without makeup, unless they are performing menial tasks like collecting their weekly shop, is this too much?

I would admit that I fit within the group of people who have an unhealthy relationship with makeup; I enjoy applying it most days, but I would feel self-conscious without a dab of mascara on the daily. This is where we need to see changes from big companies, to make women feel more comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps this is something we can all get involved in ourselves, as it seems unlikely that the businesses most profiting from the use of makeup will make a stand. So, even if it’s just a small compliment here and there to a friend or family member who’s not wearing makeup, they may really appreciate it. Don’t underestimate the power of kind words.

You can keep up to date with Joanna’s work on her blog, itstartedwithrebecca.wordpress.com, or follow @joannamc97 on Instagram and Twitter

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