Why Is Going Without Makeup Such a Big Deal for Women Who Usually Wear It?

The thought of staring at myself in the mirror for an hour in a workout class where I’m not wearing makeup makes my stomach turn. Aside from the occasional hiking trip, I haven’t gone a day without makeup in years. Until today.

It’s Day 1 of a self-imposed experiment not to wear makeup for a few weeks. The idea came out of a situation that had me seriously questioning my self-esteem.  

One Sunday in November, my husband was working an overnight shift at the hospital. I visited to bring him dinner. I had just showered, so my face was bare and my curly hair was clipped up and still dripping wet.

“You should come to the call room to meet my co-workers,” he said. My husband had been a first-year medical resident for four months and I hadn’t met any of his colleagues yet. 

“But my hair is wet, and I don’t have any makeup on,” I replied, filled with dread at the thought of meeting his co-workers in such a state. I looked at myself using the camera on my phone, and immediately noticed the dark bags under my eyes, the dry skin flaked around my nose and my cracked lips.

“You look beautiful!” he said. “And they won’t think anything of it, I swear. We’ve all been working overnight, so it’s not like any of us look our best.”

No matter how much he reassured me (he always tells me I’m beautiful without makeup on), I still couldn’t do it. Instead, I drove home, and the entire way, I beat myself up. Do I really have such low self-esteem? Am I that vain? Why do I care so much about something as superficial as having blush and mascara on?

I like to think I’m confident, comfortable in my own skin and unafraid to be myself. I never choose my clothes based on trends, and have always worn my unruly curly hair natural. I’ve never even picked up a flat iron. So why was I this concerned about makeup?

On a daily basis, I wear natural-looking makeup. Tinted moisturizer, undereye concealer, blush, powder and mascara are all part of my morning. Only on weekends and special occasions do I wear more glamorous makeup, and lipstick, glittery eyeshadow and eyeliner.

It wasn’t always this way. I was a tomboy growing up, and didn’t start wearing makeup until I was of legal driving age. You could say I felt pressured to wear makeup when I entered the workforce. I started taking shifts as a waitress at 16, and though I was never explicitly told to get dolled up, it felt like an unspoken requirement of the job. All of the other waitresses wore makeup. Several of them were beautiful, and much older than me, and I didn’t want to come across as young and careless. I thought my appearance was being judged as much as my abilities.

That feeling stuck with me, even long after my waitressing career ended. When I mulled whether to try life without the mask of cosmetics, I felt the most anxiety when I thought about not wearing it to the office. I feared people would ask if I was sick, tired or dealing with some emotional drama that left no time for lipstick and mascara in the morning.

My worries weren’t abnormal, it turns out. A study conducted by Procter & Gamble and published in PLOS One, the Public Library of Science’s journal, explored the way we perceive women who wear makeup. Men and women were given four different photographs of 25 women: bare-faced, and wearing three different makeup looks: natural, professional and glamorous.

Some participants only looked at the images for a millisecond, while others were given unlimited time to study them. But regardless of the time spent on the images, the results were the same: Women with no makeup were judged as the least competent, and women with glamorous makeup as the most competent.

It got me thinking: Wouldn’t a woman who didn’t wear makeup be thought of as more competent because she cared more about her work than superficial things like blush and eyeliner? Wouldn’t her disregard for how attractive she looked show she had more important priorities?

Women who don’t use cosmetics might be perceived as less competent by others, but how does this make them actually feel? Liberated? Confident? Above it all? Apparently not. A survey of over 1,000 women conducted by Harris Interactive found that 44 percent of women feel negatively about themselves when they don’t wear makeup and associate wearing no makeup with being unattractive.

These two sentiments resonated with me during my three weeks without makeup. On the weekends, I didn’t want to go out for fancy dinners or take photographs the way I normally love to. I pictured my no-makeup experiment as a temporary blip in time where I would hide and isolate myself, because this wasn’t who I really was, and god forbid someone see me like this.

I felt incapable of not wearing makeup and still feeling confident. Anytime I went anywhere, whether it was to work, the gym, or even just In-N-Out, I couldn’t stop thinking, I hope everyone knows this isn’t really how I look. I even found myself overcompensating in other areas. I scrutinized my outfit each day, making sure I didn’t look sloppy or disheveled. I paid more attention than normal to my unpredictable curls. After all, I justified, if my face was lacking, I needed to make sure my hair was flawless.

Every time I interacted with someone, I thought, I hope they remember how I look with makeup on. I worried they wouldn’t listen to me, distracted by my clogged pores. I felt the most self-conscious when meeting new people—everyone from the new person at work to the sales clerk at Paper Source—because I didn’t want them to think I always looked this way. I was, in a sense, apologizing to the world for my appearance.

I didn’t just feel unattractive. I felt lazy. I have always been a perfectionist, and I didn’t want people to think I had let something in my life slide. I imagined people wondering: What woman doesn’t take five minutes to cover up the dark circles under her eyes or even out her blotchy skin? If I let this one small area of my life slide, what else was I letting go? 

My husband’s hospital’s holiday party fell at the two-week mark of the experiment. It was at an upscale, dimly lit and romantic restaurant. I went back and forth for days before the party deciding whether or not I would wear makeup. After all, I began this no-makeup charade because I didn’t like how self-conscious I felt about meeting his co-workers without makeup on. Was I really going to let my vanity take hold of me? Hadn’t I learned to be more confident without makeup these last few weeks?

The answer, I’m embarrassed to say, was a resounding no. As I applied my makeup for the first time in weeks, I felt a rush of joy. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror as I evened out my skin with foundation. I opened my eyes wide after applying eyeliner, eyeshadow and mascara, pleased at how well they popped. After swabbing my cheekbones with bright pink blush, I looked at my reflection and felt radiant.  

Throughout the party, as I met new people and made endless small talk, I felt completely different than I had the previous two weeks. I was back in perfectionist mode, proud of the fact that I’d catered to what society expected of me as a 28-year-old woman.

I had anticipated a deluge of concerned comments from family members, co-workers and friends. But during my time without makeup, not a single person commented on my appearance. Nobody said I looked tired, or asked if I was sick. No one said I looked pale, or asked why I wasn’t wearing makeup. My husband, friends and family all remarked how I didn’t look that different without makeup, and suggested I go without it more often.

You’d think all of these things would help me realize I didn’t need to be self-conscious without makeup, but I still had trouble reaching a place of confidence.

Although I found the experiment trying, there was one benefit I enjoyed (aside from an extra 20 minutes of sleep every morning). My skin was the healthiest it had been in 10 years: hydrated, blemish-free and luminous. This was the one thing that inspired me to go without makeup more often in the future.

Like many women, my relationship with makeup is complex, nuanced and ever-changing. There is a fine line between wearing makeup to please ourselves and feel confident, and wearing makeup because society expects it of us.

I began wearing makeup because of the pressure I felt after becoming a waitress, but have now worn it for so long that I feel insecure without it. I began wearing makeup to please society, but have continued wearing it to please myself—to fit into the put-together image I like to project to the world.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.