Putting Your Best Face Forward

The stereotype of the bare-faced, non-leg-shaving feminist has always peeved me, not only because it’s inaccurate, but because for the life of me I cannot fathom why any woman would forgo a simple act that can vastly improve her appearance. We’re not talking Kardashian levels of over-application—just a little blush, a couple squeezes of the eyelash curler, a hint of mascara. It really can make a big difference. 

And apparently it makes a difference in how we are perceived in terms of personality attributes. A recent Harvard study found that makeup (again, not dime-store-hooker gobs of it) increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and her trustworthiness. In the study, women were photographed barefaced and in three increasing intensity levels of makeup: neutral, professional, and glamorous. The women in all three makeup categories were rated higher than the barefaced women in all of the above categories by both men and women, regardless of how long the observer looked at the photos.

As expected, the study got its share of criticism. But honestly, we all know we live in a culture where appearance matters, and it’s highly unlikely that’s going to change (barring a Terminator-esq apocalypse in which we’re all too preoccupied with a war against computers and cyborgs to look in a mirror), so what are we fighting? If you know you look better with a little makeup than without it, then you’re more confident, and how can anything that makes us more confident not be empowering? As one of the study authors said, “Cosmetics can significantly change how people see you, how smart people think you are on first impression, or how warm and approachable, and that look is completely within a woman’s control, when there are so many things you cannot control.” Is it fair or logical that someone would think you’re a warmer person because of makeup? Of course not, but what in life is fair? Instead of railing against reality, why not take the reins (or in this case, makeup brushes)? Why give up control, particularly when you can control not only how others see you, but how you feel?

I have never looked at makeup and thought of it as a chore. On the contrary, it’s a gift, one that men (drag queens aside) don’t have. Instead of “Wow, lucky men don’t have to wear it,” I’ve always thought, “Poor men, they don’t GET to wear it.” If a man has a raging mid-forehead zit, scar, or eyes that are too close together, not to mention a 24-hour virus that renders him ghostly pale with red rings around his eyes, he has to just deal. But we can conceal and/or improve those issues with cosmetics. Other than living longer than men, on average, and not losing our hair, I think it’s one of the best things about being female.

I realize other women disagree. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor and author of “The Beauty Bias,” told The New York Times in an article about the study, “I don’t wear makeup, nor do I wish to spend 20 minutes applying it.” Really? Well, what if you also don’t wish to spend time washing or brushing your hair? What if it’s just too much effort to not wear sweats every day? Where do we draw the line? Besides, a full face can be done in 10 minutes, not 20. The bare essentials—curled lashes, undereye concealer and blush? One minute. Yes, I’ve timed it. Seriously, you don’t have 60 seconds in a day to dramatically improve your appearance?

If you doubt that the difference is that noticeable, try this experiment. Start with a bare face, and then curl the lashes of one eye. Compare. Then apply just one coat of mascara to the curled lashes, again leaving the other eye bare. Compare again. If you really want to get crazy, add a smudge of eyeliner across the upper lash line. Your “done” eye looks bigger, more awake, less tired—in a word, better. I marvel at this the way some people “ooh” and “ah” over the miracle of childbirth.

Then there are those who argue that women who dare go barefaced are actually braver and more confident than the rest of us. I’m not so sure. Would we call a man who goes to work with bed-head or with a sloppy beard “brave.” Doubtful. So why have a different standard for women? Nicola Moulton, health and beauty director of Vogue U.K., has a different take, telling the Financial Times: “I’ve never really bought into the idea that women who don’t wear much makeup are actually the most confident ones. There’s laziness, there’s lack of skill and there’s not knowing what to buy, which could all be factors.” Since skill and lack of knowledge are easily overcome, as they have been with each thing we learn in life, like driving and typing, that would basically leave us with sloth.

I go out without makeup sometimes while running errands, but even then I don’t feel as good. There’s just something about knowing that everyone who is seeing you isn’t seeing the best, or at least a better version of you, that’s a huge downer. There’s no “pop.” It’s like wearing boots that could use a little polish or a ring that’s become cloudy. Why not shine and have at least the same expectations for your face that you have for your shoes and jewelry? And what if, as the famous Nora Ephron line goes, you run into an ex sans makeup? Or, for that matter, a former boss, a good friend or even just your pharmacist or neighbor? Why shouldn’t they see a better version of your face than you woke up with?

Unlike many appearance issues women grapple with, such as small busted versus full, or short versus tall, makeup—just like looking tired, washed-out or hungover—is universal to all us. We all can put it on and wash it off. No surgery needed. Makeup can give every woman a boost, even those considered to be the world’s most glamorous, as we can see here. Best of all, if you screw it up, you can start over again. How many things can we say that about? Empowering, indeed.

Michelle Rabil is a freelance writer, public relations consultant, traveler off the beaten path and avid amateur photographer living in Manhattan. When she isn’t writing for Fortune 500 clients and some of the largest public relations firms in the country, she prefers to be in, on or under the Caribbean Sea. She has also written for Reuters, Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Salon.

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