Zahrea Hill, a junior majoring in biology and health science, is an avid makeup user. She chooses to wear makeup for “upkeep” and “presentation.”
“Sometimes I feel like being extra creative and I’ll put on different colors; self-expression, more or less,” Hill said.
Hill said the act of wearing makeup may be directly connected to one’s self-value. “Makeup is called a beauty product, so it goes with the connotation that if you wear makeup, it will make you beautiful,” Hill said.
Taylor Van Slett, a sophomore majoring in fashion merchandise and a beauty advisor at Ulta, said “presentation” and “community” are words she associates with cosmetics.
“There’s definitely a community more so now than ever because of all the different brands popping up, and online is a big source for that,” Van Slett said.
Van Slett blames the internet for the self-doubt that some women feel about their image. “We’re so insecure because of these people online,” Van Slett said. “We talk about it all the time at work; your foundation is never going to look like the girl in the picture that’s photoshopped and airbrushed. Hers doesn’t even look like that!”
Cosmetics Through the Centuries
Makeup wasn’t always an industry targeted specifically at women. Throughout the ages, makeup was not only worn for beauty, but was utilized for many purposes for both men and women, said Sarah Eichorn, assistant professor of fashion at Mount Mary University.
“Both men and women wore it and it wasn’t synthetic materials that we use today … especially in Egyptian periods, they would use kohl for eyeliner, but that was also a fashion and a function in that they would put it around their eyes to mimic sunglasses,” Eichorn said. “But that was also very stylized in how they went around the shape of their eyes. Henna is another one that would be used as a lipstick, rouge and nail garnish.”
Eichhorn explained that men would also purpose different kinds of fabrics to conceal various skin imperfections.
“Around the Restoration period, velvet was a very popular fabric during that time, so men would cut little shapes out of the fabric and paste them to their face to cover blemishes,” Eichhorn said. “So it would be shapes like stars and hearts out of this velvet fabric all over their face, which is super bizarre, but fascinating.”
Eichorn said different standards and stereotypes today have changed how men and women interact with makeup. “As we started developing more corporate industries for makeup, they realized the profit was in targeting women and no longer men, which sort of ballooned into what we have today.”
Now there’s a standard that women are supposed to wear makeup, according to Eichorn. She mentioned Alicia Keys, who recently initiated a campaign called #NoMakeup, a movement in which Keys abandons the pressures to wear makeup by embracing her natural beauty. “I was like, ‘Wait, what? She didn’t have makeup on?’ and I guess if you look closely, you think ‘Oh maybe,’ but I didn’t think twice about it,” Eichhorn said.
Reasons for Wearing Makeup
Van Slett said that makeup is her “uniform for work.” “Sometimes, I would just go into work with foundation on and they don’t really mind because they are more concerned with us as people and how we work, ” Van Slett said.
“I know in Sephora, you have to have full foundation, eyebrows, at least two eyeshadows, eyeliner and lipstick to be able to work.”
Van Slett said that makeup is generally used to make women feel better. “We like to look good, and if we look good, we feel good,” Van Slett said. “It’s also a status thing, like, ‘Oh, I got this new (eyeshadow) palette!’”
According to Eichhorn, makeup trends and fashion go hand in hand. “Being in the fashion industry, you see so much branding of certain makeup lines for promotion and things that might be more relevant to the runway and what’s happening in society,” Eichorn said. “Makeup has been growing as its own entity that can follow trends and that mirrors what we do with clothing.”
Celebrities serve as a main inspiration for makeup and fashion ideas, Eichhorn said.
“We look to a lot of movie stars for our influence in fashion and makeup, but then we started getting more publications and television and they started to become more readily available,” Eichorn said.
“People just like to mirror what they are seeing.” Eichhorn said another reason some women wear makeup is so they can look a certain way in various social contexts.
“I think it goes back to the first impressions … especially in the business setting or anything professional, we still have this very standardized look in our heads of what to expect in first meetings and impressions,” said Eichhorn. “It might vary or relax some, depending on social setting.”
Eichhorn said that beauty industries feed off women’s insecurities. “There’s a layer of vulnerability there, that women are more self-conscious of their appearance,” Eichorn said.
“Maybe there’s a society standard that still exists that we try to break in that women should be wearing makeup. It has ballooned so much, that we sometimes forget to go to our core as women and ask ‘Do we need this? Do we really need to participate in this in order to feel beautiful or be accepted in society?’”
Sister Joanne Poehlman, an associate professor at Mount Mary whose expertise is in anthropology and culture, said that although the reasons for the use of makeup are complex, there is no doubt that advertisements encourage involvement.
“You’re talking to somebody who never uses makeup because of my belonging to a religious community where we’re trying to spend money only on what we need,” Poehlman said. “It’s a complicated answer. People can use things for themselves, but when we think that we’re doing it as individuals apart from any kind of advertisement, media or business pressure, we’re fooling ourselves.”
Poehlman discussed an article by Susan Bordo, “The Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body,” which discusses how the advertising market capitalizes off of women’s bodies.
“This is one of her famous articles about how the market utilizes women’s bodies for profit … it critiques consumerism, in a way that says ‘We are really not choosing; we are being encouraged very strongly to buy these things,’” Poehlman said.
Poehlman explains that as a culture, we are so focused on individual choice, we don’t realize how our individual choices are encapsulated in the messages we receive. Though there are implicit messages hidden within the use of makeup, she notes that makeup can be used as a form of defiance.
“It can also be used as a form of resistance, not just as ‘I’m accepting everything the media tells me,’ but how do I resist some of the images or some of the demands of popular culture by re-appropriating?” Poehlman said. “We do that with language; take words that had a negative meaning and say ‘I’m going to use as a woman, but with a positive meaning.’”
Poehlman said that some advertisements use the questioning of conventional beauty standards as a new way to market. “Dove has done a lot of their marketing about beauty stereotypes,” Poehlman said. “They are doing that because it’s in the context where people are questioning the stereotypes. So if they can get behind the resistance to stereotypes they will sell more Dove!”
Poehlman questioned if the women’s movement has influenced women to be more aware of subliminal messages in advertising. “I wonder if the women’s movement has helped women be more discerning in their choices, knowing that their choices are shaped by the media,” Poehlman said. “I wonder if there hasn’t been more consciousness about all of this.”
Poehlman cited an example of an experiment conducted with second graders who were given a Barbie and another doll that resembled themselves. The kids related better to the doll that looked like themselves. “The children said, ‘This one looks like my sister, this one looks like me,’ and they were delighted by this,” Poehlman said. “But their Barbie dolls, which they have many of, didn’t help them see themselves.So I think that we’re still working to expand the definition of beauty to include different sizes, colors, hair textures and clothing.”
James Conlon, a philosophy professor at Mount Mary, said he views makeup as a way to camouflage. “I see it negatively,” Conlon said. “I see it primarily as a way of concealment rather than a way of revelation.”
According to Conlon, the focal point of the makeup industry revolves around women. “(Wearing makeup) has increased among males, but by large, the focus of the makeup industry is on women,” Conlon said. “I think that it’s particularly interesting because it’s as if a woman’s natural physicality isn’t adequate, and it somehow has to be altered to make it more beautiful and acceptable.”
Conlon credited the increase of makeup advertising to technology. “Technology has increased the market pressure very much so,” Conlon said. “But it has also increased more thought of the makeup industry and how much pressure it puts (on women). Technology has made it more possible to talk about and access resources to question makeup.”
Conlon said that women’s worth has been more linked to self-image than men. “Because traditionally, female worth has been very tied to appearance in ways that male worth hasn’t been,” Conlon said. “Traditionally they are more vulnerable to market forces. I don’t want to make it seem like males have been totally divorced from appearance, but I think it has been more associated with accomplishment than appearance.”
Conlon said that since women’s worth is so connected to their appearance, they have to be much more conscious of self-image. “It’s crucial for women to be more sensitive of their appearance than men are in order to be considered ‘more effective’ in the world,” Conlon said. “So do I think makeup is important? Yeah!”
Conlon cited the example of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, an openly transgender woman who recently partnered with MAC Cosmetics. “It’s unfortunate that Caitlyn Jenner seems to identify womaness with the ability to ‘make up’ as if this is what a woman does,” Conlon said. “I want gender roles to be explored in a sense, but I feel it’s unfortunate that sometimes the notion of transitioning from one gender to another is taking on the stereotypes of the gender, rather than the realities of the gender.”
Conlon discussed the possible ways the media could have portrayed Jenner’s transition. “I obviously don’t know Caitlynn Jenner in any personal way, but it seemed that how it was covered by the media, it was covered very much that what transitioning meant is taking on a stereotype,” Conlon said.
Conlon would like beauty to be less subject to the market and more subject to our own creativity. “I sympathize with that direction but don’t think philosophically, that there’s a such thing as natural beauty,” Conlon said. “I think that beauty is cultural. But I like the idea of trying to free beauty from the market forces and take it on oneself.”
Conlon stressed the media’s critique on women’s appearance, using the presidential candidates as examples. “Women are judged on their appearance; Hillary Clinton is a real interesting example,” Conlon said. “Yeah, Trump’s got a lot of grief about his hair, but it seems to me that no matter what one thinks of Clinton’s political policy, her appearance has been scrutinized far more than any male politician. So do women have to pay attention to that to be successful? Absolutely.”
Conlon said that in a sexist society, it is very difficult for women to resist the pressures of makeup. “I don’t think there are many women who have the luxury of going the natural route in a sense because their circumstance in a sexist society is still pretty vulnerable,” Conlon said.
Conlon emphasized the sometimes complex relationship between women and makeup. “Makeup ends up using women more than women end up using it,” Conlon said. “I wish women were more in control of their makeup than the market forces.”
Social Media Pressures
Hill said that the rise of social media has contributed to the pressure to wear makeup. “There’s a lot of do-it-yourself tutorials on YouTube, which brings a younger crowd,” Hill said. “So now that there’s more people telling how to do it, there’s going to be a lot more people doing it.”
Hill said that since makeup is more accessible, the pressure to become better at applying it has increased.
“Makeup has always been that kind of thing where you had to figure it out on your own, and if you couldn’t figure it out, you didn’t do it,” Hill said. “Now that there’s more access with people doing tutorials and different looks, there’s a lot more pressure to practice it or do it as a habit.”
Though makeup can be tied to concealment and capitalism, makeup can also be a fun, creative outlet that forms kinship, Van Slett said. “It’s all just a big façade and a money thing,” Van Slett said. “It’s all about these brands making more and more money. It’s kind of sad to watch, but if you stay on the positive side of it, it’s a lot of fun because it does bring people together.”
Van Slett said makeup can be enjoyed across all age, race and gender groups. “It gives people a place to fit in,” Van Slett said. “We have such a wide variety of customers that come in … I think that everybody just tries to fit in as much as they can in society, especially nowadays. But that’s one thing I do like about makeup: it knows no race or gender.”
Photos by Beth Van Hammond