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Are we finally ready to let professional women ditch makeup?

August 20, 2021, 1:25 PM UTC
Working women abandoned makeup during the pandemic.
Chesnot/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! A California recall election candidate says employers should be able to ask women about their pregnancy plans, an eighth grade class may help pardon a woman convicted during the Salem Witch Trials, and we ponder the future of makeup. Have a great weekend.

– The ‘full-face’ fallacy. I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about the ways life has changed since March of 2020, but I will admit that abandoning my makeup routine, such as it was, has been refreshing. (Bless the “touch up my appearance” setting on Zoom, which really does knock off 5 years and add an hour of sleep.)

Not surprisingly, I’m far from the only woman who feels that way—including quite a few who shared their perspective on the subject with the Huffington Post. The piece has a great, jaunty headline: “Makeup? Who Needs It? These Women Are Returning To The Office Without It,” but when you actually read what the women in question have to say, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t yet gotten to a place where they feel that they can live their professional lives bare-faced. Yes, many say they’re wearing “a full face” far less often, but when it comes to meetings, networking, and other key work moments, there’s a general feeling that the old rules still apply. As creative director Sravya Attaluri tells HuffPo: “The reality is I receive more respect when I look ‘cleaner’ or more ‘professional’ with my makeup done.”

Historically, women have worn makeup for all kinds of reasons, but in certain kinds of workplaces, it’s hard to ignore how makeup has just become a baseline of looking “professional.” There’s even been research on the subject—particularly an oft-quoted 2016 paper, which found that, while conventionally attractive people out-earn their peers, sufficient “grooming”—which, for women, includes wearing makeup—could narrow that pay gap. HuffPost talked to one of the co-authors of the study, who said: “We found that makeup can signal how much effort a woman is willing to put in to meet gender presentation expectations, which may spill over into judgments about how much effort a worker will put into other aspects of work…Managers, bosses, supervisors and superiors may be using women’s use and nonuse of makeup as a way to judge how compliant and committed they are to doing other kinds of work.”

Ridiculous, right? (Also ridiculous: the number of times women in the story recall being told “You look tired!” when they tried to go makeup free. Honestly, why do people make comments like that? What’s the upside?) And makeup is just one of the “pink tax” hurdles that soak up working women’s time and money (see also: haircare and styling, nails, and other grooming expenses—and that’s before we even get into wardrobe).

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that these dynamics will just be scrubbed away by this period of remote work. But I do think there’s a chance to have a bit of a reset—to rethink what a “professional look” really means. At this point, most of us have seen our colleagues makeup-free, maybe even while wearing an old t-shirt or a baseball cap (when did they last shower? Who can say…) and yet they remain talented, committed, hard-working and, yes, professional. So, when the return to the office finally happens, I hope we can bring a part of that bare-faced spirit with us and remember to judge people by the work they do, not the time they spend in front of the vanity mirror.

Kristen Bellstrom

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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"While studying theology, I learned that I have flaws like all humans do, but being a trans woman is not one of them."

-Alexya Salvador, the first transgender pastor in Brazil and Latin America

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