I Did my Make-up in Public: Confronting Gender Anxieties

On February 7, 2019, I worked on finishing a paper until 4 a.m. My alarm went off at 7 a.m. I showered and dried my hair in enough time to make my 9:30 a.m. class and hand in said paper. I’ve been blessed with insanely curly hair. Most days I am unable to brush it, looking either like J.K. Rowling’s book-cannon Hermione Granger or a woman who just got out of a fist fight with a raccoon. That morning I used argon oil, which would allegedly “tame even the frizziest har for up to 24 hours.” It was glorious; my hair was so big and wavy instead of curly. I had an intense desire to tease the top lightly, and once I did, I knew I needed some big-hair 1980’s inspired makeup. The only problem? After my quickly approaching 9:30 a.m. class ended at 11 a.m., I only had an hour between classes. This was not enough time to get back to my room, do an entire face of delightfully colorful, bright make-up and make it across campus for my  class at noon.

I debated bringing makeup with me but remembered being told: “it’s crass to apply or adjust makeup in public. It’s not lady-like.” The sting of embarrassment I felt for considering it shocked me. I briefly thought about bringing it with me and trying to apply it in a public restroom after class but was instantly disgusted at the thought. I took a step back and reevaluated the need my soul has for creativity and expression, and I really wondered, “why can’t I just sit in the concourse with all that great natural lighting and do it there?”

My need for creativity kicked my anxious ass into gear and set me onto this “experiment”. If I could feel so anxious debating applying make-up in public (when that is nothing compared to the strange little happy-dances and clumsy accidents I pull on the daily), how would other people react to it? Would my existence as a plus-size woman effect their reactions? Most importantly, why did we think this way?

A quick Google search shows hundreds of women’s advice columns, magazine articles and “hot-topic” headlines about how wrong it is to shame women for applying makeup in public. What doesn’t show up are facts or historical answers on why western society thinks it’s “vulgar” to slap on foundation in the middle of Old Main at 11:15 a.m.

I wont lie. As I started applying my eyeshadow, I got really excited. There’s nothing I love more in my big, theatrical heart than dramatic makeup and a good teal eyeliner. My travel-sized makeup bag was filled with strange essentials that together could produce the yellow, pink, teal eye look and pink, blush lip I had in mind. (Disclaimer: I didn’t grow up in the 1980s and am aware this might not be 100percent historically accurate, but like stfu it’s my face). The first hiccup in my experiment came with product failure. My beloved Nyx liquid eyeliner, in some strangely named shade of teal, had run dry. For the entirety of my high school career teal eyeliner was my thing. Yes, even in the “edgy teen” phase of my life there was still teal eyeliner, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the one I originally bought for college could’ve dried out over the course of three years.

At this point, however, I’d already committed to the makeup and adapted to a thicker-than-intended black liner when I encountered my second hiccup: controversy. Despite attending school in the middle of small-town central Pennsylvania, most colleges are filled with free-thinkers and stranger things than me putting makeup on. The few odd looks from professors and other school staff running in and out of the building had satisfied my burden of proof for the “experiment,” and I was content with looking into that. But no, it’s me, so there’s always something worse bound to happen. An older gentleman started the short list of personal interactions. He was kind enough, part of a campus tour, but he wanted me to know, “I didn’t need all that stuff to be pretty.” However, it was meant as a compliment, and I thought it would add something interesting to my phone call home at the end of the day.

After a few minutes into foundation application, a group of jock-type dudes wandered past me on their way to class, a single girl among their group. Although they didn’t talk to me, they talked about me, most notably how it was “like putting lipstick on a pig.” What bothered me the most was the girl’s laughter. Most men are socialized into believing that women wake up with an even skin tone free of blemishes, tamed eyebrows and dark eyelashes. Doing so takes at least 15 minutes to accomplish. Due to that, I could write off their remarks as uneducated and just another sign of warped beauty standards. The girl, however, knew better. She knew what it was like to get up three hours early to do a full face of makeup and curl her hair. She knew exactly what it was like to look at magazines and feel fat even when you fit into a standard medium sized shirt. I finished my look without incident and was quite proud of it despite the loss of a beloved eyeliner, but all day, I couldn’t shake the blatant lack of solidarity between me and this other girl. 

Women have always “needed” instructions on how to “behave” in patriarchal societies as exemplified in finishing schools. Later resurfacing in the countless guides to domesticity popularized in the 1950’s and again in the 1990’s with the rise of biological essentialist feminism. It’s vulgar to put on makeup in public because men deemed it so. It was all part of these outdated rules that also dictated what colors to wear, what to eat, what part of the sidewalk to walk on for “good manners” or to distinguish yourself as “high society” or the social elite.

This idea of class separation has been a tool used by power structures for centuries to separate women from working together. If all the upper-class women have money, nice things and are told they’re doing everything correctly in an etiquette books, they won’t listen to the hundreds of other disadvantaged women suffering from this system. They must be doing something wrong if all these other women can be “upper-class” and successful. This is a very small summary of a very big issue with lots of other factors such as race and ableism.

This idea of the complacent “good girl” pops up in classrooms all the time. Women share their ideas less and contribute less, not because they don’t have any, but because it could come off as rude to honestly critique another person or offer a dissenting opinion. There is no room left in society for etiquette or the archaic standards of behavior it encourages. To be blunt: Screw it, it’s my choice to do what I want when I do it, and it’s okay to make dissenting or different choices. Would I do my makeup in public again? Heck yeah, but let me get another teal eyeliner first. There’s something satisfying about watching the traditions of an old world crumble while looking completely extra.