Makeup is the new girdle.

May 16, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More

Original photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I stopped wearing cosmetics a few months ago, after about half a year of using the stuff only sparingly. I started weaning myself off makeup because I had come to hate the hassle of applying it, and because I hated fretting about my appearance. I was also beginning to think of makeup as old-fashioned, an antiquated ‘modesty’ that inspires shame in one’s true appearance. The longer I go without a cosmetic product on my face, the more I believe that makeup needs to go the way of the girdle. The restrictive, uncomfortable, needless, obsolete girdle.

How many undergarments are you wearing right now? I’m guessing two at most. Likewise, I only wear two small undergarments below my clothes, even on the most formal occasions. Interview? Presentation? Class? Wedding? A bra and underwear are always adequate.

Since I’ve never had to wear more than two undergarments, I find it staggering that women used to wear massive bras, high-waisted underwear, girdles, pantyhose or stockings, garter belts, slips, and camisoles.

I often wear less than that as a full outfit. Anyone who knows me in real life can confirm that I regularly step out in leggings and a t-shirt (plus two small undergarments beneath). I don’t say this to titilate, just to illustrate, because I suspect my bare-bones attire is quickly becoming the norm. I’ve spent a lot of time on college campuses- big and small, public and private, Jesuit and blessedly godless. Everywhere I’ve seen legions of women and girls decked out in equal or greater states of undress than my own. Gone are the girdles.

One reason for the death of intricate undergarments is the relaxation of sexual mores. If you’re sexually liberated, and likewise active, you probably don’t want to peel off myriad layers and hooks and clasps every time you exercise your freedom. Another (related) reason is second-wave feminism’s rejection of body-shame. Girdles et al. constricted and corralled the obscene squishiness of the female form in an age where lady lumps were indecent. If you’re a socially and sexually liberated lady, you probably want a full range of motion and a little wiggle room for your secondary sex characteristics. In a progressive culture there’s less reason to brassier or burqa up.

The final big reason for this sartorial shift is that society has become more casually-dressed overall. Men and women alike wear less and less clothing to work and formal settings. The three-piece suit has receded into the distance, outpaced by business casual. Away from offices, standards are even more relaxed. Sweatpants, shorts, and my beloved leggings have all become perfectly acceptable public wear.

In a few brief decades, we’ve become less prudish, less sexist, and less stuffy, and we’ve ditched all manner of useless garments in the process.  Regardless of gender or sex, we all do less primping and prepping than our recent forebears. From these trends, I hypothesize that needless and body-shaming accessories disappear over time until only practical, easy vanities remain. As far as useless, shaming, annoying accessories go, makeup ought to be old-fashioned and tawdry by the next generation.

Like girdles or hose, makeup serves no practical purpose. It is costly, messy, and a hassle to apply. Women struggle to find the correct shade of powder, concealer, and foundation, and most fail to ever be satisfied. Depending on the intricacy of the beauty regimen, a faceful of makeup can take anywhere from five to thirty minutes to apply. In humid weather, constant touch-ups are required. If the shade or application is wrong, a layer of makeup can be more distracting than any natural blemish.

Like girdles and garters, makeup is constricting. A woman wearing a full face of makeup cannot rub her eyes or lay her head on a pillow. She can’t wash her face or step out in the rain or kiss someone or cry. Makeup clogs pores, causing irritation and acne. It can feel oily, dusty, gritty, or otherwise uncomfortable.

Makeup is also inherently body-shaming. Just as old-fashioned shapewear crammed all women into a phony hourglass shape, makeup attempts to give women the illusion of uniformly ‘clear’ skin. Among women with persistent ‘flaws’, the application of makeup is an inherently losing battle. The need to cover and conceal becomes a needless preoccupation and unsuccessful charade.

I, for instance, have dark purplish circles below my eyes. I always have this ‘flaw’, no matter how much sleep I get or how alert I feel. I used to slather my circles in foundation and concealer,  failed to hide the ‘flaw’ and made the skin under my eyes look unnaturally pale. Makeup also made my acne worse, which prompted me to use more makeup to cover the blemishes up. When I wore cosmetics, I labored daily to hide my chronic imperfections, which kept me focused on the existence of such imperfections. I felt insecure. I looked artificial.

I eventually quit using makeup and abandoned the quest for perfect-looking skin. By going bare-faced, I had to learn to accept my dark circles and breakouts, bare them to the world, and forget them. I don’t worry about my complexion much anymore, and I feel blissfully comfortable with the way I actually look. Like an apple-shaped woman sliding out of a corset, ditching makeup allowed me to breathe. A naked face can feel as liberated as a bare leg or unbound waist.

For all these reasons, I’m rooting for makeup’s obsolescence. And I think present trends favor my hopeful little prediction. Like undergarments, women have shed useless articles of makeup slowly over time. Many young women eschew the full makeup regimen their mothers or grandmothers used, opting instead for a quick, light application that looks more “natural”.  Heavy makeup is starting to seem pageanty and fake. Instead of applying foundation, concealer, powder, toner, mascara, blush, eyeshadow, etc, many women only use one or two items on an average day. I predict and hope women will keep ditching unnecessary cosmetics until none but lip balm remain.

One caveat: I don’t think makeup will fully disappear from the face of the modern world. I bet cosmetics will always persist in the realm where corsets and crippling high-heels live on: music videos.


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Category: American Culture, Censorship, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Human animals, Self Improvement, Sex, Uncategorized, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

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  1. I think putting colors on yourself, trying to hide your flaws and make yourself pretty is something so deeply ingrained into human nature, it's not going away soon, not as fast as the girdles (that's a bit of fashion thing and fashion comes and goes). Body painting, tatoos, war paint, etc. The reasons may seem different – war, religious motives, etc., but I think in the end it sums up to: people like to decorate their body with colors.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:


    Kudos on ditching the unnecessary makeup regimen. I think it makes for good psychological health, as you note. Increasingly, we are learning that it also makes for better physical health. Erich has pointed to the Environmental Working Group's database on potentially dangerous chemicals that are included with cosmetics, and a recent (admittedly unscientific) report from Canada found alarming levels of heavy metals and other toxins in makeup.

  3. Erika Price says:

    That's a good point, projekt. Makeup serves two main purposes: concealment of flaws, which I focused on, but also ornamentation. Jewelry isn't going anywhere, so decorative eyeliner and shadow and the like will probably persist too. But fancy, decorative makeup is not worn daily or considered mandatory- like nice jewelry, it's something you don for special occasions. I think a basic daily makeup regimen is on the way out, while fun "special occasion" makeup will probably continue. Thanks for raising that distinction.

    Brynn: Also a great point, and a good big-picture reason for people to root for makeup's obsolescence. There's also the microenvironmental and ethical effects of makeup: most cosmetic products are still tested on animals. I support animal testing to determine the safety of medical products, but a new shade or blush doesn't seem worth the torture of thousands of rabbits and mice.

  4. Ben says:

    I think that make-up, while being a time waster if used every day, does actually help a woman attract attention. The question is whether that is the kind of attention she wants. After we met, I asked my girlfriend to wear less make up, that she was beautiful without it, the irony being that I might never have noticed her if she hadn't been wearing it. She was talented at it, but it still took about 30 minutes every day.

    Then there is the workplace, women are often "expected" to be feminine looking, not really fair.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I much enjoyed your observations. Over the years I've gotten to know several women who engage in an extended (more than 30 min) morning make-up session who have come to trust me enough that they would allow me to see what they look like without the makeup. I have always been staggered to see that I've always preferred the no-makeup version. I don't claim to speak for all men; I know guys who insist that women always look "better" when they use some makeup and they "use it well."

    I do wonder how much of that "preference" for makeup has been ground into our psyches by advertisements and tradition, however. You just don't see any ads on TV saying "You look great the way you are, without any makeup" or "You look concocted when you slather makeup on your beautiful natural skin."

    You're correct that many business-people are increasingly avoiding formal dress at work. I work as a lawyer, and my firm is informal (meaning no need for a suit or even a sport coat or a tie) every day that you don't need to go to court. You WILL need these things in court, however, at least most courts. I have seen judges scold attorneys for failing to wear a suit and tie, threatening to have them thrown out of the courtroom as a matter of "respect."

    You article points to the elephant in the room. To the extent that cosmetics are heavily advertised, they are sending a message that women are imperfect and shameful to the extent that they are not plastered over with chemicals. I'm waiting for the day when I see commercials (using Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" as a soundtrack) urging that there is no need for makeup (or high heels or fancy clothing) and featuring some famous spokeswomen such as "The Virgin Mary," and Jane Goodall, who (I'll confess) looked mighty fetching in photos taken out in the jungle, where I assume that there she didn't wear makeup.

    Here's one other thing to watch out for. Some sites "catch" celebrities without makeup, and hold up those photos to compare to their photos where they did wear makeup. Beware that many of these makeup-less photos were taken in less than ideal lighting, whereas the makeup photos are often taken in better lit circumstances. I'll end by providing a link to various covers of Elle featuring beautiful women without makeup.

  6. Erika Price says:

    Erich: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think no-makeup looks 'better' on most people, too. The actresses in your last link look fantastic- fresh-faced and natural. Bare faces have much more 'character',I think.

    And I'm so glad you mentioned Jane Goodall! I just did a cursory Google image search and was reminded of what a fox she was (and is). She still looks beautiful now! I really appreciate that she can look so lovely without fussing much over her appearance- I even like casual beauty of her white and gray hair in its signature ponytail (though hair is another long discussion for another day).

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