One of the things I like least about the beginning of the volleyball season, which coincides with the beginning of the school year, is seeing fresh-faced 7th grade girls come back to school as 8th graders caked in garish makeup. What is disheartening is not the makeup per se, as much as I dislike it in and of itself, but the insecurity that the makeup is trying to cover.
Perhaps it is inevitable that many junior high and high school kids will struggle with insecurities. This is a period of social development when adolescents are focused on their personal identity. They are highly vulnerable to social pressures that can foster insecurity. Parents and schools, however, should take steps to mitigate these insecurities rather than remaining indifferent and allowing them to become entrenched for life.
A few months ago, I saw a company in the mall giving free makeovers to girls. One mother told her 9-year old that she was taking her to get a makeover so she could “look beautiful.” The little girl looked delighted. My indignation at that point could only have been greater if the mother had been taking her daughter to get free cigarettes so that she could look cool.
Having coached and taught teens and preteens, I have witnessed firsthand how a fixation on meeting transient, senseless standards of attractiveness can shatter the emotional and physical health of young people, especially girls, and the negative impact it often has on academic performance and spiritual well-being.
Part of this phenomenon is driven by corporations who are hoping to generate insecurity in order to maximize their profits from selling clothes, perfume, hair product, makeup, and other goods. They can’t sell “I’m too pretty to do math” t-shirts without convincing girls that being cute or hot is more important than academic success.
The pressure to conform is intense. Girls, including those who ideally would prefer to wear no makeup, have told me that they do not have a choice. They feel they must wear at least some makeup or risk committing social suicide. The pressure to self-objectify comes from marketers, the media, peers, and frequently even parents. Other girls act as mindguards who try to eradicate dissent. They parrot and spread defenses like “I wear it for myself, not anyone else” or “it brings out my real face” along with other arguments that make little sense to the non-indoctrinated. Those that break from the norm can be labeled weird, ugly, or moralistic by the defenders of the artificial.
We might recognize this problematic pressure to conform, but still ask, “So what?” For both girls and women, however, the costs of conformity are high. Social norms regarding makeup are fundamentally unjust and stand as an obstacle to the achievement of real gender equality on a societal level.
Any time there are social pressures on women to adhere to certain norms that men do not face, it is essential to assess whether or not these norms and pressures are compatible with the fundamental equality of men and women and result in increased human flourishing.
Needless to say, there is no social pressure for men to wear makeup. Men do not believe their professional success is bound to their use of cosmetics. They do not believe it is essential to wear makeup to meet and retain a spouse. Their sense of worth is not connected to putting paint on their face.
In addition, buying, applying, and removing makeup also takes valuable time and money away from girls and women. They might forgo fun activities to maintain their look, or they might lose essential sleep in order to have extra time to get ready each morning. Meanwhile, makeup does not even bring minor benefits like making skin smoother to the touch or more comfortable (or more hygienic), like shaving can. This leaves aside arguments surrounding the necessity of selective consumerism—the ethical purchasing of products—and the unethical treatment of animals committed by some cosmetic companies.
In terms of achieving equality on a societal level, makeup certainly helps to generate or perpetuate the prejudice that women are more likely to be frivolous and superficial than men. Implicit in this is that women should not be trusted with the most serious of professional tasks, creating another pane of glass in the ceiling for women to shatter. Of course, many women who break from these social norms by rejecting makeup and superficiality are criticized and even punished for doing so. This creates real obstacles for many women who are determined to pursue professional success, yet value their authenticity. It should be noted of course that many women successfully maneuver around these obstacles and accomplish both.
Makeup is only one part of our cultural obsession with the appearance of women. Some women are sexually objectified, while others are scrutinized like a painting or some other inanimate object. When a phenomenal athlete like Gabby Douglas is on the brink of winning a gold medal, we have to read about her hair. When Hillary Clinton gives a speech talking about protecting the basic rights of vulnerable human beings, my twitter feed is often full of references to her hair, makeup, or outfit. Her decision to wear minimal makeup at an event in Bangladesh became a headline story. Male politicians only seem to get this treatment when they wear suits designed for men 6 inches taller or 50 pounds heavier and, truthfully, not even then. It is naïve to think that this focus on the external appearance of women does not lead many people to underestimate and underappreciate the seriousness, intelligence, knowledge, integrity, skills, and accomplishments of numerous women. And it is foolish to think that this inevitable.
The sexualization of girls is another phenomenon connected to makeup. Companies create thongs with provocative sayings for girls as young as seven. They market dolls dressed in sexualized clothing to even younger girls. And they push young girls to emulate older teens and adults in their use of makeup. They teach girls to self-objectify so that girls will “internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.” The objectification of girls undoubtedly leads to higher rates of insecurity, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, and even suicide. Without any exaggeration, it can be said that this is one of the gravest threats that our society faces.
As mentioned, behind all of this is the manipulation of adolescent insecurity. Girls need help in spending their time on actions that are worthwhile— that foster their development and result in happiness, satisfaction, and a secure sense of self. They need authority figures who don’t tell them to wait a few years before objectifying themselves, but tell them to keep it real and help them to recognize their immeasurable worth and the infinite value of their unique personality. They need people around them to point out the toxicity present in the culture and encourage them to reject it in favor of authenticity and virtue, especially courage.
Yet social norms surrounding the use of makeup and the quest for beauty are so widespread and insecurity runs rampant. Is there any hope for Millennial girls? Of course parents and educators play an important role, but larger cultural changes are also necessary. Some small ripples in popular culture provide some grounds for optimism.
First, there is the rise of no makeup campaigns. These campaigns invite women to give up makeup for a day or longer. Celebrities have joined in, from Kim Kardashian to Lady Gaga, by doing photo shoots sans makeup. The premise is to show that they are comfortable with their natural appearance and that their appearance does not define who they are “inside”. These celebrity photos are great, but their impact is diminished by the celebrities’ more frequent embrace of superficiality. Further, giving up makeup should not be about emphasizing the internal over the external, but refusing to divide oneself in that way.
Second, anti-bullying campaigns have grown in recent years, from Lady Gaga’s efforts to those of the WWE. These can help to create a safer environment where the costs of being one’s self are diminished. Many Catholic schools have done an excellent job of providing strong discipline to prevent bullying. These efforts are commendable and it is essential that they continue, but greater efforts need to be taken to reduce more subtle forms of bullying that do not rely on physical violence. Treating cruelty like it is inevitable is despicable and all schools have the responsibility to put proper mechanisms in place to minimize it, so that kids can grow up in safe environments where they can be authentic without being afraid. The rest of us have a responsibility to make sure schools fulfill this responsibility and to stand up for those being bullied in any environment where bullying is witnessed.
Third, there is the recent viral video in which Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor, takes a stand against bullying. She encourages us to spend a little more time being kind than critical and makes it clear that her weight and appearance do not define who she is as a person. Reflecting on this, Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin said, “It made me wonder for the umpteenth time, why do we as a community think it’s acceptable to judge females by their appearance? Why don’t we judge men that way? And most importantly, what are we teaching our daughters (and sons) about their self-worth when we perpetuate and allow this unnecessary discourse to continue?” These are good questions. The answer is not to strip men of their dignity by objectifying them, creating an equality of insecurity and worthlessness, nor is to embrace being an object like some delusional lipstick feminist. The answer is to leave superficiality behind, eliminate unjust, sexist expectations of women at the workplace, and when it comes to analyzing women professionally, to focus on actual job performance rather than external appearances.
Finally, some lyrics from popular songs directly target the use of makeup. One Direction’s song What Makes You Beautiful includes the lyrics: “Don’t need makeup to cover up/Being the way that you are is enough.” This is a great message that discourages the use of makeup to cover up one’s authentic self. It encourages authenticity and having a sense of one’s true worth. Of course, within the context of the rest of the song, this message is perhaps a bit undercut. It seems to imply that the girl is so hot or pretty (“You’re turning heads when you walk through the door”) that she does not need makeup. This may limit how far that message resonates, as many girls that are struggling with insecurities about the way they look may think this message only applies to others (the same issue applies to the aforementioned makeup-free campaigns among celebrities).
In his song Best I Ever Had, Drake challenges the need for makeup with the lines: “Sweat pants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on/That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong.” Drizzy is worried that she’ll take it the wrong way, because few women seem to realize that many men prefer women without makeup, even when this preference is directly expressed. Of course for many other men, the opposite is true. There is no shortage of superficial men who are seemingly lemming-Neanderthal hybrids. Yet Drake is expressing a preference shared by many men, especially those familiar with authentic attraction, which is not based on the objectification of others, but on the actual desire to have a real, genuine relationship with that person. The attraction is to other person in their entirety, a united and integrated whole. In this scenario, makeup is superfluous at best, unnecessary and undesired.
A third example is Kendrick Lamar’s song No Makeup. He cautions that “when the makeup occur/I don’t see it [the beauty in her], all I see is a blur.” He is describing how makeup covers up true beauty, and he is not talking about internal beauty, but her face, imperfections and all, which he describes as “from heaven.” Covering up one’s face, given to us by God, becomes almost sacrilegious. The most interesting part may be the line, which he repeats, “You ain’t gotta get drunk to have fun.” The connection seems to be that this is simply another way to shed one’s authentic identity, an alternative means of covering one’s insecurities instead of addressing and eradicating them. Overall, the song is a strong statement in favor of authenticity and recognizing one’s self worth.
Of course, we still need many more movies, TV shows, viral videos, and songs that praise authenticity and having a sense of self-worth. Right now messages that promote the objectification of women and praise materialism and superficiality are far more common. We need cultural changes that make it easier for girls and women who prefer their own face to one covered in makeup to live as they would like, so they are not subjected to unfair discrimination and pressure to conform. What is needed is nothing less than a social revolution. These recent developments in popular cultural may be few in number, but they do provide some hope that (to quote another Drake song) the real is on the rise.