From the Kardashian clan to Tammy Faye Messner and Lady Gaga, it’s a tale as old as time: If there’s one thing famous women have in common with the rest of us, it’s the judgment they face when donning what many deem to be “too much makeup.”
Malvika Sheth clearly remembers the time her grandmother warned against wearing lipstick, saying it would turn her lips black.
“I’ve always been told makeup was bad for my skin,” Sheth said. The 24-year-old Los Angeles resident is now a fashion and beauty content creator. “Recently, in this weird way, having a career in the space has justified my wearing makeup. But I can’t tell if the comments [from my grandmother and others in my life] have stopped because of my career or because people are more accepting.”
Sheth’s experience with cosmetics — and, more specifically, others’ thoughts about her use of beauty products — doesn’t seem to be unique to her upbringing or lifestyle.
Sara Pavoncello, a 32-year-old from Tel Aviv, Israel, has also dealt with negative reactions to her makeup use throughout the years. “The comments started when I was an adolescent,” she said. “My dad always tells me he doesn’t like my wearing too much makeup because women are pretty au naturel. I agree with him, but we have to look at the reasons why someone wears makeup.”
Those reasons can be as varied as the types of cosmetics found in the average Sephora or Ulta Beauty store. Pavoncello, for example, feels empowered when applying eyeliner, lipstick and bronzer. “I never used makeup because I thought I needed ... to look better. But I have blue eyes, and I always liked how it would help them stand out,” she said.
Sheth’s interest, on the other hand, stems directly from her cultural background. “As an Indian classical dancer, I really liked the fact that I could use makeup to play a character because the practice is storytelling of Hindu mythology,” she said. “And I just felt like without hair, makeup and costumes, I would not be able to do even 50 percent of the kind of acting I ended up doing.”
For Megan Cultrane, a 27-year-old from New York, the reasons are even simpler. “I wear makeup to feel fancier,” she said. “Or if I don’t feel pretty that day.”
Those motivations seem to be prevalent between nations and cultures. According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, women wear makeup for two primary reasons: to camouflage and to seduce.
Whatever the logic behind the decision, one thing that resonates across the board is that critical comments land hard.
Cultrane, for example, said the observations sometimes compel her to stop wearing any makeup at all.
Sheth expressed frustration with the comments she receives. “I wish people would understand that my relationship with makeup isn’t to conceal but to express,” she said. “People would tell me not to wear too much because they thought I wanted to change or hide the way I look, but I do it because I want to play around with color and enhance the parts of myself that I like. It’s so much about expressing myself.”
Pavoncello echoed these sentiments, expressing her hope that, one day, those around her will recognize her devotion to the form as a passion. “I absolutely love wearing makeup when I’m going to an event or an important meeting,” she said. “It’s not an addiction but something I actually enjoy doing.”
The Possible Psychology Behind The Judgment
Given that makeup directly affects the wearer only, should other people’s opinions even matter? What’s so wrong with wearing “too much” of it (whatever that means)?
According to a 2020 study, women who wear cosmetics are perceived as less humanlike than those who don’t. Researchers carried out four different experiments with a total of nearly 1,000 participants and published their findings in the journal Sex Roles.
“Results showed that faces with makeup were rated as less human while using complementary indicators of dehumanization,” the experts wrote, adding that models and ordinary women alike “were perceived as possessing less humanness, less agency, less experience ... less competence, less warmth, and less morality” than those not wearing cosmetics.
That’s a lot to assume from the relatively low-impact use of lipstick, eyeliner and the like. But whether folks develop their own opinions is beside the point. We can’t, after all, force people not to form views about one another.
What matters, though, is that some people express their negative remarks out loud. What makes it OK to makeup-shame?
That might stem from the online comment culture of recent years, which prizes honesty and liberty above all else. “I’m free to make the statements I want to make, no matter the impact” would be the argument.
But it also seems like there’s a disconnect between the makeup wearer and the criticizer. Both probably believe there is a limit — but, just like anything else in life, the criteria differ by individual.
Alas, there usually is such a thing as “too much,” but what that looks like depends on who you ask.