Posts Categorized: feminism

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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Models as Walking Clothes Hangers


OK. So. I really do get that fashion shows are meant, on some level, to be viewed as pageantry, pure art, theater. High-end designer clothes get worn by very few actual people – the haute couture stuff by even fewer – because very few actual people can afford them. Many clothing designers consider themselves to be visual artists, and clothing is simply their chosen medium.

And I try really, really hard to remember this when I hear the argument for extremely tall, extremely slim models as the ONLY choice for runway shows. When I hear the argument that these women are basically just “walking clothes hangers,” that their bodies shouldn’t interfere with how the clothing appears.

But I can’t. The more I hear that refrain, the angrier I become. And here’s why.

THEY ARE STILL CLOTHES even if they’re meant to be arty, sculptural, outlandish clothes. Clothes are meant to be worn on bodies, not look great on hangers. If they were just meant to look amazing on their own, they’d be fiber art, textiles, sculpture. Clothing is meant to clothe. Period.

Put aside the fact that models are human beings too, and are often told to their faces that they aren’t thin enough to get work, dehumanized, disrespected, and sometimes just plain abused. Put aside the fact that designers and mags claim they’re creating an aspirational fantasy from these luxury goods, ignoring the fact that the women shown wearing these clothes become part of that fantasy for many viewers. Put aside the fact that every designer who has taken the tiniest baby step toward model diversity of any kind has been buried under an avalanche of praise, only to return to the stable of tall, thin, predominantly white girls in the next season. PUT ALL OF THAT ASIDE, and you still have this:

Clothing is meant to be worn by humans. If you design items that only look amazing when no one is wearing them, why call them clothing? Why send them down the runway on living, breathing bodies when you could just hang them up on the wall and let people ogle them? It would be so much cheaper,

I am aware of the factors that make drastic change difficult – including the questionable-but-lauded sample size argument – and I don’t have a solution to the lack of diversity on the runways (or in ads, on TV and in the movies, etc.), much as I wish I did. I also have many more bones to pick than this one with the fashion industry, as you all know. But the walking clothes hanger issue is one that has been stuck in my craw for ages because it seems like one of the flimsiest excuses ever for maintaining an exclusionary, damaging status quo. Bodies interfere with how great your clothes look? Are you sure they’re clothes?

What do you think of the argument that models are meant to be walking clothes hangers? Do you think something can still be considered a garment if it looks awful on a range of human body types, but great on its own?

Images courtesy (Calvin Klein SS14 RTW) // This is an archived post that I wanted to refresh and revive for any new readers.

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The Vulva Monologues

Nadine’s post today is about sexuality and anatomy. No graphic terms are used, but it is likely not safe for work reading.

By Nadine, Already Pretty Contributor

People often use the words “vagina” and “vulva” synonymously. At the risk of being labelled a nit-picky know-it-all, I feel compelled to point out that they aren’t the same thing. The vagina is the tube that leads from the cervix of the uterus to the outside of the body. The birth canal for some. The outer stuff – the clitoris, inner and outer labias and the urethral and vaginal openings – are known collectively as the vulva.  It may seem like an unimportant distinction but every time I hear the vulva called the vagina, I get a little twitchy.  For example, one does not typically wax their vagina…unless they’re making a vagina shaped candle.

Vaginas are on the inside!

As children, many of us learn that “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.”  Which they do. Sometimes. But some boys have vaginas, some girls have penises, some have both or neither. Biological sex and the accompanying gentials don’t define a person’s gender.

But also? The vagina isn’t the homologue of the penis. The clitoris is. I think it’s important to acknowledge those distinctions for many reasons, not the least of which is sexual pleasure. A lot of our conventional notions of sexual pleasure are still based on male models of sexual response. Penis-in-vagina sex is usually good times for the penis and it’s long been assumed that the same was true of the vagina. The vagina can be a source of sexy awesomeness for many people, but because of nerve endings and other anatomical designs, it’s not the central pleasure centre for many people. Meanwhile the vulva – the lips and specifically the clitoris tend to be quite potent in terms of the sensation they deliver. But stimulating the vulva often gets designated as “foreplay” – the thing that come before the sex – while vaginal penetration is billed as the main event.

Even though vaginal stimulation can feel great for lots of people,  it isn’t always the sexual highlight. Fortunately, more people today seem to be aware that the clitoris exists and that it needs stimulation. Still, activities like oral sex, fingering and other forms of clitoral stimulation are frequently described as foreplay – the precursor to the “real” sex, that is a penis going into a vagina. I wonder if that perspective persists at least in part because we talk about vulvas and vaginas as though they’re basically the same thing AND we talk about vaginas and penises as though they’re basically the same thing. Which they aren’t.

Vaginas are on the inside.

I also want people to call my bits what they are. People don’t say “testicles” when they mean penis. They say “testicles” (or “balls” or “nuts”) and the penis is called “penis”/”penis-related-slang.” There are distinct sets of words so we understand penis and testicles as related but distinct anatomical parts. Again, history hasn’t been as kind to those of us with female anatomy, because for so long women’s sexuality was at best ignored and at worst vilified as emasculating and dangerous. For a long time, save for a few doctors and anatomy enthusiasts, no one learned the details of what we have going on down there. And while we’re making great progress, using “vagina” as a catch-all for female genitals feels like a remnant of a time gone by. Penises and testicles get separate names. It’s time vulvas and vaginas deserve the same respect.

Vaginas are awesome. As are vulvas. They’re connected but different in form, function and response. So one more time:

Vaginas are on the inside.

photo credit: Pond 5

Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and blogger at Adorkable Undies. She is a new resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, having recently moved from Ottawa, Ontario to pursue a Doctor of Education in Human Sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.

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