Cosmetic Culture: Makeup and Self-Empowerment

sparkly lip gloss

I’ve been using makeup since I was about five years old, but before any judgments against my upbringing can be made allow me to elaborate. I would use the kiddy makeup from Claire’s on my godmother, which she graciously kept on her face until she got home, even through stopping at the grocery store or running other errands along the way. Once when I was about six my friend and I used purple grape-flavored lipgloss to paint our faces purple so we could be “monsters.” And I even got the really creative idea at the age of six to use my mom’s nail polish to give my bathroom sink an art-deco makeover. Point being, I used makeup as a kid the same way I used my art supplies and toys—to have fun and be creative.

There has been debate for some time concerning the emotional effects makeup has on those who choose to either wear or forgo it. But as something that has been steadily gaining cross-cultural popularity since the time of the ancient Egyptians, the sudden complaint that cosmetics are damaging women’s self-esteem could be seen as a little culturally insensitive. From the use of crushed bugs-turned-lipstick and the evolution of religious kohl to the gel-liner of the modern woman, makeup has not been a shadow to hide behind, but rather a scaffold to self-empowerment.

Studies show that individuals with skin conditions experience emotional benefits through wearing makeup, and that individuals who purchase cosmetics experience positive psychological benefits due to their interpretation of their purchases as showing they care about their own well-being. In their “room for debate” page, the New York  Times invited a collection of professors, makeup artists, and other cosmetically-educated individuals to share their views on whether makeup is a friend or foe. Makeup artist Scott Barnes argues that looking your best leads to feeling your best, and self-confidence leads to succeeding in life and earning respect. Mally Roncal, another makeup artist from the NYT series, argues that makeup “empowers a woman to present herself in exactly the way she chooses.” The use of makeup is a testimony to a woman’s self-esteem because it shows she took time out of her day for herself because she is worthy of it. Law professor Deborah Rhode and clinical professor Nancy Etcoff take a more diplomatic stance, suggesting that women who feel empowered by makeup should use it, but it is ultimately each woman’s choice. These two authors note that it is more the confidence which comes from wearing makeup that makes the women come off as attractive rather than the actual cosmetics, as women who feel makeup is obligatory do not exude the same confidence while wearing it.

This boost in confidence women who enjoy wearing makeup experience can be used to their advantage. According to Barnes’ motto, where feeling your best can belie looking your best, the positive effects of such feelings of adequacy and poise can be limitless. Even in the work force, where women are generally at a disadvantage among men for various reasons, being able to boost confidence via a 15-minute grooming ritual can give them the upper hand. As Barnes asserts in his paper, “A man can’t work a skirt, mascara, and a blowout to light up a room the way a woman can. Use it.”

Personally, I’ve had a serious relationship with makeup since middle school. As an awkward grade school kid venturing into the dog-eat-dog (or girl-traumatize-girl, to be more accurate) world of junior high, I needed something to help bring me out of my gawky shell. And later on in high school, I adopted a barely-there mascara look to compliment my freshman hippie-phase—supplemented by converting to pescatariansim and touting my love for the Beatles—and later on, a heavy black eyeliner and red lipstick look to accompany the black leather jacket and band t-shirts. Point being, makeup helps us feel a certain way, based on the endless ways it can be applied (or taken off). If you need a little extra confidence for that presentation tomorrow, go for the contouring shadow. If you’re seeing an old friend and didn’t get enough sleep, a little under-eye concealer will take your focus off of feeling self-conscious and bring your attention back to reminiscing over old memories. There is nothing wrong with using makeup to feel a certain way because it can lead to acting a certain way. So long as you utilize or abstain from makeup for your own reasons, it can be seen as a helpful friend rather than a oppressive foe. At the end of the day, choosing to wear or not wear makeup is as essential a component of the persona one chooses to portray to the world just as much as the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, and the way they carry a conversation. You choose who you want to be according to your own standard of beauty, Sephora Beauty Insider membership card in hand or not.


Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project. **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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