How Radical Is It to Not Wear Makeup? A Conversation on Beauty with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

It’s human to have dissatisfaction with the way you look. But it’s not normal to hate yourself for how you look.

Sixteen years ago, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth served as a popular polemic prompting women to remove their makeup and think more critically about the way women’s beauty had served to repress them. Now, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s new book, Face Value, offers an updated look. After working as a journalist for women’s magazines ranging from Ms. and Jezebel to more beauty-industry oriented publications like Glamour, Autumn’s curiosity on the pros and cons of makeup and ‘the beauty myth’ was piqued. In Face Value, she reveals the scientific, linguistic, psychological, and daily impacts that appearance has on all people’s lives. Heleo’s Angelica Florio sat down with Autumn to discuss her book and speculate about the possible changes that beauty standards will face in the future.

Angelica Florio: How do you view your book in relation to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth?

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: It’s very much a response to The Beauty Myth. I would not have written Face Value if it weren’t for Naomi Wolf’s incredibly important and still very relevant book. That was the last big book about beauty that really looked at a generation of American women and said, “Okay, where are we with beauty and what’s happening?”

Angelica:It was also the first, right?

Autumn: Exactly. There had been a lot of good books dealing with beauty, but with narrower aspects. Even if you’ve never read The Beauty Myth, you know what self-esteem and self-image are, but those weren’t talked about as much before it. The basic idea of The Beauty Myth was that even though women had been under pressure for millennia to look a certain way, since the mid-century forward there has been an increased tension in women’s beauty as a response to women’s growing power in the world. That idea still holds true. And it’s commented upon wonderfully by people. I didn’t feel that the purpose of my book was to reiterate that point. I think that a lot of people reading that intuitively understand that idea.

Angelica: The Beauty Myth, from what I understand, has such a strong message: “Wake up. This whole idea of beauty is an oppressive force on us and it’s bad.” After reading Face Value, I got a less definitive message, because you consider the benefits of women’s beauty and the whole cosmetics industry on women.

I’m not anti-beauty. Paint yourselves! Have fun! The minute it stops being fun, that’s when you need to question it.

Autumn: Well, it’s interesting because Naomi Wolf — I can’t remember if it was in the updated edition, in the foreword — she said, “A lot of the response to this has painted me as being anti-beauty. I’m not anti-beauty. Paint yourselves! Have fun! The minute it stops being fun, that’s when you need to question it.” She was never anti-beauty. She might have been anti-beauty-industry, but she was never against the playful side of it.

The divide between feminism and beauty, I think, was developed largely by anti-feminists, by people who wanted to put feminists down, say that they were hairy-legged, ugly, man-haters. Naomi Wolf wears make-up, and I don’t think she does it as a kowtow to the patriarchy.

Angelica: In a way, trying to discover why someone’s wearing makeup, whether it’s fun for themselves or for negative reasons, it’s impossible to really know.

Autumn: That’s the thing. I think I know why I wear makeup, but I also know that when I talked with women I learned to ask more questions. I grew to be very wary of the phrase, “I do it for me.” What does that even mean, “I do it for me”? It’s almost like in owning it in that way, it’s an excuse, a justification, so I wanted to push deeper. Whenever I heard that phrase, I learned to circle around and go, “Okay, let’s talk about that.”

Angelica: While discussing how evolutionary psychology gets into messy territory, you debunk the whole 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio, so thank you for that. But I have a question. As far as eyeliner goes, how does making your eyes appear larger signal fertility or attractiveness?

Autumn: It signals what is called a sexual dimorphism. That is found across the animal kingdom. Anything that makes the sexes different is a sexual dimorphic trait, like breasts on women. Women have them. Men don’t. Women’s eyes and lips, in proportion to the surface area of their face, tend to be larger than men’s, so having large eyes is a sexually dimorphic trait.

Angelica: I didn’t know that women have larger eyes proportionally. We’re doing these things, but we don’t really know why, and it’s so interesting to find out the actual reasons. I read that women’s necks are often longer, so people in different cultures will wear these rings around their necks. It’s just a completely different cultural standard of beauty.

You can really start thinking about beauty and deconstructing so much. So what defines beauty? Is it your culture? Is it the media?

Autumn: You know, it’s funny. After years of thinking about this and writing about it, I can’t say, “Okay, here’s my definition of beauty or who decides it.” As far as who determines beauty, it’s a mix of culture, societal forces, individual preferences, personality traits, and probably some evolutionary psychology to a degree. As far as what beauty is, that’s so subjective. I can’t even come close to that.

If we lived in a generally non-sexist world, what would we look like? It’s a fun thought experiment.

Angelica: When I was thinking about all this, I wondered, “How much of it is in the definition of being a woman?” I think that the male gaze is something that creates this role. Sometimes I feel like it’s my role as a woman to pay attention to my looks, and I think that’s limiting. No matter how liberating one might say wearing makeup can be and how great and confident it makes them feel, there’s still this performative aspect where it’s like, I’m doing this and it’s also to please you. We want to be pleasing everyone around us.

Autumn: Which is very much linked to traditional femininity, people pleasing. Part of that goes along with “Well sit there and look pretty, darling.” We do live under a male gaze, and I do wonder what attitudes any of us would have about our beauty rituals if it weren’t for that. If we lived in a generally non-sexist world, what would we look like? It’s a fun thought experiment. We don’t live in that world.

Angelica: I wear makeup at work but I don’t all the time, and so many women in Face Value talk about not wearing makeup. Now there’s Alicia Keys, who was making a lot of headlines, most recently at the B.E.T. awards where she was makeup-less. How radical is that? You know better than I do.

Autumn: I’m a little suspicious, generally speaking, of the no-makeup-selfie trend, especially from celebrities who are often paid to be beautiful. But I read her piece in Lenny Letter about it, and it seemed like her makeup rituals had been not a place of joy or fun. So for her to drop them, I wholly applaud that. I love that she’s saying, “This is who I am world, and I’m not going to put on a different face for awards. What you see is what you get.”

Angelica: The idea that not wearing makeup equates to vulnerability is really interesting. You’ve discussed how putting your face on is kind of putting on this mask of confidence. I’ve actually been doing a little bit of experimenting with that just to see how I feel, and it really does change things. No matter what’s happening inside of your head, you’re like, “Well I know my face looks a certain way that I have manipulated it to be,” so it’s like using that control versus the vulnerability of a naked face.

Autumn: Yeah, but then on the flip-side there’s a vulnerability to going all out too. I would much rather walk down the street with no makeup on than with the full Monty because for me that is asking for attention, and that’s a different kind of vulnerability.

Angelica: It’s a bell curve. Either way, you’re standing out. It’s kind of a limited space where women are accepted.

Autumn: Exactly. I feel like there are so many ways that women can be seen to be failing. And beauty is rife with those.

Angelica: Achieving the perfect cat-eye — there’s so much methodology to it all, how-to videos and everything.

Autumn: That’s a whole world. Whenever I tiptoe into it I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.”

Angelica: That’s why I’m just like, “I’m not going to mess with makeup because it’s just another way I can be tested as a woman.”

Autumn: A lot of women are actually afraid of makeup in a way. Talking with makeup artists, I’ve heard repeatedly that women coming to them are really unsure. “I don’t know, is it going to look good? Am I going to look silly? Am I going to look foolish?”

Angelica: I was sitting on the subway and a woman across the car was putting on her makeup — the full face. That’s normal to me. I’m used to seeing that, but a couple of weeks ago I was with my aunt, who was talking with her friends, and they could not believe women do that in the subway. They said, “If you leave your house, you’re done, honey. You need to stop.” I’ve never thought of it as being weird. Has it become more of a public experience, the application of it?

Autumn: There is definitely more transparency about beauty work. I mean, you don’t see a lot of YouTube beauty vloggers who are 40 and over. There are some, but mostly it’s young women who are reveling in it. “Here’s what I do. Here’s how I do it. Here’s before. Here’s after.” I think that’s awesome.

Angelica: They show the whole process.

Autumn: I wonder how much of that is generational. I hadn’t made the connection between the growth in transparency. Youtube makeup tutorials could very well be a part of it. That’s something I think I’m going to investigate in the future. It’s interesting because on the subway they have those ads that say, “No primping.”

Angelica: Oh yeah, “The subway is transportation not a dressing room.” I’m like, “Okay, thanks M.T.A.”

AutumnAnd the illustration is someone touching up their lipstick and someone clipping their fingernails. Those are two really different things!

Angelica: I do appreciate that they show a man grooming. They didn’t gender ‘grooming.’ But yeah, they are very different things. I guess the only thing they could think of was a man grooming his nails. Which, in a way, is all it really takes.

Autumn: It’s growing actually, the men’s grooming industry. It’s one of the fastest growing segments of the market: men’s lotion, hair care.

Angelica:In your book you include so many of your personal thoughts and feelings about yourself, your own self-image, which takes a lot of bravery. Did you always intend to do that?

Autumn: It never crossed my mind to one hundred percent step back. Yes, I have a background in journalism and I know how to research, report, and write, but I knew that the reason anyone would read what I wrote was largely because of my perspective. I am a forty-year-old woman in America who has seen the way that feminism, and gender, and beauty have shaped myself and the women around me. If I tried to pretend like I wasn’t in this and invested, it would have not been as good of a book. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t there, and I wanted the reader to know I was there being vulnerable: Look at me, I’m here. I’m putting it all out there, so if you want to join me, great.

Angelica: There are so many real personalities in it paired with all the science. It really helps to humanize a book about human beauty.

Autumn:At one point, I was going back and forth. A couple of people, including my agent, said, “You could write this as a big research book or you can write it as a memoir. What do you want to do?” This definitely leans towards the more research end, but I wanted a bit of a hybrid, I had to make it personal.

Angelica: What research that surprised you the most?

Autumn: There’s one study about makeup that jumped out at me. Fixed personality traits can actually show up not just in your attitude toward wearing makeup, but in the actual makeup that you wear on your face. Part of me was like, “Oh, gosh. I don’t want to be walking around thinking, ‘That person there has high self-esteem. That person is introverted.’”

Angelica: Imagine the power of knowing what they all mean though! You could probably become a psychic with that knowledge.

Autumn: That’s my next career, the makeup psychic…

Angelica: Can you share an example?

Autumn: Women who had moderate self-esteem, who valued the way that they looked but preferred their makeup-face, and who were highly agreeable and wildly extroverted tended to wear a little bit of color on their face, but would wear basically the same makeup everyday. I have friends who will show up looking totally different every day and one of my best friends does that. She’s highly extroverted, highly agreeable, high self-esteem, and that’s the type that does that. Fascinating, right?

Angelica: That is fascinating. However, self-esteem is not fixed. Do you disagree?

Autumn: It’s hard. Self-esteem is not one hundred percent fixed. Nothing in our personality is one hundred percent set, but there’s only so much you can do to really alter your base levels, which is so frustrating.

Angelica: It’s a catch twenty-two, because wearing makeup raises your self-esteem or makes you feel more confident, and so how can you get the self-esteem to not have to wear makeup?

Autumn:There’s great book called Beautiful You by Rosie Molinary about coming to a peaceful relationship with your looks. She advises for some women playing with their makeup might be a way to increase their self-esteem. For others, washing it off might be the way, and I really appreciate her approach. Try it, see which sticks. There’s no wrong or right.

It’s human to have dissatisfaction with the way you look. But it’s not normal to hate yourself for how you look.

Angelica: What are you trying to do to help women? Are you trying to make women feel more beautiful in their own skin? I know telling little girls that they’re cute and beautiful is bad because we should also commend them for their brilliance. “Oh, look at your blocks,” that kind of thing. What are other ways that we can maybe reclaim the standard of beauty?

Autumn: Through my blog, I used to get letters from young women saying, “I don’t like how I look. Can you help me?” I would say certain things and then “work through it.” What I would say now is to let that be — which is a really hard thing to do. It is human to have dissatisfaction with the way you look. But it’s not normal to hate yourself for how you look. If it’s something that’s deeply affecting your life on a day-to-day level, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Those moments of dissatisfaction, though, that’s entirely human.

As far as girls, yeah, I don’t think that we should go around telling little girls that they’re pretty all the time, but some girls might need more navigation through the world of beauty than others. Some girls might have a lot of interest in that world, and if their parents always say, “No, that’s silly and stupid,” you’re telling a little girl that her interests are silly and stupid. So she wants to play with mommy’s makeup, or whatever. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.