The History of Cosmetics: A Recap
Makeup was first created more than 6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. At this time, cosmetics were a luxury only enjoyed by the upper class. Powders were used to make the skin tone lighter, and materials similar to modern-day eyeliner were used to accentuate facial features. Pretty soon, religions like Christianity began rebuking the excessive usage of cosmetics, claiming that to change your God-given appearance was wrongful and vain. According to Britannica, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that “highly-visible makeup, like red lipstick and dark eyeliner, reentered the mainstream.” Since then, the cosmetic industry has seen incredible growth – so much so that the industry’s worldwide revenue is expected to exceed $187 billion by 2026.
This very short historical recap of the human relationship with cosmetics teaches us two very important lessons: First, makeup has long been associated with formality and the elite, and second, excessive makeup usage is regarded as vain and off-putting. Already in its history we find a conundrum that still rings true about makeup today. On one hand, cosmetics are desirable for the ability to enhance your facial appearance and beautify people, yet on the other, if you wear too much, you'll be viewed as conceited. It’s almost as if our society frowns upon both caring too little about your appearance and caring too much.
Attractiveness and Professionalism
We’ve established that makeup holds certain contradicting connotations: being both a luxury used to enhance your appearance and also a villain that fuels vanity. But how did cosmetics come to find its place in the professional world?
According to a 2021 Forbes article, attractive people are much more likely to obtain professional success because they’re more likely to get hired and receive raises. A Harvard study that was cited indicated that workers of above-average beauty earned between 10-15% more than their less attractive counterparts. So with attractiveness playing such a key role in professionalism, the use of cosmetics has become associated with looking professional, business-appropriate, and client-ready. Naturally, the follow-up question: How much makeup is enough to look professional without appearing inappropriate?
It’s almost as if our society frowns upon both caring too little about your appearance and caring too much.
A Boston University study found that women who wore a “professional” amount of makeup were considered more capable, reliable, and amiable by participants. The study gathered a few dozen photographs of women from varying ages and ethnicities wearing differing levels of makeup – some with no makeup, some with a natural look, some with a professional look, and the rest with a glamorous look. Wearing any makeup at all was positively received by study participants, as these women were rated more attractive and thus more competent. On the other hand, women embodying the glamorous look, i.e. heavy makeup, were regarded as “untrustworthy” by study participants. These findings reinforced the fine line that women walk when they wear makeup to work: Try to wear enough makeup to look capable and friendly, but not too much to look inappropriate or unapproachable. Ultimately, this study highlights the glaring fact that every person will perceive makeup differently.
The Legal Standpoint
Legally, an employer cannot arbitrarily enforce that women wear makeup to work. They also cannot subject any woman to an adverse employment decision, like firing or withholding a promotion, for not wearing makeup because this would be considered sex discrimination.
However, like every other law in the United States, this one has a loophole. If an employer has a legitimate reason that wearing makeup is necessary to complete the job (what lawyers call bona fide occupational qualification), then it is legal for them to require it in the “employee grooming code.” In the past, several women have taken their employer to court over makeup rules, claiming that the requirements are unfair on the grounds that makeup requirements force them to waste unwanted time and money. But historically, courts have ruled in favor of the employers.
The Blurred Lines of Collapsed Contexts
It’s probably unlikely that your employer explicitly requires you to wear makeup. Instead, you're probably faced with a gray area where you’re unsure if wearing makeup is an unspoken expectation or not. And with our new era of remote work and collapsed contexts, the lines of professionalism have become even more blurred. This is because our living rooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms now double as an office the moment we log onto our work computers. What used to be a private space has now become semi-public, leaving many employees, particularly female ones, confused about how to look and behave in the WFH environment.
As a result, many employers have given up on enforcing dress codes, even when in-person work resumes. And for the most part, employees are loving the transition to a more casual work appearance. One report indicated that the ability to remain in “home attire” increased authenticity and made workers feel more comfortable. So are women trending toward going au naturel?
The ability to remain in “home attire” increased authenticity and made workers feel more comfortable.
What Do Women Prefer?
In order to answer this question, we have to look at the data. There could be a whole host of reasons why a woman does or does not prefer cosmetics. According to a survey conducted by FashionJournal.com, answers were varied, from ethical concerns to dermatological/health concerns or even financial concerns. (If you’re a makeup wearer, you know how costly products can be.) In Byrdie’s research, one interviewee answered that she likes her freckles and wouldn’t want them to be covered up, and another admitted that she was never properly taught how to apply makeup and has little interest in learning now. A refreshing number of women shared that they prefer to go makeup-free because they love their natural appearance and wouldn’t feel right altering it.
While many women have decided to ditch cosmetics, there is still a large percentage of makeup-wearers. In FashionJournal.com’s survey, these women expressed their love for makeup for reasons that it makes them feel more confident, put-together, feminine, or professional. Many also spoke to the fact that each woman’s role and company culture dictates how critical it is to wear makeup to work. Working in high fashion or jobs that require being in front of large numbers of people, i.e. flight attendants, were mentioned in the article.
As previously touched on, the pandemic and subsequent era of remote work have made many women stray from cosmetics. But this trend may have been a long time coming. In fact, data indicates that in 2015, 52% of women claimed to wear makeup every day, and in 2019 that number dropped to 39%. Although we’re in the “golden age” of makeup, with new brands and products being created each day, 70% of Gen Z claim to only use three makeup products total and prefer to keep a “minimalistic” routine. While a large percentage of the female population still reports to have worn makeup in the last year, the frequency with which women are wearing makeup is dwindling. Beyond this, the contexts in which women wear makeup are evolving as well.
Deciding whether or not to wear makeup to work can be complicated, as women have to juggle looking professional and not looking too sexy. On one hand, some workplace environments would consider a no-makeup look disheveled, but on the other hand, an excessively done-up look would come across as inappropriate or distracting. In either case, a woman risks her colleagues not taking her seriously. Luckily, with the prevalence of remote or hybrid working, this narrative is changing. Each woman’s preference when it comes to makeup will vary, but her decision to wear or not wear makeup should never be dictated by anyone but herself.
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