THIS Is What Makeup Shaming At Work Feels Like

Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Have you ever reapplied your lipstick or touched up your eyeliner right before an important meeting at the office? Or added a few extra minutes to your morning routine, knowing you had to deal with difficult customers later on? The answer is probably yes — because nearly everyone who’s been employed in a professional environment understands that appearance matters once they clock in.

In theory, the quality of your work should speak for itself, but in reality, there is pressure to look a certain way at your 9-to-5, especially for those in client-facing industries. To make things more complicated, beauty expectations placed on employees vary depending on the occupation.

It's no secret that here at R29, we think makeup is personal. It's a form of self-expression, and the only person who should tell you how much, if any, makeup to wear is yourself. Spoiler alert: No, this isn't a story that seeks to tell you how much makeup to wear at work. Quite the opposite. We aim to challenge the expectations that many of us get from our colleagues, clients, customers, and often, ourselves.

We broached this topic with people in a variety of fields and found that for some, wearing a full face of makeup is not only considered beneficial, it's regarded as vital — resulting in anything from better networking opportunities to bigger tips. But in other industries, placing too much emphasis on your physical appearance is not considered professional.

To open up the dialogue about these (often unspoken) pressures, we spoke with individuals about their experiences. Read on to see what they had to say, then share your experiences in the comments below. The good, the bad, the ugly — we want to hear it all!
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Server
“What I look like at work matters. I try to be as personable as possible to everyone, but I definitely get a better reception when I put more effort into my appearance. Not just from men, but from women, as well. I hate to say it, but in general people just respond better to someone who’s more [made up] — at least in this industry.

"There are days when I’m feeling lazy or running late and don’t have time to do my face. I’m the first to admit that it’s not fun having to apply a full face day in and day out. And it’s not just the lack of makeup that’s a turn-off to customers. If I’m not sporting perfectly applied liner and mascara, it affects my confidence, which in turn affects how I interact with my customers.

"When it comes to male customers, I almost always notice a more generous tip if I’m wearing more makeup and my hair is styled. It got to the point where it was no longer a coincidence. Whether they’re old or young, coming in with their families or solo, it doesn’t matter. They like having a made-up female waitress wait on their table. It makes my job easier if I look better, so it’s worth the time and effort.”

— Janice, St. Petersburg, FL
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Teacher
“As an elementary school teacher, I need to look clean, polished, and attractive — but not too attractive. It’s a tough balance. When I don’t wear enough makeup, I’m not ‘groomed’ enough. I also look younger without makeup, which isn’t exactly a good thing when you’re trying to get a class of 6-year-olds under control.

"On the flip side, when I wear too much makeup, I’m not taken seriously enough by colleagues or parents. I once had parents come in to watch the kids put on a song-and-dance routine. I happened to have an early dinner date after school, so I was wearing more makeup than usual — probably mascara, a red lip, and extra concealer. I definitely felt stares. One mom even commented, ‘That’s an interesting lip color!’ It was like I was being judged for being too made up; like a good, responsible teacher shouldn’t wear too much!

"Now, I try to toe the line between minimal makeup and an overly done face. I don’t want to be seen as a teacher who spends too much time on her looks and not enough time educating my kids. When I’m not at work, I love experimenting with makeup and usually go for fun, bright colors, but I definitely dial it back when I’m at school.”

— Jeananne, Eugene, OR
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Designer
“In the creative industry, you’re surrounded by individuality, so personal style and beauty is appreciated, but doesn't take precedence over your work. While standard workplace practices apply (being presentable for the office or client meetings), there is the freedom to look as you please.

"Design agencies are generally casual, so there will be a range of beauty looks within an office, but the majority falls under a natural approach. Appearances are largely driven by your own desire to convey personal style, so you can vary between a range of beauty looks without any pressure to stick to a certain style or look a particular way.

"A bold lip or eye will usually get a positive comment, but doesn’t affect the way you or your work are perceived.”

— Julina, Portland, OR
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Doctor
“I don’t know if my experiences speak for all, or even most doctors, because I am a dermatologist, [so skin is my focus]. In general, the female doctors I know are groomed, but low-key when it comes to makeup. Many are so busy that makeup isn’t really a priority.

"There are times I feel like I’m supposed to pay a little more attention to my looks because of the nature of my work. For example, I once had a patient who was seeking treatment for adult acne ask me why I hadn’t treated myself for my own acne. I had stopped taking my usual birth control a couple months before that, so I was breaking out a little on my chin.

"The incident made me feel self-conscious, so if I ever have a pimple, I make sure to cover it up before I go into work. I definitely think there are instances when I’m judged more than the average doctor on my appearance, but thankfully it doesn’t happen often!”

— Anonymous, Seattle, WA
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Public Relations Executive
“There’s an expectation to look polished and client-facing [in my industry], but at my current agency, we’re all encouraged to maintain our sense of individualism as well. For example, my colleagues have commented on the winged eyeliner I wear daily and they applaud the signature look.

"During a frustrating period in which I had developed adult acne, I chose to go cold turkey and don a 24/7 fresh face for three months, as prescribed by my dermatologist. At the time, I was working in fashion and beauty public relations. Although it admittedly sounds silly, the decision to go sans makeup — not just the popular no-makeup makeup look, but literally zero foundation, concealer, or mascara — was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make in my career up to that point.

"I was comfortable enough in my own skin to pal around L.A. with a naked (and, at the time, blemished) face, but there was an almost suffocating pressure associated with the ‘need’ to look beautiful in the workplace, representing clients in industries that were literally founded upon beauty holding significance. In fashion and beauty PR, there’s an unspoken understanding that you must at all times be not only the savviest expert in the field, but also the chicest. Your nails should always be perfectly manicured, you should always wear the latest and greatest, and your hair and makeup should always be a ‘look.’

"The tough choice to go without makeup was noticed, but no one said anything. Instead, they all had this look of remorse, like I had just put my dog to sleep, but they didn’t want to address the situation so as to spare my tender feelings. It was aggravating but I wasn’t shocked, as in the eyes of these beholders I wasn’t beautiful and I wasn’t brave for going bare. My boss at the time was the only person to address the elephant in the room. She made it clear my work spoke for itself, and any judgment outside of that was to be ignored, punctuated with a sassy, self-loving hair flip.”

— Jessica, Los Angeles, CA
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Lawyer
“In my industry, women are expected to look polished and sharp, particularly when you are in court for a hearing or meeting with clients. There is certainly some pressure to look good in my workplace, as appearance really does matter in my field. Looking polished matters, especially since you want your bosses, clients, and other attorneys to view you as someone who is put-together and organized. It's hard to have much confidence in someone's work if they cannot be bothered to make sure that they have neat hair and well-fitting clothes.

"I definitely am treated much better and taken more seriously when I put more effort into my makeup. My normal makeup routine is fairly minimal, but when I have a court appearance or a meeting with a client or other attorneys, I put in some extra effort.”

— Miriam (name changed to protect privacy), Los Angeles, CA
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Retail Salesperson
“I worked at some upscale boutiques in Beverly Hills for years, where the pressure on sales associates to sell, sell, sell is pretty intense. The girls at my work would always get dolled up in cute outfits, full faces of makeup, the whole nine yards. We were working for luxury brands in a posh area of Los Angeles, so our clientele was usually affluent and well-groomed; there was a certain expectation that we should look impeccable, too. Also, we were competing for commission, so looking better than the other person gave you an edge.

"My experience might be a little different; I am male, but I occasionally wear makeup and women’s clothing. I’d usually put on BB cream or foundation and fill in my brows for work — nothing crazy. I always made sure I looked really neat and professional. Sometimes I got strange looks, but mostly clients were very fond of me. I had female clients who would even ask me what brand of foundation I used; we’d start talking about makeup and exchanging tips.”

— Anthony (name changed to protect privacy), Los Angeles, CA
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Accountant
“The accounting industry is far from glamorous, so I feel zero pressure to look good when I go into the office. I’ve gone to work wearing nothing on my face and no one’s blinked an eye. But in the past two years, part of my job has been to help my boss network and get more clients.

"I don’t think my boss — who’s a guy — could care less about what I looked like as long as I got the job done, but I step up my game when we’re networking and that’s because clients are almost always more likely to respond positively if I’m ‘prettier’ that day.”

— Priya, New York, NY
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Writer & Editor
“Having worked on the editorial side of traditional print publications for five-plus years, I’ve always found myself in female-dominated workplaces. And for the most part, I’ve experienced very laid-back beauty standards. There are some women who wear full faces of makeup to work and others who wear none at all. Most women in my workplace, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle. Because my area of expertise has always been lifestyle content (beauty, fashion, food, and drink), I’m passionate about my beauty routine and finding an elevated, sophisticated look at the office and in my personal life. It’s fun.

"As a manager, I want to appear composed and organized, and part of that comes with looking the part. If I show up to work disheveled and unkempt, people might not trust that I’m fully capable of doing my job. Looking professional — whatever that translates to for you — is an important part of putting out a positive, trustworthy appearance.

"As with many media jobs, alongside every story I write is a thumbnail-size photo of my face. I’ve heard horror stories of female reporters being ridiculed by readers for the way they look, especially when it comes to hair and makeup. I don’t think that’s fair. To me, there’s so much personal preference that goes into how you choose to appear in the workplace and that shouldn’t be picked apart by other people. Unfortunately for women, there are so many added elements that go into daily appearance. If one thing is ‘off’ to an observer — whether that’s a boss or the public eye — it opens the floodgates for criticism.

"I’ve shown up to past workplaces sans eye makeup and been met with ‘Why so tired?’ comments from male and female counterparts who weren’t used to seeing me without a full face of makeup. That definitely rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel like my look was being scrutinized in a way I didn’t expect.

"When I put on more makeup than usual for an interview or meeting, I’ve been met with the opposite reaction: ‘You look so nice today.’ It’s great to hear, but also makes me question how I look on all the other days. I’ve learned to take that comment as a compliment and not think too much about any adverse meanings behind it — because usually it’s all in my head.”

— Morgan, Chicago, IL
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