Woman with blonde hair and blue eyes stares into camera with three drops of foundation on her bare face
Careless comments about a person's make-up-free face often lead to insecurity. (Credit: Mart Production / Pexels)

A week ago, I was queueing at my local corner shop, chocolate buttons in hand, when I noticed a conversation between the woman behind the cashier and a man at the front of the queue.

Much to her discomfort he was telling her how tired she looked. “Well I feel tired,” she responded, “but you don’t need to tell me I look it.”

I got to the front of the queue and made an effort to tell her that I thought she looked lovely. “Thank you,” she said, “you can come again.”

As I walked home I thought about the times I’d been told I look tired or ill, most of the time when I was not wearing make-up. Growing up, these throwaway comments had sparked an insecurity inside me, which made me feel that in order to look healthy, awake and happy I had to wear make-up.

So every day I would ‘put on my face’ before school, applying a layer of war paint to protect me from the comments I might receive. Until eventually, it became apparent that I wasn’t wearing make-up to look good anymore, I was wearing it to look like myself.

And it seems like I’m not the only one. Research conducted by Stylist states that 44% of women feel vulnerable about how they look naturally without make-up on.

It’s no wonder that women feel this way in light of the media constantly being thrust in our face. Not many female celebrities would dare grace the red carpet without a full face of make-up.

In fact when Alicia Keys, 42, decided to stop wearing make-up it was seen as a newsworthy feat. In a 2020 interview with Glamour UK the singer said, “As I got into the music world, it was what you did everyday to do your television or to do your shoot. So, I did it because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I realised I became addicted to it; I didn’t feel comfortable without it.”

‘I wasn’t wearing make-up to look good anymore, I was wearing it to look like myself’

Keys relates wearing make-up to an addictive cycle that needs to be broken, but Vanessa Brown, feminist and senior lecturer in the Design, Culture and Context team at Nottingham Trent university, explains the historical and sociological roots of the relationship between women and make-up stem from a need for social mobility.

She says: “I think people often don’t realise how important make-up has been for women in terms of their survival. It’s been spoken about as armour, but it can also be seen as a weapon. 

“Historically, being attractive was your main form of capital as a woman. Men have not been subject to this because their social position isn’t as precarious. As a woman you could always hope to marry into a better class than the one that you were born into.”

Brown, 52, adds: “Obviously attitudes have evolved, but women still know that one of the ways they can survive in this world is by attracting a partner who has money and some women still pursue that route.”

Other women have transformed make-up into a hobby, a career or an exciting art-form to be experimented with, such as 25-year-old self taught make-up artist Maryam Shahzad, who enjoys boosting the self-confidence of her clients.

“Make-up is a great way to make someone feel even more beautiful. The beauty standard in today’s society is very high and very specific. For example bigger lips, rounder eyes and a smaller nose. All of which can be achieved with make-up to give an illusion.

“But it’s no wonder some people cannot face the outside world unless they have a little bit of make-up on.”

Maryam Shahzad sits at a restaurant wearing make-up
Maryam Shahzad began her interest in make-up towards the end of secondary school. (Credit: Maryam Shahzad)

Brown believes that in light of social media more women have started wearing exaggerated make-up that might not suit their day-to-day life but looks better when photographed and uploaded online.

She comments: “Instead of making themselves up for the real-life environment they’re inhabiting, some women are performing for the digital world.”

‘MAKE-UP HAS been spoken about as armour, but it can also be seen as a weapon’

Make-up may be a pick-me-up to some, but I eventually discovered that going make-up-free can be equally as exhilarating.

I managed to break the habit of continuously wearing make-up when I arrived at university. It started off small and gradually became more of a daily occurrence. Whether I was out for a run or popping to the corner shop, it felt liberating to not care what other people thought.

A selfie of the author wearing no make-up
Slowly integrating less make-up into my routine has left me feeling more liberated than ever before. (Credit: Beth Read)

As well as benefiting our own self-esteem, not wearing make-up has also been proven to generate a positive response among the women we surround ourselves with.

According to a 2019 study published in Psychology Today, women who saw unedited, make-up-free images of other women were less likely to compare their appearance to the women in the images, which lessened the negative consequences of comparison culture.

Wearing make-up is still a regular part of my routine that I enjoy, but it’s comforting to know that I no longer have an unhealthy reliance on it.

For many women, showing their bare face is a form of trust and it should be respected as such by others. So the next time you see a woman without make-up on, pause before telling her she looks tired or ill, because she might just be in a braver mood than you think.