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Friday 9 June 2023 Dublin: 17°C
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Lisa McInerney Does wearing make-up mean you're shallow?
“When it comes to aesthetic assistance, women in particular run the risk of being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

HE WHO SAYS we mustn’t judge a book by its cover has obviously never been restricted to a harried five minutes in a library. Or been required to make a snap decision in any facet of his day-to-day life.

Our shared tendency to reach verdicts based on the shallowest evidence is an undeniable side effect to our having eyes. Besides, the one thing we’re born lacking is time. If you were to spot a person lurching violently towards you, hair matted with blood and wearing a necklace made of teeth, you probably wouldn’t waste a head start pondering his sensitive side. You’d be out of there quicker than a health minister from a public meeting.

Like it or not, subconsciously or not, we all judge others based on appearance. It’s how we determine how to approach others, how to communicate with them, which tactics or tone of voice might work with them. And knowing that, a significant proportion of us take care in our appearance. We wear clean clothes. We brush our hair. We try not to get chocolate pudding all over our faces. We aim to enhance the features we think are our most striking, either by dressing to suit our shape, or, for many women, wearing make-up.

I was at a party the other night, and the post-dinner subject of beauty standards came up. We talked about the rise of male grooming products, whether or not anyone really needs moisturiser, and (most enthusiastically) about the Old Spice guy, who rallies menfolk whilst preening bare-chested on horseback. A bit like how Vladimir Putin governs Russia, come to think of it.

“Beauty mafia”

One of our number confidently stated that marketing campaigns to influence men to buy grooming products had pretty much failed, and when I suggested that there are plenty of fellows who use aftershave balm or have earnestly taken to waxing, he counterpointed that my wearing make-up invalidated my argument anyway, as clearly I was too brainwashed by the beauty mafia to have a legitimate opinion.

“In fact,” he pondered, “I would suggest that I’m actually more of a feminist than you are, because you’re wearing war paint.”

And thus began a few awkward moments of coughing and spluttering and dark mentions of “context” and “social mores”, before one of us wandered out for a cigarette and the other was distracted by a jammy Rioja, narrowly rescuing the party from a paradoxically lofty grave.

It stuck in my head, though. As an Irish woman, I do wear make-up, and I do so without even thinking about it. I don’t wear it every day – as a writer, I’m required by handy stereotyping to be scruffy and forlorn – but when I socialise, I tend to do so with enhanced facial features, or as enhanced as I can make them with Primark eyeliner and two left hands. I’ve done so since I was a teenager; it never occurred to any of us young ‘uns that not wearing make-up was a valid choice. The only girls who didn’t were the shy types who were happier burying themselves in textbooks. If you wanted to appear socially adept, you had to get your slap on (or, at least, so we thought). And so the habit continued.

As for context and social mores, modern women will cite diverse personal reasons for wearing make-up, but it’s difficult to argue against the glaring reality that people are encouraged to feel as flawed and as close to a physical failure as possible so as to continue spending their money on short-term cosmetic cures for long-term neuroses.

“Moisturise their crevices”

It doesn’t even have to be something to do with one’s face; did women ever consider their shaved underarms and find them wanting before Dove decreed everyone needed to moisturise their crevices? It’s fun to predict what’s going to be judged as necessitating improvement next. The small of the back? The skin between one’s fingers? Our gums?

Outside of the rather depressing truth that many of us have been, on one level or another, duped by the cosmetic industry into becoming slaves to our hang-ups… well, make-up is kind of… fun. In the same way that it is rather jolly to wear a bright pair of shoes or customise a car so it becomes an extension of its driver’s personality, it’s gas craic indeed to occasionally go forth with sparkling eyelids or ruby red lips, or to create the illusion of having defined cheekbones with nothing more than a clever dusting of powder.

Does that make a person shallow, dressing their face as well as their body? When it comes to aesthetic assistance, women in particular run the risk of being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Wear make-up, and you can be accused of pandering to small-minded big business, or, on the dating scene, ‘lying’ to potential suitors about your actual appearance. Go bare-faced, and you’re publicly pitied for being old, pale and puffy. It’s not just the ladies, either. They Photoshop George Clooney, you know. George Clooney!

“Judge our books by their covers”

So let’s be realistic. In a utopia of aesthetic tolerance, we might have cause for feeling bad about wearing make-up, or buying aftershave balm, or worrying about our blasted underarms. But we’re not living in a utopia of aesthetic tolerance; we’re living in a reality where we judge our books by their covers.

If a man feels more confident smelling like Isaiah Mustafa, good for him. And wearing make up doesn’t make a woman less of a feminist, or any more of a hypocrite. One might even go so far as to say that espousing the Sisterhood with winged eyelashes is more conducive to positive representation than bowing to stereotype and going around sporting jackboots and a fetching fem-stache. I know which I’d rather go with.

Hey, if everyone’s going to judge you on your appearance anyway, you might as well go all out.

Read previous columns on by Lisa McInerney >

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