My Social Experiment: Cosmetics and Women’s Worth

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Holly Elissa smallThere’s been more (productive and meaningful) talk than usual these days about women – body image, women’s rights, women’s body rights. The NGO I run is centered on women’s rights and welfare so it’s truly an incredible time to see the movement grow.  Sure we have a long way to go, but the type of discussions and activism that are happening right now – especially online – wasn’t happening even a few years ago. I read a great interview with unexpected activist Ellen Page.  I say “unexpected” because I apparently lived under a rock until recently and had no idea that Ellen Page is a rather vocal feminist.

I’ll save the overall topic of feminism for another article. That word and those who call themselves feminists are deeply misunderstood which is really weird. So much so that plenty of women are nervous about associating themselves with that word publicly – especially women in the limelight in the entertainment industry.  But I digress; again I’ll save that discussion for another time.

This article is devoted to body image. Being the feminist I am, it’s been on my mind a lot over the past two weeks for a few reasons.

The first is because my good friends, “Ms. In the Biz Founder” Helenna Santos-Levy and fellow writer Leah Cevoli, are on a Comic-Con panel this year about women and body image within the industry called ‘All Shapes and Sizes’.

The second reason is because after years of back and forth between LA and Vancouver, I finally became a permanent resident of the US on July 4th. While waiting for my new immigrant status, I left Vancouver and moved back to my hometown of Moncton, NB to spend time with family.  While I was home, I had the honour to nanny my two nieces.  It meant sticky grabby hands, drool, occasional vomit and diapers full of an amazing array of stool (who knew?) daily. It was heaven (and I miss them dearly).  Any man or woman who’s been around infants and young toddlers knows that the concept of wearing ‘nice clothes’ or dangly shiny jewelry pretty much goes out the window (unless you have the ‘effortlessly awesome’ gene like my friend MJ). I also decided to wear no makeup while I was there. The only exception was my immigration interview at the US embassy in Montreal.

Being thrust into the LA scene after living in the Maritimes for over a year has been interesting visually. Although I don’t wear a lot of makeup in general, I noticed that over the years I had begun to identify with that makeup as my ticket to being beautiful. Literally the most I’ll wear on an average day is (maybe) mascara, something on my cheeks and either a lightly lined eye or a natural-looking lip stain or lip balm. It’s next to nothing yet I felt more confident: I stood differently; I looked at myself differently which then of course lead to interactions with others being more positive than without makeup. It was dictating my self-worth.

Here’s my disclaimer: In my eyes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with makeup. I see makeup as a tool for self-expression much like clothing and jewelry. However when makeup goes from fun self-expression to my-self-esteem-is-dictated-by-the-shit-I-put-on-my-face then it’s problematic in my eyes. 

Whether it’s L’Oreal telling us we’re worth it, Covergirl telling us to take off our mask but…err…put on their foundation to let us be our ‘clean’ selves or any of the myriad of cosmetic and fashion ads out there, the ongoing collective message women are receiving is that we are only beautiful, perfect, feminine, desirable with makeup.  Whether it’s full glam or a ‘natural look’ to create the illusion of fresh face perfection – it’s all just that, an illusion.

Our pop culture and mainstream media is undoubtedly cruel to women – and women can be cruel to women. One only has to look at all the ‘did she wear it well’ articles where so-called writers and commenters superficially and unintelligently dissect a woman they have never met based on her clothing, shoes, hairstyle, makeup, weight and so on.  Look at all the negative objectifying ‘celebrities without makeup’ articles.  The fact that these articles are deemed newsworthy makes our culture look supremely dumb.

I’ll acknowledge there are heterosexual men who prefer women au natural. But the question that comes to mind for me personally with that statement is “why do we care?” In my 33 years of existence, this is what I’ve observed: not only does society as a whole deem women with makeup more beautiful but we, as women (straight, lesbian, bi, transgendered), often succumb to presenting ourselves in a way that we think will attract approving glances or interactions with men or women. So the idea of women seeking reassurance that there are some men who like us without makeup is still relevant to the problem. Furthermore, most of the behaviours and belief systems both men and women have around appearance and what is ‘beautiful’ are learned – they are not natural. Yes, most species engage in courtship display but that doesn’t equate to what we do to ourselves to be attractive. Not even close. We’re all walking around with these weird, unhealthy skewed views of each other.

I decided it was time for a social experiment: show up at an event in LA with no makeup.  Allow me to set the stage and totally overshare:

–        All my ‘nice’ clothing was in storage.

–        I was having an asthmatic reaction to some allergies which meant:

  • super phlegmy
  • congested
  • Lots of unintentional snorting sounds.

–        It was ‘that time of the month’ which meant:

  • death-warmed up complexion
  • Dry skin.
  • Hyper-sensitive, slightly hormonal induced self-perception not based in reality.

All big negatives for the courtship display factor yet with this winning combination I figured, “why not?” and gave it a go.

In my mind I concocted all these awesomely outrageous hypotheticals with hyper-groomed pretty boys and decadent women alike.

In reality……

I got nothing.  Nada. If anyone reacted negatively, I was not aware.  Instead, according to my wing woman, the amazing Ms. Jackie, I was ‘checked out’ by some of said pretty boys which lead to social experiment observation number 1) was surprised men in that setting actually found me attractive and 2) although I wasn’t looking to ‘pick up’ part of me still cared about how attractive I would be perceived to the opposite sex. One woman found out I wasn’t wearing makeup as an experiment for this article and said, “You can’t even tell, you look beautiful!”  That also led to me observe that 3) I cared that other women thought I was ‘good enough’ and furthermore 4) the idea of not wearing makeup to an event was such a big deal to a part of me that receiving validation by other women that I was still physically beautiful gave me permission to be au naturel in that type of setting.

As trivial as this topic may sound, it’s a symptom of a much deeper of women living within a patriarchal society. On top of that, for many women of colour, colorism (translate here, read more about colorism here) plays a significant role in appearance and self-worth. You can argue it’s all 100% superficial and you’re right. The problem is something as superficial as outward appearance strongly dictates how a woman will be treated and valued in her environment. (I would go on about the profoundly deep roots of both gender and race-based privilege but we’d be here forever and a day so I encourage you to google with an open mind.)

What did my social experiment teach me? Stuff I already knew:

  1. Love, respect and honour yourself truly.
  2. You are responsible for how you feel regardless of circumstance.
  3. Dress and look the way that sincerely makes you feel good.
    1. ‘feel good’ is not defined by how many men check you out
    2. ‘feel good’ is not defined by how many women validate you.
    3. ‘feel good’ is not defined by how many women look ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than you.
    4. If something scares you – do it.
    5. Judgement based on perceived beauty vs. perceived flaws is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned.
    6. Drink lots of water, be nice to yourself and eat your leafy greens and junk every day.

Again makeup is not evil.  A pillar of feminism, for me, is that women are free to be themselves on every level; to have ownership over their own bodies from reproductive rights to sexual expression to physical adornment. Whether a woman wants to wear full Goth makeup, sweatpants, miniskirt, or a hijab – it is her choice.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this topic so share away. Let’s keep it constructive and supportive!

Holly Elissa

About Holly Elissa

Holly Elissa is an artist and activist. Born in Moncton, Canada, she currently resides in Los Angeles, USA. For more information please visit www.hollyelissa.com

  • Other than the odd very rare occasion when I might wear very subtle lipstick, I don’t wear makeup for a few reasons:
    I have sensitive skin, and I don’t want to deal with the aftermath that most makeup gives me.
    I really, really can’t be bothered.
    I get self-conscious if I do wear it, because I feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – like I’m trying to be pretty, when I’m really not at all, and will be laughed at accordingly.

    There are friends who are adamant that they want to give me a makeover – but it’s been some years since I let that happen because I simply wasn’t happy. It always feels like the reason they want to do this, is to “help” me fit some sort of pretty image in their head that they think I should be striving to, and I don’t want that.

    Somehow in growing up I learned all the things most women do about body image, but bypassed most of them into a place where I could never fit any of them because I was a freak of nature.
    In a very big way, it’s helped me always be who I am, and the way I look and dress is that which I choose.
    However, it is assumed that I don’t care, or that people’s opinions and insults (and stereotypes) don’t touch me, because I don’t attempt to meet the standards laid out.

    In some ways I’m free of the “image” issue. In others, I’m really not.
    I’m not pretty, nor will I ever be. It’s not in how I look, and it’s not in who I am. I like to try and look good, but I’ll never be what these standards tell me I should be aiming for, so I’d rather be happy in my own style. I do sometimes use my style as a wall and play off like I don’t care, but sadly, it doesn’t mean I’m immune to the snide asides of other people (friends, my mother, strangers, etc.).

    • Holly Elissa

      Thank-you so much for sharing your personal experiences and story! Beautiful insight and words.

    • Sallyanne

      Great experiment Holly and Malise, you sound like a beautifully well balanced and smart woman. Congratulations on being fabulous you! It has only been with age that my confidence in this area has grown. Like you, I’ve heard it from my mother. On one occasion she said to me that she wished I was more of a “girly girl”. I asked her to please define, because I thought I was wearing a pretty dress. Apparently it was because I didn’t have make-up on. Makes me laugh. She was a very attractive woman, who had quite a rough time dealing with aging for a while there I think, because she based a fair portion of her worth on her ability to be attractive to the opposite sex.

      • Holly Elissa

        Wow thanks for sharing, Sallyanne. I find it amazing that women from all different walks of life can relate to this issue. It says a lot about how females are raised but more importantly, how we are implementing positive change for future generations to come. The fact that women can openly have this dialogue is HUGE. Something that wasn’t happening publicly – in an accepted form – not all that long ago.

  • Sallyanne

    * still is an attractive woman