Alicia Keys went cosmetics-free to the MTV Video Music Awards last weekend; despite the criticism and controversy, she’s not alone in standing up against the pressure to look perfect every single day of one’s life...
Having watched every series – I know, I know, but it’s one of my guilty pleasures – I was struck recently by the difference between Big Brother 1 and the current incarnation. While the house itself has gone from bargain basement to a designer mansion, the most noticeable change for me is how the contestants look. In the first series they resembled ordinary folk with spots, shadows and wrinkles, while the current crop are primped to within an inch of their lives… spending endless hours in front of the mirror as both sexes pile on layers of product to achieve ‘perfection’.
And it’s not just happening on reality TV. The natural look, as I know it, has been replaced with the ‘new natural’ which involves ‘contouring’ and ‘baking’ to look like a distinctly unnatural, ‘plastic’ version of yourself – thanks Kim Kardashian – where every inch of your face is ‘done’, even though you’re trying to come across as having ‘just got out of bed like this’.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, there is the ‘made-up’ face, which now involves the most ridiculous mountain of products and the skills of a professional to apply them. I was fascinated at a recent wedding to find a guest in her 20s in the restroom ‘touching up’ her make-up with ‘just the basics’ – which constituted the biggest make-up bag I have ever seen.
Young girls are so fixated on achieving these looks that they devote hours to online tutorials where make-up bloggers have carved out lucrative careers from sharing product hints and tips, becoming celebrities in their own right. Not one of my four nieces, aged between 15 and 22, leaves the house without having applied make-up first, while a ‘night out’ requires hours of grooming and selfies taken from all angles to check they’ve created the perfect face. When I was their age a dab of concealer on a spot and some lip balm constituted my day look, while a night out demanded no more than a flick of mascara and a sweep of lipstick.
Apparently, 67% of women go bare-faced only twice a month. Although we like to blame this obsession with appearing flawless solely at the feet of social media, there are other insidious forces at work. Disturbingly, in a world where men and women have never been more equal, 65% of women admit that they wear make-up because they think that men like it. However inaccurate this assumption may be (many men, my husband included, hate to see a woman caked in make-up) there is still an inbuilt belief in women that ‘making themselves pretty’ is something that men expect.
It’s not restricted to romantic relationships either. Study after study has shown that women who wear make-up are treated better in the working environment and earn more.
And it’s a lesson learned from an early age that there is a clear double standard between the sexes in terms of physical appearance: a woman’s flaws must be hidden with make-up or Spanx, but a man’s can be out on display for all to see; he won’t be judged as harshly for them. Dad can do the school run after a sleepless night with the baby and earn kudos for the bags and shadows under his eyes. If Mum does the same she attracts comments about ‘letting herself go’ and ‘not being able to cope’.
You can’t rely on adults outside the family to show the way either. Even potential role models such as professional sportswomen now pile on the make-up despite the heat and sweat of competition. The message is clear, no matter what you’re doing you need to be wearing make-up to do it. You need only look at the faces of your fellow gym goers to see that, even when it is a fool’s errand to apply it (not only will make-up slide down your face as you sweat, but because it can clog the pores it will interfere with the skin’s cooling process), people are desperate to adhere to social convention by ‘looking good’ even when working out.
At every turn, the bar is being set ever higher for young girls and their appearance and we need to counter it before it gets even further out of hand. I hope that by going make-up free in front of my nieces I will show them that you don’t have to totally transform yourself in order to do well in life. After all, the recipe for happiness doesn’t consist of primer, colour correcting cream, concealer, foundation, setting powder, blusher, bronzer, highlighter, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, lip liner and lipstick – no matter what the internet might tell you.