On Makeup, Female Beauty Standards and the Mask Mandate

I never wore makeup in high school.

I went to an all-girls school and was quite sporty and tomboyish. When all my peers got into makeup around years 9 and 10, I actively resisted it. Growing up in a sexist culture, I had been implictly taught to shame women for being interested in feminine hobbies like makeup. When I was 14, I think a large part of me thought I was ‘better’ than the other girls because I wasn’t interested in ‘superficial’ things like fashion and makeup. 

It wasn’t until I turned 18, got into uni, and started living on campus at co-ed college that I became interested in makeup. In high school, makeup seemed pointless to me, but now that I was surrounded by boys it suddenly felt more important. 

Arriving at uni, and moving into my residential college, was a big step. I was leaving my girlhood behind and entering the adult world of dating and university. I wanted to feel grown-up and empowered and sexual, so I taught myself how to wear makeup and started wearing tighter clothes for male attention. It was a fun and exciting period in my life. 

While a desire to impress boys and seem grown-up fuelled my initial decision to start wearing makeup, there were other benefits, too. I enjoyed the creativity associated with learning how to do colourful eye makeup looks, and enjoyed the social aspect of doing my makeup with the other college girls before a night out. 

By 2019, I was 20. I wasn’t as interested in makeup as a hobby, but I would still wear it if I was going to work, or somewhere I might be photographed, like at a party or a holiday.  When you are a teenage girl, makeup is this exciting, sparkly new thing that you discover that helps you transition from a girl into an adult woman. But by the time that you reach your twenties, many women no longer see makeup as this fun new activity, but a boring but necessary part of their daily routines. 

FEMALE BEAUTY & SEXIST DOUBLE STANDARDS IN THE WORKPLACE

For all the advancements in feminism in the 21st century, women are still held to a much higher standard than men when it comes to physical appearance. We are constantly told as women that our value comes from appearing desirable and youthful. While men can turn up to work as they wake up, women must spend every morning applying a cocktail of expensive makeup and skincare products to cover any marks or signs of ageing. It is so normalised for women to wear makeup everywhere that if we don’t, we receive comments that we look ‘tired’ or ‘sick’.

This expectation gets particularly worse when it comes to customer-facing jobs, like hospitality or retail. While, for most women, makeup is simply an unspoken expectation, for women in hospitality and retail, it is often an explicit requirement. 

Like many other aspiring artists in their early-twenties, I have had my share of shitty casual jobs in these industries. When I briefly worked at a fancy shopping centre, I was given a step-by-step guide for exactly how the women were expected to apply their makeup for work. This is not uncommon, especially for fashion retail. My friend at a trendy swimwear store was forced to wear a full face of makeup, as well as have her nails and toenails painted. It’s very hard, as a woman, to escape the pressure to conform to narrow female beauty standards when your job literally requires makeup.

It is frustrating that the appearance expectations for women going to work are so high, when for men they are so low. Is it not enough that we all must turn up in a neat, ironed uniform with tidy hair? Must we, as women, paint our faces in products that are bad for our skin, just so we can look ‘professional’ at work? I believe women should wear makeup whenever they want to, but the fact that so many have been shamed to feel uncomfortable in their natural skin at work says a lot about how little we have progressed when it comes to sexist double standards in the workplace. 

COVID-19 AND THE MASK MANDATE

In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak went worldwide, medical face masks went from something worn by doctors and polite people with colds, to something worn by literally everyone. As mask-wearing became mainstream, the beauty industry scrambled to work out how to continue to make money from women’s insecurities, despite the reduced need for makeup. There was a boom in YouTube beauty influencers posting videos like “How To Do Mask-Proof Makeup” and “Bold Eye Makeup Tutorial To Stand Out In A Mask”. In some online spaces like TikTok, skincare replaced makeup as the latest trend, with people using their time stuck inside to learn about their skin type and customise their skincare routine. 

For many women, “putting on a face” is so ingrained into their morning routine that they continued to do it despite lockdown and mask mandates, as it gave them a sense of normalcy. However, for me, the mask mandate was a welcome release from the obligation of daily makeup use.

When Australia went into lockdown, I didn’t wear makeup for months at a time. When the lockdown eased in mid-2020, I got a job at my local uni pub. Working there, I would often see friends and other students my age, so I felt pressured to appear ‘pretty’ and wear makeup at work. 

When the Northern Beaches outbreak hit Sydney in December 2020, masks became mandatory in hospitality venues. The introduction of mandatory masks at work had a huge impact on my self-image and has, I suspect, permanently changed my attitude to makeup. Previously, “getting ready for work” was an activity filled with obligation. As a woman, I was constantly faced with the dilemma—can I be bothered with makeup today? Do I have enough time? Is putting it all on worth the effort of taking it all off when I get home late at night? Is my acne so bad that I feel the self-conscious need to cover it up? When masks became mandatory, suddenly my previous concerns about whether I thought I looked “pretty enough” or “feminine enough” or “professional enough” for work, became trivial. 

At the start, I would just put some foundation on my forehead (if my acne was bad) and then my eye makeup. But the effort of doing all that for just a half-face felt pointless, and I soon stopped it altogether. After a few weeks of adapting to this new normal, I had gotten used to not wearing makeup to work.

In the last twelve months, the mask mandate has totally shaped my makeup habits. I am slowly becoming more comfortable in my natural skin, and mask-wearing has broken my habit of putting on makeup daily. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

As women, we are taught from a young age that our value comes from our appearance. Child versions of makeup and hair care products are marketed towards us from primary school. Tween and Teen Girl magazines bombard us with hair and makeup tutorials and before we even have a chance to consider if we’re interested in those things. The cool, older girls at school all wear makeup, and that makes us want to do it too. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have succumbed to the marketing of the billion dollar beauty industry, and started wearing some form of makeup. 

It is really difficult to unlearn an entire lifetime of conditioning when it comes to unwinnable female beauty standards. That’s why the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown, and the mask mandate have been so significant for me. 

I’ve probably worn a mask every single day for the last 12 months at least. Now, I only put on makeup when I really want to put on makeup. It has become something I do for fun, rather than out of obligation.

No, my skin is not perfect, and no, I don’t want to go makeup-less every single day. But I have become a lot more comfortable with accepting my skin as it is, without feeling the need to cover it in a layer of beige liquid that dries my face out and gives me pimples. 

It feels so freeing to go to work bare-faced and not care about it when the prospect of that used to fill me with dread. When it comes to my self-image, I feel like I am returning to my childhood self: the girl in high school who didn’t feel the need to put on any makeup to go out in public. I think she would be proud of me.

Jo Bradley

A short note: This article was originally published in print as part of EXTRA! EXTRA! Edition Four. EXTRA! EXTRA! is a limited edition riso-printed newspaper run by Malcolm Whittaker for PACT Centre for Emerging Artists. A subscription to the four 2021 editions can be purchased here.

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