The make-up affair

Is makeup just a frivolous obsession or a struggle for identity?

Mehreen Ovais July 21, 2014

Whether we admit it or not, no one – least of all young women – is indifferent to the image in the mirror. Every day, between rolling out of bed and stepping out the door, we perform a ritual of ‘grooming’ in an attempt to make ourselves look good. Like actors in a theatre play who require stage makeup to get into their characters, most of us have concocted set grooming routines to help ourselves to get into ours. Regardless of whether we prefer daily facial scrubs, hurried blow-dries or even early morning workout sessions, the one thing common to all our grooming regimes is that without them, we feel barren, exposed and unlike our perceived selves.

A recent study conducted by Dailymail UK lends credence to this psychological dependence women have upon grooming. The study, which examined nearly 2,000 women across a wide age gap, conceded that most women feel much less attractive, confident and more vulnerable without a full face of makeup. Many of the participants went on to admit they would never venture into public in their natural state lest their partners, friends and colleagues see their true faces. Perhaps, it was for this reason the recent ‘No Makeup Selfie’ campaign blossomed into an overnight sensation across social media. With the underlying aim of raising funds for cancer research by posting a makeup-free self shot online, the campaign highlighted women’s age-old love affair with cosmetics and encouraged them to part with their ‘makeup visages’ for a good cause. It rightfully implied that makeup carries a deep meaning for women and helps shape different parts of their personality.

Closer to home, 24-year-old Laila Basit* proves that such fears are characteristic of women across the globe. “I have spots on my skin which kill my confidence completely,” confesses Laila. “I can’t recall the last time I went out without makeup. It’s like the minute I have indulged in some foundation or lipstick, I become a different person, strong, confident and beautiful.”

For women like Laila, wearing makeup isn’t just about looking good: it is a means to access a part of them that is insecure and vulnerable and rectifying it with the ‘magical’ touch of a cosmetic brush. Grooming and makeup act as non-verbal symbols of a woman’s personality, the desired perception being that if her appearance is kempt, so will other aspects of her life such as home, workplace and mind. For 23-year-old student Annie Badr*, makeup is an essential ingredient for attracting potential rishtas at family functions. “I usually wear nude lipsticks and soothing, pastel eye shadow to look simple and innocent. I think most women would prefer more conservative girls for their sons.”

According to psychotherapist and mental health counsellor Jasmyn Rana, “Many women come with low presenting self-esteem and body imaging issues and use a variety of coping mechanisms to boost their confidence, makeup being one of them.” This is particularly common amongst working women who tend to connect self-worth to their success in the corporate world where the distribution of power and responsibility is usually unequal. Many women like 32-year-old Hafsa Bhatti*, who works as a manager at a multination company, have to work twice as hard as men to prove their mettle and realise the importance of projecting a positive physical image. “Modern society is all about image management,” explains Hafsa. “Branding yourself right is crucial in the competitive corporate world and makeup helps me brand myself the way I want my colleagues to view me i.e. competent, responsible, stylish and successful.” A boost in confidence also encourages one to aim higher and achieve the goals they have set for themselves, be it performing well in an exam or an organisation.

Considering this, it is hardly surprising that the global makeup industry has become one of the fastest growing markets in the world, expected to reach a staggering £1.6 billion in the years following 2013. It must also be noted that in direct proportion to the burgeoning industry, our standards for beauty have also broadened, spurring the dependency on cosmetics even further. Beauty for the modern woman is more than just femininity and favourable physical features; they now have a more individualistic approach to it and use it to convey a unique attitude and identity. And what’s more, the modern woman can use makeup in variation to suit different needs. She increases her efforts when she knows she must appear dignified and feel confident to perform well (as in a formal setting) and decrease them when too much effort is likely to work against her. For Maria Khursheed*, a medical student and ER assistant, it is important to showcase a natural and soft persona to help patients feel at ease. “For work, I have to wear scrubs so I maintain a very simple look: no bright lipsticks, blushers or eye-shadow etc,” shares Maria. The pressure to achieve the right balance in makeup, especially in a profession as demanding as medicine, is relatively higher as well. “Too much makeup and you’re colleagues and patients will think you are superficial and non-serious. On the other hand, too little makeup will make you appear tired and unfit to do a high-pressure job.”

However, it is not just working women seeking corporate gratification that rely on makeup for self-branding - some housewives and stay-at-home mothers are just as addicted. Eman Shahid* a 28-year-old homemaker, is extremely particular about every detail of her appearance to market herself as a ‘superwoman.’ She invests in plenty of makeup, clothing and expensive brands. “I feel like I can project the image of having everything under control if I look good,” she confesses. “This image motivates me to live up to other’s expectations and actually ensure my home, relationships and careers are all running smoothly.” On the contrary, Sarah Aleem* feels that a responsible homemaker wouldn’t really require makeup to do the trick. “From a social point of view, I think it’s always better for women – especially older ones – to avoid extreme makeup and be less obsessed with their looks,” says Sarah. According to her, maintaining a more down-to-earth attitude can go a long way in creating the impression Eman seeks: it signifies that a woman considers her family and home to be more important than her appearance and works hard to fulfil all her responsibilities towards them.

Our culture and society lays down some stringent perceptions of beauty and physical appearances that women are constantly being evaluated against. Women are trained from an early age to be strict with themselves and try to improve or maintain their appearance as much as possible. In fact, the pressure has become so internalised that we often forgo our own happiness for our ‘image.’ Jasmyn warns this could affect our health adversely. “Constantly doing any task to keep your self-esteem at bay is a battle,” she explains. “Being beautiful is just a feeling. When women accept themselves to the core, I see them toss aside their armour and radiate positive energy and nothing is more beautiful than that.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 20th, 2014.