Appear More Confident and Approachable: Wear Makeup at Work?

Lee Desser

Lee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

“Honey, can I ask you something and I promise I won’t get mad?” (This is always a risky starter sentence).

“Sure. What is it?” My significant other looks at me. What could it be? Is he in trouble?

“Can you tell whether or not I’m wearing makeup right now?” It’s brunch and I simply can’t fathom stroking my lashes with black mascara (at least not before my coffee).

“Honestly? No, I can’t.”

So there it is. After 10-plus years of wearing makeup, I guess it doesn’t make any difference. I looked at him wondering, “Does he really mean that or is he just trying to spare my feelings?” Futhermore, am I mad? Am I pleased? I can’t tell. Maybe I look like a washed-out “has-been actress” without makeup and he doesn’t want to be punished. But then I spend more time with him and realize something: he really could not tell. Shocker! He was telling the truth!

Since that time, I’ve been in a perpetual “should I or shouldn’t I” conflict with myself. Here’s the gist of it: is it really worth spending 10-plus minutes a day, hours watching YouTube makeup tutorial videos, and hundreds of dollars a year primping and priming when it doesn’t really matter? Or is it just that it didn’t really matter to him and other people can tell? Why should I bother highlighting this and concealing that when this is who I am and shouldn’t people be fine with that?

Two things: 1) How different do I actually look with and without makeup? and 2) Is there anything I really need to cover? Is there anything “wrong” with my face?

I remember I was shocked when I read a New York Times article a few years back about a study that came to the conclusion that makeup, “increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence, and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness, [and] also confirmed what is obvious: that cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness.” The strange thing is that I actually consider women who wear less makeup to be more confident, as they’re not trying to cover up anything.

A professor rebutted these findings (thankfully!): “’I don’t wear makeup, nor do I wish to spend 20 minutes applying it,’ said Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University who wrote The Beauty Bias (Oxford University Press, 2010), which details how appearance unjustly affects some workers. “The quality of my teaching shouldn’t depend on the color of my lipstick or whether I’ve got mascara on.” It seems obvious to me that the color of someone’s lipstick, or the amount of pigment in their cheeks, or the intensity of someone’s eyeshadow shouldn’t affect their performance, right? Yet, at the same time, apparently it does, so what are we to do about that?

I’m sick and tired of reading all these articles about all the things women should do or shouldn’t do: leave behind the upspeak, stop using the word “just” in e-mails, and negotiate their salary. It’s not so much that any of these are bad suggestions—to be clear they aren’t—it’s that there’s too many of them. There are so many demands placed on women about what they should do and shouldn’t do with their life (No kids after 35! Don’t wear form-fitting yoga pants at night!) and I don’t need Internet articles “shoulding” me! So for now I’m wearing makeup when I feel like it and not wearing it (surprise, surprise) when I don’t want to—that’s my liberation.

Note: “In a study, women were photographed wearing varying amounts of makeup. Viewers considered the women wearing more makeup to be more competent.” Read more here.