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About Face: Why Some Women Can’t Go Without Makeup

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The 2004 Real Truth About Beauty study, conducted by Dr. Nancy Etcoff, Dr. Susie Orbach, Dr. Jennifer Scott, and Heidi D’Agostino, looked at 3,200 women, aged eighteen to sixty-four, across ten countries, and found that 68 percent of women used makeup products to feel more physically attractive. A 2008 study commissioned by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund studied girls aged eight to seventeen and discovered that 62 percent feel insecure or not sure of themselves. Seventy-one percent of girls with low self-esteem felt their appearance did not measure up and felt they were pretty enough.

Insecurity knows no boundaries; it affects not just the average woman but also famous celebrities, many of whom would be considered beautiful by any standards. Most recently, pop artist Katy Perry told Seventeen magazine, “I don’t really feel pretty ever. Without makeup, I feel ugly.”

Buying What the Media Sells Us
Let’s face it: the cosmetic companies are profiting from our insecurities. In August 2010, MarketWatch reported that L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetic company, saw a 21 percent increase in their net profits for the first half of the year. Part of that profitability comes from their successful marketing toward women. A woman’s world is saturated with television and magazine advertisements selling youth in a jar, line-smoothing foundations, lip-plumping lipsticks, and lash-thickening mascaras, as well as myriad beauty guides and makeup “must-haves.” When it comes to cosmetics advertising, companies leave no stone unturned. We’re told that makeup can transform our faces—even when it seems only natural not to be wearing any makeup, like when we’re at the beach. On Allure magazine’s Web site, they offer a story entitled, “Insiders’ Guide: How to Wear Beach Makeup,” which includes information on waterproof products and general tips on how to get your beach look to last. 

Cultural Influences
While we can certainly trace our decision to wear makeup in part to our willingness to buy what the cosmetic companies are selling, the use of makeup and more generally the need to alter our physical appearance can also be examined from a cultural perspective. San Francisco psychiatrist and psychotherapist Janice E. Cohen, MD, is quick to point out that the use of makeup is actually part of a very universal cultural behavior. Cohen explains, “Every culture has standards and particular ways in which people change or enhance their appearance to feel and appear more attractive or maintain their status within their society or culture.”

History tells us that Cohen is right. Individuals who alter their physical appearance are nothing new. Archaeological evidence from ancient Egypt around 3500 BC proves that Egyptian Queen Nefertiti may have used makeup. Women in the South African Ndebele tribes wear metal rings around their necks to elongate them. Indians practice a pre-wedding Mehndi (henna) ritual in which the bride and groom are painted, signifying the strength of love in the marriage. And the Arioi, a class of professional entertainers in Tahiti, use tattoos to signify the various ranks and status within their troupes. These practices are completely normal and, in many instances, are used to carry on decades-old cultural traditions.

However, when a person feels downright uncomfortable or insecure about leaving the house without having makeup on, there may be a larger underlying problem. If the makeup usage turns into more compulsive behavior, it could be an early sign of body dysmorphic disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines this disease as “a type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance, a flaw that is either minor or that you imagine.” Some of the symptoms include a general preoccupation with appearance and excessive makeup application to camouflage the perceived flaw.

The Fear Beneath the Foundation
The extent to which a person feels the need to alter her face can be as simple as wearing lipstick or as complex as undergoing plastic surgery. A recent example of an extreme case of this can be found in television star Heidi Montag, who underwent ten different procedures and confessed that she planned to have more. The 23-year-old starlet admitted to People magazine in November 2009 that she had plastic surgery to “feel more confident,” and said she “was an ugly duckling” before.

This behavior is also not gender specific. Cohen explains, “Distorted body image and obsessions with various aspects of one’s appearance (e.g., hair thickness and texture, body color, weight) are not exclusive to women. A smaller, but significant, number of men have similar issues with negative self-body image. Regardless of sex, whenever an attractive person feels ugly and disgusting, there is something besides his or her appearance that’s causing the distorted negative body image.”

Looking Good = Feeling Good
But wearing cosmetics can also have a positive effect. A 1982 study published in the International Journal of Dermatology looked at women aged eighteen to sixty. Researchers asked the women to discuss any changes they experienced with wearing makeup, in terms of its effect on how they felt; this included their self-image, their attitudes toward others, and the impression they ultimately hoped to make upon others. Their findings indicated that “normal daily use of cosmetics can fulfill important psychological functions in that it promotes social and psychological well-being.” The researchers found that women do experience certain self-perceived psychological benefits from using cosmetics; the benefits are pervasive across all age groups. The more attractive you feel you are, the more highly you think of yourself. And many women would agree that wearing makeup does affect how they feel. Denise Bomba, a Los Angeles resident who works as a wardrobe supervisor for films and designs her own denim line, worked as a makeup artist for seven years and admits she still enjoys wearing makeup. “It took me a while to get comfortable to leave the house without any on. I believe this is because I know what I can look like with it on, and it does give me the certain confidence to feel good about myself.”

While wearing makeup can significantly affect the way we view ourselves and in some instances the way others view us, it’s critical to understand that no amount of powder or blush or eyeliner is going to fill the void left from a lack of self-confidence. If a person truly feels uncomfortable leaving the house without a certain amount of makeup on, there’s most likely a bigger problem that should not be ignored. Cohen points out, “When there are underlying core negative beliefs about oneself, cosmetics and surgical alterations cannot typically provide any permanent or meaningful relief.”

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