Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem? Is The New York Times Sexist for Asking?

January 3, 2013

Attention Space Boy: Thanks But No Thanks

The New York Times published – on its “room for debate” page – a collection of essays by authors with various viewpoints about makeup and self-esteem. As would be expected in such a collection, the authors include a couple of makeup artists, some writers and research scientists who’ve written on beauty and women’s issues, and the lone heterosexual male who loves his wife both with and without makeup.


But it’s not the coverage that’s rankling me – there’s something offensive about the topic itself, and the sheer amount of press coverage it gets. Even with a pro-feminist bias, there’s something paternalistic (or maybe maternalistic) about most discussion about women, cosmetics, and self-esteem.


It starts with the title: “Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem?” Even if humans have been wearing face and body paint since we learned that we could grind pigment and apply it, in the modern West it’s women who wear most of the makeup. So when we’re having the discussion about makeup, we’re talking about “women’s” vanity.


And yes – we women do have vanity. And insecurities. And yes, we may enhance our beauty – or hide our insecurities – with makeup.


But don’t men do all sorts of things to enhance their image? They get the right haircuts, wear the right suits, buy cars and gadgets.They worry about fitting in (and standing out in just the right way) with their peers just as women do. So where are the discussions entitled “Do iPads hurt self-esteem?”


We get it with men and their stuff. Sure, that guy driving that wildly expensive sports car may be doing it out of insecurity. Or maybe he lives for cars 24/7. We don’t know, and although we do judge, we don’t have panel discussions about whether sports cars hurt men’s self-esteem.


But if women like beauty products, we are assumed to be running around every minute of every day chasing the airbrushed perfection of Maybelline models, when in fact we’re usually just getting dressed for the day. And we’re also assumed to be so naive that we can’t see that all this stuff is optional. Or maybe we’re only doing it to please that ogre of a sexist pig we fell in love with. (Oh, us women with our bad choices!)


Somehow the majority of grown men are assumed to be smart enough to navigate the excesses of consumerism, vanity, and status to proper self-expression. But grown women are assumed to be far more vulnerable. And with beauty we’re expected to take sides – to choose between acting as vain victims or savvy abstainers. It’s the virgin whore complex all over again, carried over into makeup. As though women are the carriers of “vanity virtue”.


I’m not having it. I’ll agree that there’s often a hamster-wheel quality to beauty industry hype. But is that so different from the hype of every new gadget? Or a new car ad? We pick and choose what we can deal with. Most women aren’t wearing makeup out of abject insecurity, anyway – there’s something about looking good – the same way a man would shave and wear a tie – that feels good.


There is a beauty bias, as well as a youth bias. There’s also wealth bias, class bias, educational bias, and family connection bias. And people buy stuff, and wear stuff, to show themselves to advantage, or hide what they perceive as shortcomings. It’s just who we are. But cosmetics aren’t going to go away – they’re too much part of our “makeup” as humans. And both and women and men are naturally drawn to them. If you don’t believe me, leave a three-year old boy unattended with your eyeshadow collection. Go ahead, I dare you.


But let’s stop picking on women as the only possible insecure – or vain – creatures on the planet, shall we? Yes, everyone makes certain judgements about people whose grooming choices are different than theirs. Just as we judge the guy with the sports car. But can we allow that the person might be in on the game? Even if she’s a woman?


 “Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem?” The New York Times.

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  • massappeal January 5, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    True! Not to mention the fact (I think it’s a fact, isn’t it?) that male beauty products and treatments are growing by leaps and bounds: not just makeup but hair coloring, hair styling, hair transplants, perfume (oops, I mean “cologne”), shaving, beard and mustache accessories, manicures, pedicures, liposuction, etc.

    • Meli January 5, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      Haha, yes, Luke, men in real life (at least mine) readily admit it, I think it’s more of a press bias that it’s all new. And with the new trends in mustaches and beards, even “traditional” male grooming could get more high-maintenance!

  • Nicole January 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Speak, sister, speak! I agree with you wholeheartedly. Of all the things people do in the world to hide their insecurities, using makeup has to be number 99 on a list of 100 things. So if I wear designer pumps does that mean I’m insecure about my feet? Or maybe my height? Or maybe I just like to wear pumps!

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  • Kim - The Made Thing January 26, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I think maybe you should reassess your premise of men’s “version” of makeup. There is very little that is reserved for men these days and I wouldn’t say iPads or stuff is it. While I’m not making a value judgement on that but simply pointing it out, us women have bursted our way into everything that was once considered masculine, be it suits or hobbies like model making or working on cars. Women can basically do anything we want, almost always with the support of interest groups. STEM fields come to mind as an example. Heck, we women have even taken the physical impossibility of having a mustache, maybe an epitome of masculinity, and made it our own by adorning our bodies with jewelry and tattoos of them.

    However, on the same accord, men are making much much slower gains on taking traditionally feminine things. Take for instance the recent uproar about a young boy wearing sparkly pink shoes to school because he liked them. People were in an uproar about how men just can’t do that, even if it makes them happy. I think the root of it all is that society is becoming more feminine. Which, in turn, gives rise to things like the blog The Art of Manliness.

    • Meli January 26, 2013 at 5:58 pm

      Very good points, Kim – I’ll admit I use the iPad analogy very loosely (though anecdotally, my guy friends are way more likely to stand in line to get the latest iGadget on Day One.) I was on a tangent of insecurity, appearance, and consumerism, and how “women’s adornment” is questioned so often for this very reason.

      A closer grooming analogy might be facial hair for men. Although a man’s choice of facial hair style puts him within a specific cultural (or subcultural) context, we don’t question the general expectation for a man to be unsatisfied with the natural state, and to do “something,” whether that’s shaving or styling his facial hair.

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