Photographed by Sunny Shokrae.
There’s a scene in Mad Men where Joan says to Peggy, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." The first time I heard her offer that snarky bit of advice, it resonated with me. Though Joan’s comment seemed to highlight an outdated, sexist way of thinking about female success, it taught me one very important thing: It’s amazing how far playing by the rules can get you.
I’m not the most conventionally attractive person around, and like many people, I have perpetual circles under my eyes, various blemishes, and a face that’s not too symmetrical. And, don’t even get me started on the eyebrows I was born with.
Recently, Leandra Medine over at Man Repeller wrote a piece explaining why she doesn’t wear makeup, and I related to many of the things she had to say. Like her, I’m pretty cool with my unusual looks and prefer feeling clean and natural, prioritizing my skin care and clothing. Yet, unlike her, I still feel compelled to wear makeup almost every day.
Growing up, I was a so-called tomboy: I dressed boyishly, had short hair, and never gave a thought to my looks. As I became an adolescent, though, I started caring more about boys and popularity. Looking at the girls around me, I realized that, to fit in, I couldn’t continue to wear oversized Beatles T-shirts and let my acne show. So, over time, I figured out how to dress, act, and look “girlier.” I even started wearing makeup.
I learned to appreciate many parts of being traditionally feminine, but makeup continued to feel unnatural and like a forced habit. Yet, I quickly learned that I was treated differently during those times when my perceived flaws weren’t disguised. The older I get, the more I feel this. I’m regarded so differently depending on whether or not I’m made up. When I’m too lazy to put makeup on before I go out, bartenders seem less eager to serve me. If I go to a salon with a bare face, I’m treated like an alien.
Photographed by Grace Sun.
It’s weird, because you’d think the fact that I feel more confident without a painted face would have some effect. But, in my experience, even the most genuine smile and friendly attitude don’t matter if my face isn’t contoured.
I hate that. I know plenty of girls who love makeup and wear it for themselves, for confidence or even just for fun — and I’m jealous. I totally understand how makeup can be a form of expression, and I really do think people who rock blue lipstick are pretty righteous. It’s just not my form of expression. I don’t think makeup is fun, and even the best foundation is still just foundation to me. But, I wear it anyway, for other people.
I wear it because, the fact of the matter is, we all have pretty ridiculous beauty standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if even I am inadvertently friendlier to women wearing makeup. As much as I despise it, I’m just not expecting to walk into an office full of makeup-free faces. And, because all the media I consume exclusively features made-up faces, a washed-out visage is a little jarring.
Even if we like to think otherwise, most of us are judging people based on their appearance. And, the reason I wear makeup is to ensure that I am perceived in a certain way. Those dark circles under my eyes that I find sort of charming? Most people will assume I’m frazzled, sick, or hungover. The few blemishes I have on my chin that I don’t care about? Some will likely think I look young, unprofessional, or, frankly, disgusting. With a bit of foundation, mascara, and something to make my lips the same color, though, I appear rested, professional, and clean. For me, wearing makeup is akin to ironing a shirt: It shouldn’t be necessary, but it at least lets people know I have my act together.
Beauty standards suck, and I'm aware that being treated differently when I wear makeup is not their worst incarnation. I know that, ultimately, I choose to play into people’s expectations. I’m not brave enough to be like the Man Repeller, who can boldly defy what other people want her to look like. I choose not to test whether employers will be as open-minded as my boyfriend. I choose to get faster treatment at the bar. I choose to play by the rules.
Like Peggy after taking Joan’s advice, I’m just trying to be taken seriously.
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