Fashion // The Changing Face of Beauty Standards: Why do we wear makeup?

Makeup certainly has a long history; a diverse range of people and communities have used it for around six thousand years. Since Ancient Egyptians began crushing beetles to make jet black eyeliner way back in 4000BC, cosmetics have been a fundamental part of human life, for women especially. Today, the beauty industry is worth an estimated £17 billion a year in the UK alone, not much less than its partner the fashion industry, which brings in £26 billion. The cosmetic business even continued to grow throughout the economic slump of the past seven years, leading many to call it ‘recession proof’. If indulging in beauty remains such a resilient feature of women’s lives after all this time, it seems natural to ask the question, why do we wear makeup?

Before we try to answer this question, it is important to consider the various pressures that confront women who choose to engage with the beauty world today. These are undeniably vast, and often, contradictory. The advertising world assertively puts pressure on women to use cosmetics, often pointing out ‘flaws’ which we should hide, from the most obvious- acne and blemishes- to the quite bizarre, such as pores (which I might point out ALL skin has). Outside of advertising, scientific debates have weighed in on why women should wear makeup, suggesting that it makes us more sexually attractive to others, appear more ‘competent, likeable and trustworthy’, and interestingly, that women who wear makeup earn on average £89,000 more during their lifetimes than women who don’t. Despite the pressures to wear makeup, we are also told that we shouldn’t wear too much – applying enough to look naturally beautiful is the paradoxical ideal. Too much is too fake or too sexually provocative, too little sets us apart and causes many to criticise our natural looks. When we are young, we should wear makeup to make us look older, most often to get us into clubs without being asked for ID. Once we hit 25 however, be ready for a barrage of advertising that now tells us we should be turning back the clock with an array of anti-wrinkle potions. Where do we stand in relation to all of these socio-economic pressures and arguments? Why do we choose to tangle ourselves in the jungle that is the world of modern beauty standards?

After a recent survey by Google found that women are increasingly arguing they wear makeup for themselves, the Lippy fashion team decided to ask each other why we wear makeup, and ultimately, we agree. This is undoubtedly a positive step in the right direction, one that thankfully refutes the traditional and patriarchal view, that makeup is worn for one reason only- to impress men. I for one am an example that this is not the case. Every day that I choose to wear makeup to university, on a night out, or to go shopping, this is definitely not some attempt to attract a sexual partner. For me, makeup is one of my passions and hobbies, a way in which I express my creative personality. Experimenting with colours and products is something I enjoy day in day out, and would love to pursue as a career. Like with clothes, I choose my makeup daily as part of my outfit. It is part of who I am.

However, this is not the only reason I wear makeup- yes I pull out my super strength concealer when I have a huge spot (which is most of the time), yes I wear bronzer because I look pasty and tired without it. When I see my boyfriend, yes I make the effort to look attractive and put makeup on to accomplish that. We don’t all have one reason why we wear makeup, or the same reason as anyone else. We Lippy girls champion diversity and freedom of choice in relation to beauty standards. Here is what we said about the subject:

“There are 2 reasons why I wear make-up:

  1. Self-confidence. Make-up instantly makes me feel more confident about myself; it brings out my best features and hides my flaws. If I’m going through a time where my skin isn’t great, I will even wear make-up around the house to make myself feel better, or if the post-man knocks at the door.
  2. Wearing make-up is now the norm. I conform to social stereotypes and wear make-up because it is expected of me as a female. Specifically in a professional environment, I feel that if I did not work make-up I would give the impression that I am unorganised and I don’t have the time to take care of my appearance. I also believe wearing make-up is a part of looking professional, it gives a sense of power.”

Wearing makeup can be about conforming to norms, boosting confidence and creating a self-image. Wearing makeup for you doesn’t have to be in tension with the pressures of society, these influences can work together. It can also be part of our identity and used as a fun form of self-expression:

“Personally, I don’t feel like me when I don’t do my make-up, or style my hair the way I normally do. Make-up can be a way of expressing yourself in both an arty and fun way. It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin, just that these little things can add to your personality and allow you to express yourself a little bit further. It’s just the same as expressing yourself through the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, or the books you read, and shouldn’t be looked upon as us trying to cover ourselves up!”

“For me, makeup is a way of expressing myself. Like fashion, I change my make up day to day, depending on my mood. Some days I like to feel a little more ‘dressed-up’ and so I’ll use makeup, but other days I can go without. Makeup, in my eyes, has become a symbol of femininity and I do use it to look more feminine but also, it’s important not to rely on makeup as a ‘cover up’.”

Equally, makeup can be about empowerment and good old pampering:

“I think girls wear make-up and make an effort with their appearance more as a form of female empowerment as opposed to impressing men. Like I do things for myself, for example waxing, just because it makes me feel better personally. Also with fashion it’s something that defines you and illustrates your character and personality in an outward form of expression!”

Beauty, like fashion, can be about self-expression, experimentation and identity. It can boost confidence by hiding our perceived flaws and help us conform in society, but it can also be privately empowering- we all know the power of a relaxing bubble bath and pamper session to feel better after a long day, and we can all be a little vain.

What’s important is that we have no one answer to why we indulge in the beauty industry, and I think this is brilliant. It is even more brilliant that our reasons for wearing makeup are increasingly being linked to self-empowerment and choice, rather than feeling that we have to. But if this also plays a part, which I would say it does in some way in almost everyone’s choice to wear makeup, consciously or subconsciously, this is also fine. If we can embrace a diversity of motivations behind the beauty industry, this can only be good, and it’s also about time that this is equally applied to the pressures put on women to look a certain way. I think we need to stop saying ‘not enough’ and ‘too much’ and accept makeup as an expression of who we are, cracking down on face-shaming just as we are with body-shaming. Some people say to me that I wear too much makeup, or that the colours and styles I choose should be more subtle. Others recognise my makeup as what it is to me- a form of art and fashion but on my face. It’s a part of my identity, as well as a way to hide my tired eye bags or accentuate my barely there cheekbones.

Last week Japanese beauty brand Shiseido launched their ‘Be Yourself’ campaign, which promotes the use of makeup to whatever degree or for whatever reason you choose. Its video ad featured Lady Gaga, no stranger to social and political activism, showcasing a host of different looks. I think its message really resonates with what I’ve found researching and writing this article, and the message us Lippy girls wants to send. If we have to answer the question in one line, we would say this:

Why do we wear makeup?

For ourselves, in whatever way, and for whatever reasons we choose.


Words: Charlotte Tomlinson

Image: Esther Clegg - ‘estherrc96’ Instagram


(A big thanks to everyone who helped with the research for this article)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *