Put on a happy face: Thoughts on make-up and validation

Siddh: A quick note: since this post is an exploration of experiences only Louise has had I’m gonna take step back for this one. Over to you Lulu.

Louise: I’d like to say that I can step out the house wearing no makeup whenever I want, but that isn’t true. Some days I manage it, but it’s not effortless. There’s always a conscious pang – couldn’t I just put on a small bit of mascara? Or maybe concealer? What about more? I might as well go the whole hog. Honestly I feel glad when it’s sunny enough to wear sunglasses because it will cover my eye area.

This mentality scares me, because I consider myself sensible and strong, and these thoughts are very, very hard to shake off. They didn’t come from my upbringing, as with some women. My mum never wore make up, and neither do my sisters – only a very small amount for special occasions, and never for work (their opinion is, who is there to impress?). I think my make-up habits came about through school and my exposure to film and magazines; being told I was ‘sort of pretty, but not as much as some of the other girls’. I don’t believe it was or is true – I’m very confident in my looks – but I do believe it influenced my choice to start applying make-up, as much as the teen girl mags I started craving when I was 13. In my first year of university I went make-up mad. I bought more, I learnt more about it, I applied it daily and with more creativity. I consumed hours of my life watching Youtube beauty tutorials because I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed creating different looks on my face.

Only in my final year, cooped up in my house revising for my exams, did I start to shift my perception back again. I spent days at a stretch not going anywhere, so I would have no need or pressure to apply make-up. I started to look at my clean face and think how perfect it was, that adding make-up would look cheap, or obvious. It didn’t take very long for my view to switch, but it also didn’t take much for it to switch back, and the habit was always there in the back of my mind – if I went somewhere, I would have to apply make-up again.

At the same time I was reading Emer O’Toole’s ‘Girls Will Be Girls’, a book I highly recommend. O’Toole suggests that we treat make-up as a facet of ‘playing dress-up’ that feeds into our gender performance, and that each individual should be the one to dictate when and why they wear it. She also describes the difference between wearing make-up as a choice and as a Hobson’s choice – something made up to look like a choice, but actually isn’t. This lack of choice develops when make-up becomes a habit, something unshakeable that affects your daily life, like wearing make-up to work or study every day. As O’Toole says, ‘if we think that we’ll make our colleagues regurgitate their breakfasts if we turn up to work without make-up, then there’s clearly a problem.’[1] The more often you go out with a full face of make-up and make it your norm, the more you are sure to experience certain reactions to a non made-up face that make this kind of habit-transition even harder. ‘You don’t look very well today.’ ‘Are you alright?’ ‘She should put more effort in.’ Even if we don’t hear these said aloud, we feel people are thinking them. It doesn’t matter if they really are – it’s enough that we worry they might be.

Why do I wear make-up? Is it for my partner? Not really, otherwise I’d wear make up 24/7. It’s hard to look polished when you wake up next to someone. Am I doing it for myself? That at least would have some validity in terms of argument – whose opinion on my body is more important than my own? Is it for the men of society? Am I chained to a patriarchal habit by which I seek male approval through my appearance rather than my value to society as an intelligent, productive individual? I’d rather believe this wasn’t true. Is it for the women? Do I want to make them all jealous and get approving glances from their boyfriends? If that were true, wouldn’t it make me a massive bitch? I suspect rather unhelpfully all or some of these reasons are part of why I wear make-up, depending on the day. I want people to look at me and see someone attractive, but I don’t necessarily want them to tell me. I don’t want someone to walk up to me in the street and tell me how good I look, because I already know (or think) I look good. Wearing make-up lets me imagine that people I’ve met or passed by go home and think ‘gosh she was pretty’. This lets me pretend I’ve made an impact on someone’s life in a very effortless way. This is a form of validation, which is very much NOT self-determined.

Self-validation is an important part of an individual’s confidence. To feel that you are happy with yourself and that this has come from yourself is a powerful force in being a strong individual. But, somewhat depressingly, I sometimes doubt whether it actually exists. Humans are social creatures by nature, and we need to live in groups. Humans who live outside of any group are unhappy because we need to feel connected to others, and this comes from physical contact, intellectual exchange and validation. Seeking validation has become easier in the age of the internet. For instance, if your immediate friends and family can’t accept your sexuality, you are certain to find encouragement and support from millions of people around the world online. We always search for validation, because no matter how strong our self-confidence, without some scrap of validation from the people around us we begin to question ourselves. You would be deluded not to. Insecurity is our natural state, and validation in the right form can be healthy and positive. But I don’t believe it’s given enough scrutiny.

I came across this example from one of the Youtubers I follow. A self-described ‘beauty-loving blogger’, Loey Lane is a very inspiring young woman. I have a great deal of respect and love for her videos and I would recommend checking her out for her opinions on body image and other topics. In this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQuX6eRW3AY – which I recommend watching first, she high-lights what she believes is the nature of a selfie. I don’t disagree with the main angle of the video, in fact, I intensely agree. It is her description of the ‘selfie’ which I disagree slightly with. She describes selfies as ‘self-appreciating photos’, and that ‘if you like the way you look in a photo, it is your photo, and you shouldn’t take it for anyone else’. She goes on to say that she would never consider that a person taking a selfie wants to look hot to the viewer; ‘they want to look hot to themselves’. This suggests that the selfie, a photograph of yourself, is only for yourself, for your self-gratification only. Yet if this were true, no one would ever post a selfie online, whether it be on Facebook, Instagram, or any site. No one would want friends and strangers to post compliments on their selfies because they were satisfied in themselves that they knew they looked attractive. I don’t claim to speak for Loey’s perspective on this matter, and as a Youtuber she makes a living out of sharing her appearance (very bravely and confidently) with the world. But I can speak for myself when I say I am guilty of this. I have posted pictures of myself and waited for the satisfaction of a large number of likes or a comment on my appearance, to validate what I already thought and hoped was true.

This is not to criticise the selfie or the search for online validation. This is to make all of us aware that it’s a huge part of ourselves, myself included. Validation from others is important, because getting along with any part of society is conducive to our greater happiness. It’s when validation starts targeting appearance to such double-standards that I start to worry.

When I ask other women about the make-up issue, they say they have thought about it, but that you should do whatever makes you happy – whether that means wearing make-up or not. Isn’t your own happiness the most important in the long run? If you want to wear make-up, then you should. But I question where the motivation to wear make-up comes from. Is it really coming from me? Often wearing make-up isn’t a choice – it becomes a habit, where people can’t bear to go out without putting at least a streak of mascara on. Wearing make-up when I go out does make me feel secure and more attractive than if I wasn’t wearing any, yes – but that’s not really happiness, is it? That’s fitting into a society which validates a made-up woman over a non-made-up one. Being truly happy would involve not spending time or money on products to modify my appearance beyond the basic level of hygiene and neatness.
You think you are in control of what makes you happy? Or you think you know where your markers for happiness came from? Happiness only can come from validation, whether it has originated from family or friends or wider society. The markers of that validation are not set by you – and besides, they are so multiple and constantly changing.

Validation for a woman used to be that if you kept your doorstep swept and clean, you were a good woman and human being. Now that doesn’t determine your value anymore (thank goodness), but damaging simplicity has been replaced by confusing multiplicity. You can be a stay-at-home mum and people will criticize you for not going to work and being a modern, equal woman. You can go to work and people will criticize you for not spending enough time with your kids. Value is determined through a far more complex social structure and today multiple opposing opinions can all be valid. So how do you position yourself within this system? Either you stay in the system and perpetuate it or you remove yourself from the system and take a stand. But you can’t remove yourself from the system, because the system can provide certain things you need, like money and friends and relationships, respect and enjoyment and work satisfaction. You could go and live on a desert island, but as long as you weren’t entirely alone you are still operating in some system of values. So either you stay in the system; a hypocrite whose very existence is a reinforcer of the attitudes you hate, or you suffer outside the system; ignored, voiceless, marginalised.

I don’t have an answer, yet. I like the idea of O’Toole’s theory that appearance and all its trappings is a performance and we are actors, changing the minds of society’s audience the more we play around outside our set gender definitions. That we should experiment with our appearance and consequently shift our and others’ assumptions about gendered appearance. But make-up has a long way to go before it will begin to function as a fairly chosen costume rather than a solution to insecurities which are instilled into us by the make-up companies themselves. I find myself struggling daily with the implications of more and more questions I don’t have answers to. I want to look beautiful, but I want to know what type of beauty I should favour – natural beauty, because it is ‘the real’ me, and I am perfect just the way I am? What if I enjoy changing my appearance once in a while?  Should I value make-up altered beauty because it ‘perfects’ my appearance and gets me closer to being society’s (current) accepted model of beauty? Which model of societal validation should I subscribe to? Which is really true and healthy and which is false and damaging? When and how should I decide to change validation models? Must I be constantly engaged in internal gender debate to make the choice to wear make-up each day truly self-determined? Can I get along in life by completely disregarding any external validation? Is it possible? And while make-up is easy to play around with because it is temporary, would I condone surgery-enhanced beauty if it meant feeling comfortable in my own skin? If someone wants botox or a nose reduction, are they wrong to be happy for how it makes them feel? Where is their validation coming from, and is it wrong to want to change how you look? Which of these forms of beauty, if any, is the most valid? Which will really make me most happy in our unequal society? And am I really the one making the decisions?

[1] Emer O’Toole, Girls Will Be Girls (London: Orion, 2015)

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2 thoughts on “Put on a happy face: Thoughts on make-up and validation

    • Thank you for picking up on that! Beauty as a societal model is different across the world and subject to change. I think, like fashion, we should never tie ourselves to the current accepted model but instead try to be true to what we want, and experiment with what make-up could do for our self-expression if we choose it use it.

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