When Makeup Becomes a Survival Tactic [Guest Post]

Caitlin Vance is a PhD student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and her BA in Philosophy from Colby College. Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Spoon River Poetry Review, NightBlock, Birdfeast, and BOAAT. Her fiction has been published in The Literary Review. You can also hear her read a poem here


I once interviewed for a job as a sort of career counselor at a community college in New York City. I'd be helping graduates find jobs (editing cover letters, giving mock interviews, scrolling through Craigslist, etc). The college was so focused on finding jobs quickly for all the graduates (which I understand--many of them had children and very little money, and some didn't have any place to stay), that they wanted me to instruct women to wear makeup to interviews even if they didn't want to (because they're statistically more likely to get hired that way), and also to encourage people with "foreign-sounding names" to put more "American names" on their resumes instead (because they're statistically more likely to get hired that way). The man interviewing me, my potential supervisor, did not think it SHOULD be this way, but it is this way, and his main concern was getting jobs for the graduates. In a way, his approach made sense: use whatever means necessary to achieve his (very noble) goal. Still, I ended up feeling too morally conflicted about this, and told him I didn't want the job. (I worked with kids instead ♥). He responded to me with a very kind email, ending by saying, "Keep being an idealist. The world needs that."

The author, pictured

The author, pictured

And yet I went to that job interview wearing makeup, and having spent a lot of time straightening my hair, and wearing some professional but feminine-looking outfit that I had carefully chosen, because even if I didn't know the facts before that meeting--that women who wear makeup to interviews are more likely to get hired; women who wear it are seen as more professional, kind, competent, {basically, insert positive adjective here}; waitresses get more tips from men when they wear it; men and women who are considered attractive earn more money (although men aren’t expected to wear makeup to be attractive); etc. — I knew from experience the ways I am treated differently when I do or don't wear it. Once, while I was working with the kids, I quit wearing makeup and straightening my hair. The kids said things like, “You look tired,” “You look sick,” “Why do you have red marks on your face?” A male co-worker who often (inappropriately) hit on me looked disgusted and told me to “Fix your hair when you get home.” My no-makeup streak lasted only a few days, because I didn’t want to hear comments like this anymore.

Some women cannot afford makeup, and are at a disadvantage in many more ways than one. Other women, like me, don’t make a lot of money (I am a graduate student), but still irresponsibly spend way too much on makeup. There have been many times at the end of the month, before payday, when I’ve had about four dollars in my bank account, but ran out of mascara or foundation, and just put it on a credit card. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I view these items as essential. If I forget my makeup bag at home, or if I sleep in and don’t have time to put on makeup before I leave the house, I freak out. I’m rude to people I love, I’m in a bad mood all day, I behave like a child. For the first several months of my relationship, I wouldn’t take my makeup off before going to sleep, because I didn’t want my boyfriend to see me without it in the morning (even though he tells me fifty times a day that I’m beautiful). Every time I use the restroom in public, I am putting on more makeup.

I have often mourned the time and money that I've spent on makeup and other merchandise to uphold my gender presentation. I could have been buying books, and spending more time developing marketable job skills, and writing/reading more. It's true that I could just drop the makeup thing. But apparently, not if I want to maximize my chances of getting hired, being seen as professional and kind, not to mention dating men or other women (many people think is the only/main reason we wear makeup is to get dates. It's not). And most importantly, I wear it in an attempt to minimize the gender- and appearance-related psychological pressure I feel constantly (it really drives me insane), which I have been trying to explain through poetry for years, but that I still fail to explain, especially to men. But I'll keep trying. I’m probably more haunted by this stuff than a lot of other women. Many women happily don't wear makeup. But I know I'm not totally out of the norm, and for me, I just can't take the psychological pressure.

Wearing makeup is not vanity, it's a survival tactic. Not that it totally works. Wearing makeup does not get rid of my gender- and appearance-related anxiety. How could it? Perfect doesn't exist. I started wearing makeup during junior high, at the height of self-hatred and insecurity. I saved issues of teen magazines for the photos of models. I literally prayed to look like them. I literally believed I would if I thought about it and tried hard enough. It sounds insane, but it probably wasn't until two years ago that I realized this is what I look like and I always will (more or less). I didn't understand about makeup artists and Photoshop, or apparently that Jesus won't change your face to a different face just because you're haunted by the culture. I spent probably an hour a day alone on my bed staring at the photos, sometimes more. (Again, I could've been reading books). The culture tells me to feed my obsessions and I do.

Wearing makeup is not vanity, it’s a survival tactic.

I now realize that, no matter how pretty you are, or how much makeup you wear, it’s hard to feel like enough. It’s hard not to worry about being taken seriously at work. It’s hard not to worry about your partner finding others more attractive or cheating on you. Or about being single forever. It doesn’t help that many people like my junior high self, especially men, don’t understand about makeup artists and Photoshop, and so we are expected to look that way, too. It doesn’t help that no one seems to give a shit how much time and money we’re expected to spend on this stuff, or that people (especially women) get very sick or die of eating disorders all the time--it’s just a magazine photo, it’s just a Barbie doll.

Men love to complain that I take too long to get ready. But if I didn't, they wouldn't have had the same opinion of me in the first place. It doesn't take men as long. Most people won't care what a man's hair looks like as long as he's charming and/or funny. On the flip side, most people won't care if I'm charming or funny if my hair sucks, if I don't look the right way. And when I try to talk, they're probably just going to interrupt anyway. Women have to rely more on their appearances to make first impressions because we get constantly talked over or ignored. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tried to speak in class or in social situations, just to get bulldozed by the same guys. The only thing they say to me is "nice dress." Add being an introvert to being a woman and GOODBYE, forget it. That's a big reason why I write poems: it gives me a voice (you can't interrupt me), and takes my face out of the equation (except during readings). Readings are great though, because it is a rare event that a group of people will let me speak for more than twenty seconds without interrupting.

I have to wonder if I hadn't worn makeup to that job interview, would that boss have been so nice to me? Or would he have ignored me? Or would he have just asked me to leave the moment he saw me, like he did to multiple other people in that interview?

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