I am a girly girl. I wear dresses, I often wear makeup, and I have had many friends come to me asking for help with beauty products since starting grad school*. I am no Bianca Del Rio but I think I know a few things I can share.
I noticed more of my friends wondering about this around 2011 after reading a story indicating women may be considered more attractive, competent, likeable, or trustworthy if they wear certain kinds of makeup (based on a study published in PLOS One and covered on popular internet news venues like feministing). Around the 2012 Society for American Archaeology meetings, at least two friends in my program started experimenting with makeup, saying they had never tried it but think it might help them appear more professional.
I think it is a good idea to pause and reflect on this urge to wear makeup (and your probable reaction to what I just said.) Whether we like it or not, the way we appear does have an impact on how others perceive us. My best advice is to make yourself feel comfortable and most yourself, while being aware of the circumstances you are walking into. If you hate dresses, wear pants every single day and be kick ass like Katharine Hepburn. If you are into challenging norms and want to wear a see-through shirt to an academic conference, totally go for it, with eyes open to the fact that many will be shocked by your level of nudity. “Do you” as the kids say. Nothing you wear, do, say, or make will please everyone but everyone will notice if you are confident. Your attitude and how you hold yourself change when you feel comfortable.
As a feminist I have a lot of issues with a system that reinforces the idea that women need to alter their appearance to be more flawless while male-identified people might be critiqued for trying the same. Still, I am not sure I am going to change that with this blog post. But I can give my advice in a thoughtful manner.
With all those things said, let’s get to what I tell my friends when they tell me they do want to try makeup.
Isn’t makeup just a mask? Why do you wear it? Should I try?
For me, makeup is a fun way to play with my identity, see myself in new ways, and express my mood outwardly. Yes, some days it is a tool to build my confidence or cover up evidence that I am exhausted. It’s nice to have that kind of control.
Not everyone likes makeup; lots of people don’t want to put a lot of effort into their appearance, and still others are curious but discouraged because it seems hard. The latter circumstance is when I experiment with different products with friends. Just last weekend I consulted a friend who likes red lipstick a lot to find one that would suit my needs (I’d rather not have red streaks all over my teeth!)
You are never too old or too clueless to try something new. This is as true for academic pursuits as it is for personal ones. I am sure this isn’t what Shawn Graham had in mind when he said we should all “play and fail spectacularly” but it fits here. As such, my first recommendation is to buy oil-free makeup remover. (Yes, the oil free matters and is a good choice for most people. Try the tried and true Maybelline Expert Eyes makeup remover if you don’t wanna test one randomly.)
What cosmetics I recommend (in order of importance, for me)
1. Beauty balm (“BB cream”)
BB cream is moisturizer, light coverage makeup, and sunscreen combined. I have very fair, dry skin so this is a great new option I have found to protect my skin. The key is finding one that feels good on your skin and gives you the amount of makeup-like color you are comfortable with. Higher SPFs are good for sunny weather, but may be a bit shinier on the face.
My choice: Atopalm BB cream SPF 20 (I mix Light and Medium in summer and even fall because it trends light)
2. Eyebrow makeup
A lot of people say mascara is their go-to, but for me it is eyebrow makeup. Eyebrows frame your face and well groomed eyebrows make you look polished, no matter how feminine or masculine you would like to be. The most important thing is to find a color slightly lighter than your eyebrows – most drugstore brands have very dark pencils on offer which result in harsh, fake looking brows. I like using a light brown pencil or brushing in some regular brown eyeshadow, it makes a huge difference. If you want to reshape your brows, try using brow stencils as your guide.
3. Clear lipstick
Lipstick distracts me too much to wear it often. I had been using the same two clear, shiny lip balms since middle school but both were recently discontinued. I have been trying the CoverGirl sheer lip balm pencils which are surprisingly easy. I hear that matte colors of lipstick are also less likely to slip around and get on your teeth.
My choice: CoverGirl sheer lip balm pencils or any clear, dewy finish lip balm as long as you like the smell
4. Eyeshadow (and two brushes)
A few good, reliable eyeshadows can be used for a million different looks. I have one palette of 8 colors that I use almost every time, I just vary between the detail brush and the fluffy brush to use them as eyeliner, or to shape my eyes, look natural, or get fancy. You don’t need to get expensive brushes, it is more about picking something that you like. ELF cosmetics brand makes a ton of brushes that you could try for a couple bucks each.
Foundation is generally the base for a full face of makeup, and is likely to provide more coverage than BB cream to disguise uneven color or texture (we all have it!) It is a good thing to wear if you want your skin to look flawless in photographs. If you are trying it for the first time be sure to get a color that matches your skin tone and blend down your neck line so it doesn’t look like you are wearing a mask.
- On a budget, CoverGirl CGSmoothers Pressed Powder foundation
- My favorite powder, Bare Minerals get started kit and the brush that comes with it
- My favorite liquid, MAC cosmetics studio fix fluid (in your color) and a latex wedge sponge
This is why a lot of people start using makeup: they have something they want to cover. For example, I had a stress induced rash on my face for several months a few years ago and knowing how to cover it made me feel much more in control. I don’t wear concealer that much but it is nice to have around just in case.
- Light coverage: Powder foundation applied with a small, flat brush (I use my Bare Minerals foundation) or MAC select cover-up liquid
- Intense coverage including scars or tattoos: MAC studio fix concealer
Try some stuff, have some fun! Or don’t. Do whatever makes you feel good!
*I am fully aware that sometimes presenting as more feminine is also a liability, especially for women working in a male-dominated or male-associated discipline. Holy madonna-whore complex, Batman! And in the interest of full disclosure, I get more comments about my appearance than I do on the work that I spend much more time on. That doesn’t discourage me from doing what I want with my clothes, makeup, or hair. It does help that when I get comments that seem to have am implication I’m uncomfortable with because they undermine my other abilities (say “you’re so cute in that dress, let me carry your paperwork for you”), I respond with a pithy comment about how I am also smart and strong. I highly recommend this approach. I have had several people rethink their approach after being addressed directly and kindly about their benevolent but microaggressive compliments. You should appear however you want and make it clear that you deserve respect no matter what that is.
What Not to Wear: Assistant Professor Edition at The Professor Is In
How to dress for an interview as a butch dyke at The Professor Is In
Being taken seriously: the double standard by scicurious at Neurotic Psychology
Dressing for Academia at Tenure, She Wrote (read the comment thread too!)
Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed by Francesca Stavrakopoulou at The Guardian (check out the piece this is a response to as well, linked in the first paragraph)