Makeup and Professionalism


Over the past few months, I’ve read several essays linking makeup and professionalism. Written by stylish women working in corporate America, these articles insist that daily makeup application is a must for working women, and that going without it may degrade your image of competence and reliability. They inevitably cite a recent study, the results of which indicate that women wearing just the right amount of makeup appear more trustworthy and likable to most observers. And they send readers scrambling to Sephora to upgrade their stashes.

I never experimented with makeup as a girl and didn’t even learn to pluck my eyebrows until I was 30. The older I get, the more I find myself relying on cosmetics to define and conceal, shape and highlight my features. And although I’d rather spend my precious minutes reading or sleeping or kissing my husband, I don’t actively resent my ever-expanding makeup application routine.

I do, however, resent the implication that a woman without makeup doesn’t belong in the workplace, or that applying makeup is essential to career success. And here’s why:

Laws versus policing

I encourage my readers and clients to select clothing that fits their figures and broadcasts their confidence and self-respect. I believe that dressing is a social contract and that understanding the norms surrounding appropriate dressing choices for various life situations will ease human relationships. But I am also aware that there are laws about clothing. Actual laws that apply to both men and women. To go about in public and not be fined or arrested, humans must be clothed. And in my opinion, since we’ve got to get dressed anyway, we might as well do it expressively and in ways that feel good. Since dressing is social, we can also make style choices that will make us appear polished, impressive, and self-aware. So, in my view, acquiring an understanding of how to dress is both beneficial and required.

There are no laws about wearing makeup. Makeup is entirely optional everywhere. Although some men wear makeup, the majority of makeup consumers and wearers are women. And to tell these women that they should feel obliged to apply makeup on a daily basis in order to garner the respect and admiration of their colleagues is to police their behaviors based solely on social norms. To say that makeup is essential to workplace achievement is to promote the belief that the performance of traditional femininity is the only route to professional success for women. To insist on a set of grooming-related behaviors that doesn’t remove dirt or odor, doesn’t make something that is naturally messy look neater, and really only serves to “enhance” or “amplify” certain facial features is to remind women that their physical selves are never going to be acceptable in their natural state.

I understand that there are plenty of voluntary behaviors that human beings engage to further their personal goals, plenty of things we do because they’re beneficial though not required. And yet this case is so focused on forcing women to be and look one specific way, I can’t help but feel it is more about reinforcing existing social norms than it is about ensuring the professional success of women as a group.

The fine line

But what about that study, you ask? Well, first off, it was funded by Procter & Gamble, a company that manufactures and sells makeup and was undoubtedly thrilled to see results linking makeup and trustworthiness. But perhaps more importantly, the results emphasized that while barefaced is too little, “glamorous” is too much. If you apply just the right amount of eyeshadow and blush, you appear more capable, reliable and amiable. But overdo it and “there may be a lowering of trust.”

So not only are you being asked to spend money on cosmetics and spend your time and energy applying them, you must be very careful not to apply too little or too much or you risk ruining everything. Without makeup, you’re unprofessional, inexperienced, a hippie or a child or a socially oblivious loser. With too much makeup you’re unprofessional in an entirely different way, still socially oblivious but more on the sexualized diva end of the spectrum.

There are parallels to dressing, here, of course: Women are expected to dress in ways that aren’t too dowdy or too slutty. Fall too far on either side and you risk ridicule and censure by the lady-policing machinery built into modern society. This is nothing you’ll ever hear me defending. But again, wearing clothing is required by law and since you’ve got to get dressed anyway, choosing to align your lawfully required garments with social expectations may work to your benefit. Makeup is optional. And if you aren’t naturally interested in it and you ARE going to be judged negatively should you fail to apply the exact right amount of it, why bother at all?

Focus on accomplishment

I give presentations on professional dress and grooming to college seniors and women’s leadership programs, so you’ll never hear me say that how you present your physical self in professional situations is irrelevant. But here’s a tidbit that goes into every single lecture I deliver: Comportment, demeanor, dress, grooming, and overall appearance constitute the first levels of information about ourselves that we offer to the observing world. They may not be the most important, but they are the first, which makes them worthy of effort and attention.

What I hope to convey to my audience members is that blending personal style and comfort preferences with environmental expectations can help you create looks that feel great and allow you to forget all about what you look like so you can focus on your message, your work, your passion. I also remind them that badly applied makeup is generally considered to be worse than no makeup at all, and that it’s completely fine to skip it. I want them to feel confident and empowered, and I want them to think more about their goals than their shoes.

By telling women that a perfectly applied face of makeup is a prerequisite for career success, we are telling them that how they look is more important than what they know or what they have achieved. We are telling them that their natural faces will distract people, that being pretty is necessary regardless of circumstance, that performing femininity in exactly the right way isn’t just helpful, it’s essential. Insisting that makeup become integral to a professional woman’s daily life subtly tells her that if she doesn’t look right it won’t matter how smart or creative or innovative or capable she is. And that is patently untrue.

Since I’ve admitted to being a makeup novice myself, I realize I may sound defensive. And maybe I am. When I read this spate of makeup-career articles, the underlying message I got was, “If you don’t wear makeup, you don’t look like a grownup to other grownups.” And that sentiment makes me want to break things. Some adult women wear makeup and others don’t. Learning to apply makeup is a rite of passage for many, but it is not a skill set required for acceptance into the Grown-Ass Woman Club. Any more than having children or going to college or losing your virginity or working outside the home or any of the other arbitrary markers of so-called “real” womanhood are. Being a woman can be done in infinite ways, and forging a successful career path can play out in infinite ways. Accomplished, professional, grown women can take on the world at any age, at any stage, and in any way they see fit.

And they can do it with or without lipstick and foundation.

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8 Responses to “Makeup and Professionalism”

  1. Lauren

    I completely agree. I’ve never been much for the make-up scene – on a day when I feel like wearing make-up I’ll out a little on, and I actively enjoy changing my appearance with dramatic flair for nights out, but most of the time I don’t wear any. My skin feels happier for it, and it’s really only some days when I’ve having break outs or looking particularly tired when I think maybe I should cover up. In those situations it is related to professional perception – not wanting break outs to make me as “stressed”, or for shadows under my eyes to give away how little I may have slept.

    I’m a stubborn soul, so if people are judging me based on how my face is made up then I have a tendency to think “screw them” and do what I want anyway, However, I do suspect that in other workplaces (mine has known me for years and can’t be bothered trying to change me) a woman will be judged for no wearing make-up. It’s ridiculous really – men are fine without it, we just need our sensibilities to adjust to seeing women without it too.

    However, whether or not the judgement exists, I find perhaps the saddest thing the fact that people seek to perpetrate it. If we identify a judgement like this, we should be fighting to make sure that we can wear and look however we want without people drawing conclusions about our skills and commitment – rather than seeking to tell women what they “should being doing” or “have to do” in order to succeed. We’ve got it the wrong way round.

    Sorry for the essay!

  2. Catrine

    Sally this is so well-written…I agree 100%. Personally I like wearing makeup, but I do it just for my own satisfaction, & when I do not feel like wearing makeup, I don’t. It’s really frustrating that emphasis on appearance accompanies seemingly every part of a woman’s life (i.e. looking pretty to “get a man”, or countless fashion magazines encouraging ways to “look natural” for day or wear “party makeup” for night). And now I guess, “the way to succeed at work” makeup. Can a woman just have an hour of the day when the appearance of her face doesn’t matter? An hour to highlight her accomplishments, her hard work, intelligence, humor, kindness etc.?

    I really love this line “We are telling them that their natural faces will distract people, that being pretty is necessary regardless of circumstance, that performing femininity in exactly the right way isn’t just helpful, it’s essential.” You hit the nail on the head one. Fabulous article.

  3. disqus_yXLGQrvLMy

    A few things.

    I think it depends on the person- I have good friends who look flawless without a drop of makeup. Even skin tone, clear skin- their makeupfree look actually looks like someone trying to wear minimal makeup- it’s just how they look and it works for them. It’s like when I see pictures of celebrities “without makeup”- half the time, I’m thinking: they look better than half of us with makeup.

    I think there is something similar for men: facial hair. Depending on the company/industry, facial hair probably contributes to how men are seen or viewed in the workplace (although I don’t have a study to back this up). Clean shaven: accepted. (Again, it depends on the person- some men barely ever have to shave to look clean shaven, others have to shave practically twice a day for this look). Scruff: not always accepted because it can look sloppy. Beard:can be accepted if it’s trimmed and well maintained- again, depends on the workplace and beards do see to be making a comeback. Long beard: not accepted in many work places.

    I guess what I’m saying it that makeup and facial hair contribute to compliment clothing to make someone look put together for work. Some people need more effort to look the part (me), others look flawless right out of the shower. That’s life.

    P.s. I did leave this comment earlier but was having trouble with disqus- I don’t know if it was a disqus issue or if the comment wasn’t approved, but I thought I would try again.

  4. Shawna McComber

    Thank you for writing this, Sally. I am very thankful to never have worked in the corporate world as I would be a very poor match for it, and I now do not work outside of home so whether or not I wear makeup is of no concern to anybody. Having said that, I am fully skilled at applying makeup well and subtly. I know how to do it and I know what works best on me but after having worn makeup in my twenties and thirties I eventually decided i no longer wished to. I will sometimes use a tinted lip balm a bit of powder and a smudge of taupe pencil around my eyes if I am going out and want to look a bit more dramatic. The difference is so subtle I probably don’t need to bother. It makes me angry that there is ever a suggestion by anyone that women must or must not wear makeup. I believe that so long as basic grooming and hygiene are taken care of, a woman absolutely must be acceptable in her natural or near natural state. Because makeup is an added thing, I believe an employer has the right to request it be toned down in the same way a dress code might be required.

    In summary: It is imperative that we be considered acceptable and appropriate in our natural state and logical that some employers may decree some types of embellishments unacceptable on the job even if we disagree with them.

  5. Lindsey

    I have so many feelings and frustrations about this topic. Thank you for continuing to be a positive voice of reason in the conversation! As a female pursuing a PhD in a male dominated academic field, I feel like anything construed as feminine or too attractive or “putting in too much effort” is perceived negatively. And I struggle as much with that perception as I have in other environments where I felt pressure to dress up and wear makeup.

  6. Charlene

    I have experienced life quite differently at times, first, as someone quite plain and nondescript and, alternately, someone sometimes described as “striking.” The second situation occurs when I am “putting my best face forward”, so to speak, and dressing in clothes that flatter. I can tell you that there is a HUGE difference in the way people respond to me. Whether we like it or not, approve of it or not, people respond more positively to a person who looks her best. And for many of us, including myself, that includes makeup.
    It’s simply a fact of life; that’s the way people are. We experience life through our senses, and our visual sense is most prevalent. I suspect that the study you refer to is quite accurate.

  7. Courtney Landes

    There’s also the fact that for some women, wearing cosmetics is against their religion.

  8. Jamie

    Lots of professional women don’t wear makeup. Many doctors, vets, and dentists I’ve used have not had a stitch of make up on their faces. (That I can tell anyway.) For me personally, I like to wear concealer under my eyes everyday.