Deciding not to wear makeup to work is a big deal, and this is why it matters

“Are you okay? I’ve noticed you haven’t been wearing makeup recently.”

I overheard this at work, from a male colleague to a female colleague. The concerned comment, while tedious on its own, turned sour when the man advised her to take better care of her appearance. Or else she won’t be taken seriously at work.

In a predominately female workplace I, perhaps naively, expected the reaction to be outrage. Instead, she seemed relieved by his honesty. “There are just different standards for men and for women,” she said.

I don’t work there anymore, but that moment stuck with me. I have to wonder what kind of influence these different standards have on us.

Men and women lead different lives. There are the anti-rape rituals women set their clocks by, the gender pay-gapslut shaming, and other daily double standards. But something about this particular action hit home with me. Because, you see, he’s right.

Not wearing makeup likely will have a negative impact on her career.

Makeup isn’t the only beauty business that has an impact on women’s ability to do — well — business. Beauty plays a role in determining how competent we perceive women to be.

When a woman’s BMI exceeds 27 she’s likely to experience workplace discrimination (it’s 35 for men, FYI). Yet, on the flip side, we think beautiful women are vapid and vain. So wearing makeup improves our career prospects to a point, after which too much makeup makes us look like a joke.

It’s a fine line women walk. And it takes a small arsenal of equipment to walk it.

If makeup is an employment prerequisite, who’s paying for it? I mean this literally. Good career prospects means financial independence, which leads to all-around positive outcomes for women. But it feels like a cheap trick when women have to spend their hard earned cash on cosmetics. Anyone who’s been to MECCA Cosmetica knows that looking ‘professional’ doesn’t come cheap. Will our employers provide a cosmetic budget for us, like they reimburse cab rides? Or is makeup just another office expense to claim on taxes?

Choice feminism allows women to ignore systematic oppression based on their personal preferences.

Choice feminism doesn’t make the double standards any easier.

Framing feminism around choice means it’s up to the individual to choose whether or not she wants to wear makeup. Critical debate is swept aside with “It’s her choice” and a shrugging emoji.

Feminism in this context is about having the power to make your own decisions. But individual choices don’t always equate to genuine choices. Choice feminism allows women to ignore systematic oppression based on their personal preferences.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to limit women’s choices. And I don’t want to put more pressure on women to live up to certain ideals. But when it’s women (and not men) who are faced with a “choice,” I have to wonder how genuine that choice is.

Take shaving, for example. Society teaches women to hate and remove their body hair. Yet feminism is about having the power to do what you like. I remember having someone at that same workplace stare at my unshaven legs. I felt so out of place and uncomfortable that I shaved my legs for the first time in over a year. “It’s okay,” a friend told me, “You’re allowed shave if you want to.”

Shave if you want to. Grow your body hair if you don’t. Simple, right? I wish.

How can we choose what we actually want when the mainstream condemns one choice and supports the other? Not shaving is an act of defiance. And no one choose defiances over job security.

No one chooses defiance over job security.

These beauty “choices” have an even more severe impact on women who do not fit the white standards of beauty.

My leg hair, while embarrassing in the moment, is light and fair. I won’t be shamed for it in the same way a woman with thicker, darker hair would. Women of colour don’t benefit from choice feminism like I do because they do not fit white beauty standards like I do. When they “choose” not to shave, are they “choosing” to bear the brunt of gendered and racist discrimination?

If we want to create real choices for women, we need to recognise that not all choices are created equal.

We need to combat the systematic ways we shame women for not living up to dominant beauty standards. We need to reward women for pushing boundaries.

Beauty discrimination can be shocking when it happens as blatantly as it did in my office, yet it still happens. And while speaking up is important (I wish I had been louder), there are other ways to challenge the notion of choice. Change the way you speak about your beauty regimen. Try to recognise your choices for what they are.

Are we making a free choice, or are we making the easy choice?

This article was originally published on Hello Giggles

4 thoughts on “Deciding not to wear makeup to work is a big deal, and this is why it matters”

  1. Hello Emma,
    I was hoping there would be other comments about this. My boyfriend and I were just having a discussion. He says not wearing makeup is just a way to get attention, that I think I have the luxury of not wearing makeup like I don’t need a job, that I’m stubborn and childish because I think I am still stuck in my college days when it was cool, and feminists wear makeup. He says I waste my time complaining about it even though I haven’t done any protesting or research about it until now. He says it’s not that he wants me to wear makeup, but that society and life are passing me by.


    1. Hey @JennFalcon1, it’s been a while since I wrote this, but I still generally feel that “choice” politics is a bit of a trap that disguises systematic oppression as personal empowerment, without questioning how genuine or actual that empowerment is. (Is feeling empowered the same as BEING empowered? Probably not.)

      Plus, shouldn’t make-up be a way of getting attention, not the norm? Make-up can be a lot of fun, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. From the sound of things, your boyfriend is being a bit of a twit. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy, but he may be unconsciously threatened by ideas that challenge the status quo.

      Personally, if not wearing make-up means that life and society will pass you by, then fuck the society that lets that happen.


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