Last month R’s Mom wrote an interesting post responding to a Times of India article on a woman who went off make-up.* The larger discussion was on the reasons for wearing make-up, whether for oneself or the world and the ethics of that. The discussion on make-up ties into the larger discussion on beauty, whether it is or should be skin-deep, and of course, whether one should conform to external standards of beauty. I wrote a comment, but have more to say, so I’m making it into a post.

My own relationship with make-up and basically grooming in the fashionable sense began late and remained somewhat stunted. When I was in my late teens and started going to parties, I experimented with lipstick and eyeliner. I noticed that my friends were using make-up to great advantage. In fact, my friends’ make-up application skills improved by leaps and bounds, while I continued to struggle with not getting lipstick on my teeth leave alone drawing a straight line on my lids.

I had always been fascinated by the beauty counters in malls and tempted to get a make-over but was too intimidated to approach. Basically, the unspoken rule is that you need to buy a lot of products if you do that. For me, the final straw was that my sister had learnt to apply make-up really well, and she told me she basically did exactly what the woman at the Bobbi Brown counter did to her face. Realising that my family lacked the gene required to master make-up by experimentation, I went with Curly to Globus and asked one lady there to do up my face.

It was quite an instructive experience. I remember asking her what something was and she looked most surprised and said: “Mascara”, while Curly gaped and said: “So what have you been using on your eyes all this time” and I said: “Nothing” and she said: “OMG, so those are your real eyelashes?” Mascara didn’t last long in my make-up routine.**

What did last was foundation. It does wonders for my face. For example, my own husband kept complimenting me on my beauty every time I used it, until I informed him that the reason I looked so wonderful was that I had a coating of something on my skin. He was amazed and I was amazed that despite all his experience with women not to mention having two sisters who are heavily into dressing up he was ignorant of the basic facts of life.

Also, what really enhances my features is kajal only on the lower lid. I have abandoned eyeliner because I am not coordinated enough and my eyes are not significantly improved by it, though recently just discovered an eyeliner pencil at home and did my upper eyes and the effect was nice, though I forgot and rubbed my eyes and looked like a badger halfway through the evening. And then I do lipstick – I reserve darker colours for formal occasions and generally go with lipgloss that gets eaten away within a couple of hours.

My theory on make-up and other beauty enhancements is that while there are some people who are blessed with clear and glowing skin, stunning features that need no adornment, etc, many of us lesser mortals can craft our faces to look a certain way with make-up. This is not to say that I think everyone should wear make-up – thank goodness there are still people who don’t – but that if skilfully applied, most people do look more attractive with make-up (and this probably includes men too). I often hear women say they wear make-up to “look professional” and I’m not buying that. Make-up when done right makes one look more attractive. And when you look attractive, you have an added advantage in the game of life because people respond better to attractive people. It’s as simple as that.

In using make-up are we conforming to beauty standards that oppress women? Well, I myself like the way I look with make-up. But it’s eminently possible that I like myself that way because I have been externally conditioned to find that “look” beautiful. I think though that there is an almost instinctive response to certain kind of features and that my motivations for using make-up lie somewhere in between.

For myself, I not so addicted to make-up that I feel debilitated without it, though I am conscious that I look less attractive without it (and because I live in a very superficial town, I can actually see differences in behaviour when I am all groomed and when I am not). Moreover, make-up takes hardly any time to apply. When I spend time on it, it’s because I have the time and I see it as a creative activity like painting. The results are most often disastrous – when will I learn how to do pretty eyeshadow? – but occasionally, I’m like an artist who got it right, preening at my own handiwork.

Since this is about gratitude, I am grateful that make-up exists though I hope I can switch to cosmetics that are not tested on animals soon.

*That TOI prints these kinds of pieces is a sign of how elitist the paper is. The editors would only have had to have a cursory look around to discover that a huge number, probably even a majority, of women in India do not wear make-up. The story in the Indian context is a non-story, except for highlighting as a curiosity how for women in some places make-up is like a second skin.

** My colleague in office was inspired by my eyelashes to buy a serum to make eyelashes to grow faster. She said her target is for her lashes to reach the length of mine in six months. She is fully aware that she is being ridiculous, but that did not stop her from investing $500 in this serum, which she says was a really good price.