Let me work it

Google the words “makeup” and “workplace” and you’ll be furnished with hundreds upon thousands of sites telling you what make-up you should wear to work. Sites explaining how to look pretty, but neutral and inoffensive.

As Dellinger and Williams point out in their article ” Makeup at Work: Negotiating Appearance Rules in the Workplace ” cosmetics are a billion dollar industry which has been academically largely ignored past the formulation stage. And when it has been written about it has largely been negatively, drawn out as an example of the patriarchy setting unrealistic standards for women. Their research, though twenty years old now, discusses with women who do and don’t wear make-up in the workplace why. Some of the themes that come through are; workplace expectations, looking healthier, and looking more capable.

A quick scout around the internet suggests that make-up as a demonstration of competence is definitely a continuing theme. From Nigeria, to France, the US, to the UK. Somehow the ability to paint your face equates to appearing more professional. Clearly I am a make-up lover. I spend a good chunk of my life reading and writing about it, making and watching videos about it and shopping for it. Yet, it genuinely disappoints me to think that people might be considering my skills at eyeshadow reflective of skills in my job. Not that that’s going to stop me wearing what I like in terms of make-up.

I am fortunate these days, though. I work with few limitations in what I wear or how I decorate my face. As long as I’m not walking around with offensive messages on my t-shirt, or clothes so low cut that my gynaecologist would blush, we’re good to go. That’s not the case everywhere though, and especially not when you are ‘frontline‘.

I used to work in retail (I thank everyday that I no longer do, and thank every sales assistant profusely for I know their misery). As well as the most ill fitting uniform known to mankind, we had some fairly strict appearance rules. No crazy hair, no facial piercings, and no garish make-up. What was garish and what was crazy was a matter of opinion; in this case the store manager’s opinion. Now I happen to be very fond of my old boss, we’re facebook friends and I worked for him in his post-high street career for a short while. He’s a lovely man. But at the time he was my manager in retail he was a middle aged dad to a late teenage son and daughter, so almost all his views about appearance of his (largely) teenage workforce were tinged by that. His guideline for whether he thought someone’s hair or makeup were passable depended on what he considered acceptable for his own children. If he wouldn’t let his daughter out in that make-up, he wouldn’t let someone on the shop floor.

I don’t think the big bad patriarchy is wholly to blame for the standards set for women; though there are some pretty ingrained cultural ideas about femininity in the workplace that seem to have stepped straight out of 1910. I think the culpability is much more shared out, amongst women ourselves, female focussed media, and a weird cultural more focussed on being as inoffensive as possible. Looking neutral, and looking ‘pretty’ are apparently the way to garner trust. Look like you could come from anywhere, and be anything. Don’t be looking like a rule breaker.

It doesn’t just apply to women of course. Men get told to trim their impressive beards, cut their locks and woe betide the man in obvious make-up outside of a beauty counter. I just wish we could get past all this.

Yes, I want the long-haired chef to wear a net and a hat, and no I don’t want my massage performed by someone in talon like gels. But is my lawyer who wears no make-up somehow worse than her office mate who sports the perfect neutral made up look. Should the talented accountant with the foot long beard and nose piercing, be replaced with an average but Don Draper like colleague. I’d hope the answer is of course not. So why on earth, do so many workplaces insist on guidelines that make people into Stepford Wife like clones?


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