January 09, 2013

The Makeup and Self-Esteem Debate

Did any of you catch the debate over on the New York Times last week? For those who didn’t, the NYT got a group of makeup artists and writers to give their opinions on whether makeup helps to improve one’s self-esteem or whether is it a sign of disempowerment. 

Each piece is really short – about 300 to 400 words – and all of them support the idea that makeup helps to boost one’s self confidence. What is so bad about that?

To a certain degree, “Must This Get Political?” reflects how I feel about the topic and does bring up questions that I have been asking myself through the years: If makeup is supposed to help boost my self-esteem, why does it also feel like a potential form of disempowerment?

Others might also reasonably ask the question: Does it really matter? People should have the freedom to wear makeup, whatever their motivations, and the reason does not matter. If it helps them feel better about themselves, then so be it. Why make an issue about it?

Wearing concealer to cover an uneven complexion gives us the confidence to face the world. Red lipstick on a night out transforms the way we think and feel about ourselves. After all, it takes confidence to pull off that bright lip so we will naturally be more aware of how we behave that night. Positive self-esteem is always a good thing and makeup is a tool to help us achieve that.

However, it troubles me when I see young girls or women wearing heavy makeup – not because of bad application skills – but because it shows what little confidence they have in the way they look; where they have to wear masks to face the world. The replies I have been given about their heavy-makeup usage troubles me because they strongly parallel responses I have heard and read about eating disorders and drug abuse. Some may say that using makeup is less damaging than drug abuse – depending on which side of the cosmetics and toxins debate they are on – but it still disturbingly seems like a form of addiction to me.

What I am trying to get at here is that makeup can be a double-edged sword. It changes the way we see ourselves and gives us the confidence to stand straighter in public. However, the pursuit of beauty is risky as it taps into our insecurities about the way we look. Depending on how we feel about ourselves, that red lip can either open new doors for us or take us on a downward spiral. While not all of us fall in the latter category, it is well worth remembering that that might be the case for others around us.

Feel free to leave your thoughts down below. I know it seems odd for a beauty blogger to write about makeup issues that are not concerned with application or chemicals but I do think that this is an issue worth thinking about.


Annette said...

I agree with the "double-edged sword" comment... Each morning when I put my makeup on, I feel a little awful for thinking that I need to cover this, emphasize that... But at the end I feel pleased with the result. And it does give me the confidence to step outside the house. To compromise and to put into a healthier perspective about makeup, though, I make it a point to leave my house without a speck of makeup on, on days I overslept (my vice, unfortunately!) so that I can tell myself nobody else gives a damn whether I have makeup on or not. But that's just me.

Kahani said...

I think like many things, makeup is a tool. It's the reasons behind why you use it that make it healthy/unhealthy.
On one hand, nature has given me wretched skin and I look so much better with foundation on that it seems insane for me to go out barefaced - rather like running out in a tattered and stained T-Shirt and expecting everyone to see my "inner beauty" when all they will likely note is my lack of grooming.
To flip the coin I'd argue that natural makeup allows others to focus on your "inner beauty" rather than be distracted or prejudiced by the zits.

Sharon Chin said...

Hi, I lurk here once in awhile. Thanks for this post. It's great to see these thoughts on a beauty blog - I can't imagine a better place for discussion about self-image/self-esteem and how it relates to the cosmetics industry.

I'm an artist and work mostly from home in a small town. I routinely put on bright red lipstick even though I know I'm spending all day inside on my own. I think I'll keep doing this until I'm old and grey. I love makeup for so many reasons - I think every woman's relationship to beauty is as individual and complex she is. A girl should do exactly as she wants, for as long as she wants.

The NYT feature kind of misses the point, I think. I have a real problem the way they framed the question - in this debate women are forced to defend either the use or non-use of makeup. Baloney! Either way we're running ourselves in circles trying to defend our habits/actions/selves. It really doesn't do women any favours. It's a distraction from the REAL issue, which is:

THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY - who controls it, what poisons and chemicals are going in and what kind of damaging messages are being sent to women of all ages... for the sake of profits.

Now, why doesn't the media focus on that? Because women's self-doubts are so much more of an easy target. And why mess with an 18 Billion dollar beauty industry worldwide... ?

Keep rocking this blog.


Adrienne said...

I agree with the person above about everyone defending their habits. Anything you do or don't do will be judged — by people you know, the media, society.

I get comments a lot because my general style is unique for the area I live in. People at my job will comment on whether or not they like something — and I don't really care if they tell me how great I dress (which I get that too) or if they hate something. I remember a co-worker told me that an outfit I wore one day was the worst he'd seen and I told him I didn't care what he thought. Because I don't.

I should note that while I don't care for others opinions on how I look, I am aware of the perception I give and know when it DOES matter. I think that's key. I want to look a certain way when I conduct an interview (I'm a journalist myself) with someone important and that is different than going to the gym, running errands or even taking photos at a school event.

So I can go from wearing no or natural makeup, to professional makeup, to edgy makeup — because it's a form of expression. Applying makeup is like art or fashion. People will always have an opinion about it.

Maybe those who aren't afraid to express themselves have more self-esteem (because they are used to getting all sorts of comments lol — it's true for me at least).

Kahani said...

I'd like to add this video to the conversation.

I think it serves to acknowledge how a healthy attitude towards appearance is rooted in the knowledge and acceptance that appearance has power and that it is rooted in preconceptions that are beyond our control. That you can play the game without internalising it.

Eli said...

Sorry for the late reply. Lots of old friends have been visiting lately!

I agree that the NYT missed the opportunity to link the debate to bigger issues such as the beauty industry and advertising, or how self-esteem is more than just "feeling good", instead of just framing it as a gender bra-burning debate.

Unfortunately, we are a superficial society and wearing makeup allows us to play the game. While I was working, I had to pay special attention to my dress and face depending on who I was meeting because people treat you differently depending on how you look.

When I returned to my studies, I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to stop wearing makeup because I was so used to seeing my made-up face. It had become a habit and not necessarily a good one because I was now more comfortable in my second skin rather than my own skin.

That experience really made me wonder about how I was seeing myself because I always thought that I had healthy self-esteem and was happy being myself. And if I was experiencing that, what about others?

Maybe I'll just leave it as a post for another time.

Meldee said...

Great post Eli. I'm another "old friend" back at the blog I guess! I am a little in two minds over the issue, as many others are. A lot of it has to do with self-esteem - here I volunteer with an organisation which gives women grooming tips and interview advice to get back in the workforce. I guess in a way it has to do with the care and effort you put into it and how that affects how you view yourself - it's way easier to feel happy when you look and feel great. So my point is...I don't actually have a point; it's quite difficult to know where to start on this issue! How utterly unhelpful of me :S


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