Maybe she’s born with it… Maybe it’s make believe

My boyfriend and I are getting ready to go out to dinner. Let me re-phrase that: I’m at the bathroom sink getting ready, and he’s leaning against the bathtub watching me put on my makeup. We’re talking and laughing, when I realize that I’ve been gesticulating with my concealer, rather than putting it on my face, for several minutes now. I go to put it on, and then pause, glancing at his reflection in the mirror. I’m hesitating. For no good reason, I know I won’t feel comfortable putting on my concealer while he’s in the room. He’s not meant to see this. “Are you sure you want to see how the magic happens?” I joke. “Wouldn’t you rather just imagine that I look that this good without even trying?”
In that moment, I understand what it means when sociologists say that gender is performed. More specifically, I understand just what it means to perform the role of “naturally, effortlessly beautiful woman.” Putting on concealer in front of my boyfriend would have been like a ballerina allowing the audience to see that dancing en pointe was hurting her toes. It would be like an actor forgetting his lines and turning into the wings to ask for a prompt. It would shatter the illusion that what the audience sees on stage is effortless and real. In theatrical terms, by letting my boyfriend watch me apply my makeup, I was essentially breaking character, and revealing that the role of “naturally, effortlessly beautiful woman” is just that – a role.

It seems silly to hesitate the way I did, and as these thoughts crossed my mind, I told my boyfriend about them. As we talked about it, I put on my concealer, wondering aloud why I felt so damn uncomfortable doing it in front of him. After all, he doesn’t love me for my even, Revlon-assisted skin or my long, Rimmel-assisted lashes. We both acknowledge that I actually look quite nice without makeup on. It might seem silly to feel uncomfortable “breaking character” in front of a significant other, but it’s also deeply socialized. Women are held to an impossible ideal of natural beauty. And while we’re constantly told that no one is too beautiful to go without makeup – even Scarlett Johanssen, Jessica Alba and the other gorgeous women who serve as spokes-models need to use it, right? – we’re also told that by using artificial means, we can at least achieve the appearance of natural beauty. Nowhere is the idea of beauty as seemingly-effortless performance more apparent than in the trend of “natural look” makeup.
I’ve written before about the perverse concept of “natural look” makeup, and about the irony of spending an hour in front of the mirror applying “barely there” foundation and “nude lipstick,” all to achieve the appearance of having expended little or no time on one’s appearance at. The preponderance of makeup brands promising foundation that makes your skin look “naturally flawless” that “blends perfectly, so the world doesn’t see makeup, just the look of great skin,” as Cover Girl puts it, make it even more evident that beauty is a performance. And like any performance, it’s supposed to look effortless: The world doesn’t see your aching toes, just the look of a ballerina floating across the stage. Allowing the audience to see what goes on in rehearsals or in the wings reminds them that what they see on stage isn’t effortless, but the product of years of training and months of rehearsal, with help from costumes, sets and lighting.
In the case of makeup, training and rehearsal are replaced by women’s investment of a good deal of time and energy, not to mention money, in their appearance. But it also means hiding that investment from people, often from the very people we’re meant to be attracting with our physical beauty. The fact that these people are often allowed to see us naked before they’re allowed to see us without makeup on says something about how committed we are to the performance of effortless natural beauty. There’s nothing more natural than nudity. And there’s nothing less natural than applying an extra coat of mascara before bed, as one of my friends in college did, so that she’d wake up looking like the same long-lashed beauty her boyfriend had gone to bed with the night before.
Then of course, there’s the fact that when it comes to visibly expending time and energy on one’s appearance, women walk a very fine line. To spend too much is to try too hard, and care too much, to admit that one is not naturally beautiful. To spend too little is to violate another rule of womanhood: Women are supposed to care about how they look, and are supposed to “take care of themselves” accordingly. Maybelline, for example, simultaneously instructs women on how to create a natural look, while also calling a woman’s face her “masterpiece.”
If makeup advertising is anything to go by, the way to walk that line is to make the investment, but to hide it by wearing makeup that “blends perfectly, so the world doesn’t see makeup, just the look of great skin.” The solution, apparently, is to hide that fact that our performance is a performance at all. Even from the people who get to see us naked. Even from the people who, because they love us, think we’re beautiful without even trying.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • damigiana

    At some point I decided to reject this whole approach. In my late twenties I stopped using makeup, drastically reduced my body hair intervention (I only pluck my chin and trim underarm) and minimized hairdresser care (no colour, no artificial curls).
    More than a decade has gone by, and I’m happier than ever. But it does require a thick skin – a loving husband also helps.

  • The Boggart

    Thanks for this interesting article – I’ve never considered it before, but you are definitely right about the contradiction of so-called “natural beauty”.
    I wonder where some people would draw the line on exposing the assorted bathroom rituals which allow us to control how we present ourselves to the outside world. Removing body hair? Changing tampons/pads? Going to the bathroom? What is showing how much you implicitly trust someone by allowing them to see you at your most vulnerable? When does this become considered an unacceptable over-share by either sharer or viewer? I get the feeling that the answers are both going to be intensely personal, whilst still falling within a wider sociologal/feminist ambit.

  • The Boggart

    OT but am I the only one who had the urge to lick their screen when visiting the Maybelline website? I don’t use make up, so those thick smears of luscious-looking concoctions put me in mind of chocolate ganache and coffee cream…mmm cake…sorry, I think I’m having a Homer Simpson moment here. ;-)

  • Phenicks

    I love this, thank you it needed to be said.

  • Véronique

    Very interesting, even moving, because it hits home with me. My partner tells me I look pretty without makeup, but somehow I don’t believe it. I know I should.
    That said, there are plenty of times when I go out (to do errands, for instance) without makeup.
    I still don’t agree with the idea that gender is a performance. Gender expression, sure, but not gender, if what we mean by the word is one’s inner sense of being male, female, both, neither, or whatever. Of course, do any two people agree on what the word gender means? :)

  • Comrade Kevin

    A very enlightening read. Again, it speaks to the fact that we love the magician and the slight-of-hand, but would never forgive it if he or she wasn’t skilled enough to reveal how he/she managed the trick. If we really were okay with our flawed humanity, we would be as we are.

  • kandela

    “Even from the people who, because they love us, think we’re beautiful without even trying.”
    Would it help you to know that some of us perceive no make-up to be more attractive, even when we don’t love the person in question?
    At the risk of objectifying by comparison, the decorations on a Christmas tree are pretty, but a tree is much more beautiful unadorned.

  • Sex Toy James

    What if you are naturally beautiful?
    I feel that make-up is a good analogy to performing gender. It’s not you. It’s a front that you put over who you are. The part that bothers me is that it doesn’t just shield you from criticisms, but from compliments. Since you’ve applied various products to your face every compliment about your looks comes with the possibility that they only like the altered you. You’re very beautiful(with $3 worth of makeup and an hour of work). So long as you keep the makeup on you can’t receive any affirmations that you’re attractive. Women notoriously discount the opinions of loved ones, so those people who might see you without makeup can’t help you. How do you not feel insecure about your looks when you’re never open to compliments.
    I’d think that performing gender would be the same way. If I always put on an act and didn’t allow myself to be me, I’d always worry that people wouldn’t like the real me. My self esteem would no doubt be stunted and I’d be deeply insecure. When you’re open about who you are, some people will take a shot at you, or try to hit you with some cultural standard. Still, the positive responses I get outweigh the negative. Compliments that I get for being me, and the affirmations that I get from the people I know like me for being me, make little “hey you’re not defying societal standards” attacks roll right off.
    Maybe that’s not a good analogy. I know that I’m privileged to have less societal pressures on me when it comes to appearance.
    It really does bother me though. The cosmetics industry chip away at your self esteem and you reward them with money in return. It looks from here like an emotionally abusive relationship. I can’t help but wonder what consequences there would be to getting out of it.

  • winniemcgovens

    I remember when my boyfriend and I had been together for about a year, and we were brushing our teeth together in the bathroom before going to bed, and I knew he knew I had to change my tampon, but when he wasn’t leave I reminded him and he thought it was strange that I wanted him to leave. He did leave and the situation hasn’t come up again in 3 years, but I still think about why that bothered me so much when I never had an issue not wearing makeup around him, shaving in front of him, having sex with the lights on.
    I even once risked serious harm to shut the bathroom door while I used the bathroom. I was having a fainting attack and had to go to the bathroom and wanted to close the door (our door only stayed shut if you locked it) and risked fainting and hitting my head while he couldn’t get in, all in the name of bathroom privacy.
    Oh social stigmas, the personal is political indeed.

  • konkonsn

    Pft. I have the same reaction.
    It’s sad because I’m 24 and a TA; I couldn’t figure out why people didn’t think I was as professional as the other women. I don’t wear trendy clothing (though I have gotten into “fitted” pants even tho they bother me) and because I don’t wear make up. I have a terrible time waking up, partially because of an anxiety disorder that drains me of energy throughout the day. I don’t have a lot of energy to spend, and I’m certainly not waking up an hour earlier to look “beautiful” when I need that sleep.
    So bug off, world.

  • Vexing

    What if you are naturally ugly?
    I’m constantly trying to conceal the ‘real me’, which is a 6’4″, 31 year old man. I don’t ever want to see the ‘real me’ because the REAL me is a 31 year old woman who will do anything to eradicate any traces of masculinity, with whatever cosmetics are available.
    I worry that I don’t pass without makeup and I don’t want to not pass, because then people won’t treat me as the REAL me.
    The front that I put over ‘who I am’ is actually Who I Am. It is me.

  • Dawn.

    Very interesting post. I agree that all of us perform our genders to some extent. For many of us it’s largely subconscious.
    I think these rituals feel so private because we are socialized to hide them. It’s pretty revealing that our “effortless” masculine or feminine performances require a lot of product consumption and routine enforcement of traditional gender roles.

  • Phenicks

    Women have had to deal with being pressured ot be beautiful from the moment we were born. NOBODY brags about their “ugly baby girl with the sweet personality”, no one oohs and ahhs or even want to hold or touch the baby that is not pretty, cute, adorable etc etc. Beautiful women were deemed priceless. The pressure then becomes to maintain the natural beauty or if you don’t have to try your damnest to imitate it because natural you just isn’t good enough.
    Part of the reason why some women don’t take compliments from those closest to them to heart is because women deemed naturally beautiful or pretty get compliments on their looks from complete strangers. People tend to be nicer to those they find physically attractive, not to say they are mean to people they DON’T find attractive. However, the man who would hold the door open for anyone with an arm full of groceries would jog just to reach the door in time to hold it open for an empty handed woman he felt was beautiful/pretty. There is indeed privilege associated with being beautiful or being able to “perform” beauty.

  • Anita

    You make a good point that is related to my feelings about makeup, on another level. Personally, being cis-female, I don’t find makeup to be a comfortable thing to wear because it ISN’T me. It doesn’t portray how I feel about myself.
    For me, wearing makeup is like wearing a costume. I love me for ME. I love my size at 14…wavering to 16 (once 18), and my body. My compassion, my intellect, and my soul…I am beautiful. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel insecure at times. Overall…I’m comfortable with myself. I am comfortable enough with my body that I can go without shaving or tweezing and still find a date.
    On some level my mother put this into me by telling me these exact words, over and over again: “You’re so beautiful you don’t even need makeup.” These words resonate with me a feeling of narcissism. I have full red lips and a clear complexion, naturally. Apparently, this makes me beautiful.
    I can’t say that I have never worn makeup. I have. When I do, it’s for show, primarily if I go to a nightclub. This is the costume. This isn’t the full me. It is part of me…but not ME. I haven’t worn makeup in about a year.
    I am raw, pure, aggressive, and beautiful, naturally. This is ME. I am a woman, I like “feminine” things, like heels. Personally, there is nothing sexier than the click of a high heel on a hard surface.
    YOU may have to make yourself up to be the REAL YOU, then by all means, do so. Feel beautiful, raw, and pure by WEARING makeup, if that is who you are.

  • Vexing

    I don’t think you quite understand where I’m coming from. I don’t have a choice in this matter. It’s makeup, or run the risk of being gendered as a male.
    I would LOVE to have the choice you do and not wear makeup, but that isn’t really feasible if I want to be treated like a normal human being by the general public.
    I am incredibly envious of your natural beauty – it is something I can never achieve.

  • Kurumi & Cheese

    I don’t want to sound like a shill, but switching to Bare Minerals was the best choice I ever made. It agrees with my skin, for one thing, and then it also takes me about 5 minutes tops to do my face.
    I am all about NOT spending time on my appearance. But it is nice to have a pigment to my skin, since I’m fairly sickly and not wearing foundation = “Are you okay???” (The only time I don’t wear makeup outside is when I go to the doctor so that the doctor believes I’m sick. Yeah, I’m fairly serious. If I do feel well on a followup, I wear makeup so that the doc believes me then as well.)
    I’ve had men try to argue to me that the only reason women wear makeup is for men. And I don’t believe that. I certainly don’t give a crap about men or women or anyone (as far as attracting anyone), but I still like to wear makeup to look nice to myself.
    I also get a lot of men telling me how great it is that I don’t wear makeup like the OTHER girls. Ha ha ha. It’s a bit like that article about the men not knowing anything about birth control. But I guess it’s a testament to the awesomeness of my foundation. (Also, dude, I don’t care what you think. I always find that guys who say they like “natural” girls really mean they like women who wear makeup so nice that it looks natural.)

  • Little Sara

    Sometimes I don’t mind not-passing. When dealing with the government, even those going to change my name, I invariably get called Mr. That’s what they got on file. I grit my teeth and don’t care.
    Rest of the time no problem. And I’m not “naturally beautiful” as in flawless. I got pimples sometimes, my skin isn’t all-clear and beautiful…yet I don’t care. I wear make-up less than 1% of the time. You wouldn’t believe how much money I save.
    If people don’t like me that way, their loss.

  • Sex Toy James

    From what I hear people can’t tell the gender of babies and take their clues from the clothing. If it’s dressed as a girl it’s a “beautiful baby girl”. If it’s dressed as a boy it’s such a “strong little boy”.
    I’m not discounting what you’re saying or saying that it’s not an advantage to be beautiful. Of all my vast collection of privileges, looking good by conventional societal standards is not one of them.
    I do get irritated at people letting magazine ads or television dictate their standards of beauty. You can be pressured to be beautiful and want to enjoy the benefits of being beautiful, but to compare yourself to someone who has been taken and manufactured into something beautiful isn’t fair. I’m sure that media grade people don’t look that good when they’re not in a state of perfect makeup and lighting even. Raising the standard above realistic levels so that more people find themselves insecure just seems cruel to me.
    Please don’t discount personality. I’ve known some chat hostesses who’ve built their businesses on superior personality rather than superior looks.
    I guess my point is that the pressure to be beautiful is already a burden on women and I think that cosmetics manufacturers exploit that pressure for profit. In so doing I think that they intentionally do what they can to make women more insecure with their appearances. I’m not cool with that.

  • tallest-spork

    Personally, I’d prefer to be complimented on something I have actual control over– fashion and makeup are things that I get to choose and do myself; I didn’t get to pick my face.

  • Vexing

    I may be wrong, but you sound quite young (late teens, early 20s). As men age, they invariably gain stronger male markers (brow, jaw, etc). I didn’t transition in my late teens or early 20s, so I do no have the benefits that you (and other young transitioners) have from transitioning at that age.
    I also don’t have your ‘devil may care’ attitude to passing; I work in a professional environment at a client site and making a good impression is very important. I have no illusions that if I let my standards slip, I would be…moved on.

  • Little Sara

    Well, discrimination, irrelavant of passing-as-cis status or not, is alive and well.
    My last and only job since transition, was videogame tester. A place where, due to mismatched name, everyone was informed of my trans status. Due to the recession, I was laid off for lack of work (along with pretty much everyone else).
    Officially, no one discriminated openly against me. However, I’ve been told some guy I never worked with (but who worked in that building) had ire against me, and referred to me under my male name, although NO ONE used it. I also never had bathroom problems. I tried changing my official name there, to no avail (not until it was changed officially).
    I’m nearly 28, I transitioned at 24, and still haven’t had surgery. I might gave it due to it being free, within 2010-2011. I can’t know when.
    I’m much of an anarchist somewhat. I don’t care if I don’t work. I don’t care if I’m unemployable and have an income solely based on welfare… Because that means I can be myself. That is above job, money, or ambition for me. I don’t care if I make less, or nearly no money, as long as I can live and be myself.
    Welfare: 600$ per month, 100% meds covered. Not much really.
    I prefer that to confronting discrimination head-on in businesses (can’t afford lawyers anyways).

  • Little Sara

    Michelle Blanc is an example of a woman who doesn’t care much IMO. She’s known as transsexual and yet has a very good reputation amongst the affairs world. Here is her wiki article, though only in French:
    Having heard her on TV, she doesn’t hide her rather masculine-sounding voice. She’s not apologizing for it, or speaking in falsetto. It’s who she is, and she is worth respecting imo.

  • karak

    I agree with you, OP. For years, I couldn’t put on makeup while a man was watching. It was my secret. To this day, I can pee more freely in front of my significant other than I can apply eyeliner.
    My first boyfriend bullied me into being more “natural”– to stop wearing makeup, stop doing my hair, stop shaving. And I hated it. I felt controlled and humiliated and, strangely enough, hidden and lost, like I was acting out a role I didn’t want.The same way I felt when my next boyfriend demanded I do all those things, every day.

  • Kactus

    I make my partner look away when I’m getting changed. To me (and it might be the same for others), it’s because I don’t want to feel like my body is on display when I’m getting changed, when I’m on the toilet, when I’m washing, menstruating, etc. I want my body to just be my body at these times, and while my partner treats me with the utmost respect, I still feel the need to take control over when my body is “on display” and when it isn’t. Even just for him.

  • dianita

    Good article. I have always let my significant others see me without make-up (I barely wear any anyway). And I do all the “gross” stuff infront of them and any of my guy friends- I really don’t care. What is funny is my current SO stole my Smashbox bronzer because he hates looking “pale.” He always wears it and loves it! His friend saw him putting it on and was kinda giving him a hard time (but didn’t dare say anything confrontational because my SO is a conventionally-looking “manly” man) and then ended up using it too! It’s about time men try to look their best too. Plus I love bronzer because even though I’m olive skinned my face is always paler than my body. Sorry for the odd-topic comment!