Why do women wear make-up?

Posted by , 22 March 2014

Is it as simple as throwing on a bit of colour to match the clothes we are wearing, or is there a bit more to it than that?

I often wonder why women wear make-up. This thought usually occurs to me when I am standing in a queue at the Estee Lauder counter in a department store, about to fork out mega-bucks for an eyeliner or lipstick, or that wonderful night repair cream that is supposed to magically undo all the damage the day has done and make me look 10 years younger – if only I could remember to actually put it on.

When I turned 15 my mother finally decided that it might be ok for me to wear a small amount of lipstick on special occasions. For my birthday from my grandmother I received a Woolworths brand apricot coloured lipstick – nothing special or expensive, but to me it was a valuable sign that finally I was entering into the world of being an adult. My girlfriends smuggled eyeliners and lipsticks to school, and taught me how to apply them (and how to scrub them off before getting on the bus to go home). A friend gave me an eyeshadow trio – in those days it was fashionable to wear vivid blues and pinks, which I now think look positively gaudy – and I really felt like I had hit the big time. I am sure I looked horrendous when I wore it, although 30 years down the track it is suddenly trendy again.

When I look at our wedding photos I cringe when I see the make-up I was wearing. I truly believed the Nutri-Metics consultant when she said she would give me ‘the natural look’. She failed miserably, and I have a whole album of the evidence. Too much foundation, the wrong colour eyeshadows and lipstick for my skin tone, and a whole ‘caked-on’ appearance that I am sure was meant with all good intentions to make me look good in the photos. It didn’t work.

One of the first pieces of advice my grandmother gave me when I was newly married and busy having babies (three children in three years – if only I had known then the long-term effects that would have on my body!) was that I should make an effort every evening to tidy the house, have the children bathed and fed and put on some make up before Anura came home. Perhaps the theory was that by putting on a bit of lipstick at 6pm, I could somehow mask the fact that the day had been a trail of crying children, mounds of washing, cooking and cleaning – and that I had barely had time to go to the toilet, let alone take a shower.

In almost every society for the last 6000 years or so, cosmetics have been used in one form or another. There’s archaeological evidence of this from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and cosmetics even rate a mention in the bible (good old Jezebel had painted eyelids). As with all fashions, the make up trends have come and gone, but on the whole it is the one thing that many women can’t live without – some even say that that can’t leave the house without ‘putting their face on’.

We might change our hair colour and style, clothes fashions change, our body sizes fluctuate, but usually once we have figured out how to do our makeup in a way that suits us, we just keep doing it the same way every day without even really thinking about it. Putting on make-up is as much a part of my week day ritual as showering, getting dressed and doing my hair. I can do it in 5 minutes, or take as long as 20 minutes if I am going somewhere special or experimenting with new colours. It goes on in exactly the same order every day, moisturizer, foundation, eye and lip liner, eyeshadow colour, then mascara and lipstick. Throughout the day it fades, I chew off the lipstick and forget to put more on, and my eyeliner and mascara smudges to make me look like a racoon by evening. At bed time it comes off in less than a minute with a good facial scrub, and my skin is finally allowed to breath through the night.

So, why do we actually choose to spend a lot of money and many hours of time and effort on make up?

Maybe it is because we know that the face is the first thing we look at when we meet someone. Skillfully applied makeup can give a woman more self-confidence, enhancing natural beauty by highlighting good features (such as eyes or lips) and drawing attention away from those that we think are not so good. It can make us appear more alluring and, like nice lingerie, make us feel sexier. Younger women use it to make them appear older while older women use it to make them appear more youthful.

Some women use makeup to hide dark circles under the eyes, blemishes, wrinkles or scars. Some are required by their employers to wear it when they are at work, and some wear it even when they are staying home with no visitors and no-one to see it. I have cared for women in the last few days of their lives, helping them to put on their makeup ready for when their family comes to visit. I am sure it didn’t make a scrap of difference to the families, but I know it made the women feel better that they had made the effort.

Makeup can reduce the visible ravages of illness and pain, and mask the tears that have been rolling down our cheeks. It can hide our strongest insecurities and our low self esteem. It is a sign that we care about how we look. It can make us feel more attractive, more desirable, more professional. It is the outward manifestation of our subconscious desire for appreciation, acceptance and approval. Perhaps ultimately makeup is the tangible buffer between our innermost thoughts and the external world. Maybe it’s time to touch up my eyeshadow and lipstick.

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