Make-up, Gender, Mental health: How Do They Tie Up?

While many of us have packed off our make-up during lockdown, what's the relationship we have with the products?

Mind It
6 min read
Make-up, Gender, Mental health: How Do They Tie Up?

For the last 3 months, many of us have either locked up our make up, or every now and then we feel the urge to slap on some make up, wear nice clothes and pose for social media. A 'pick me up', 'I needed to feel good about myself', and 'to get myself ready for unlock,' accompany such posts.

Makeup is fun and exciting for a lot of women, some viewing it as recreation, others as their ‘me-time’. However, the flip side to it indeed exists, as suggests this 2012 survey where several women in the US went ahead to say that they felt “naked” when they stepped out of the house without wearing it. So, where does makeup truly find itself when it comes to our approach and relationship with it? Experts weigh in.


Dr Danish Ahmed, Consultant, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, Delhi, brings in the first, one of the most predominant concerns in contemporary times when we talk about makeup, or anything for that matter when it comes to physical appearance - social media.

“Research suggests that women do makeup to boost their self-esteem and it makes them feel good about themselves. But add to this social media where this pressure is increased manifold. Many women feel inadequate, suffer from low esteem, anxiety, and in some cases clinical depression when they aren’t able to match the stereotyped look which is artificially created by advertisements and so on.”
Dr Danish Ahmed

He further goes ahead to point out how makeup in itself could have been inane, but the internet provided it a whole new dimension to pressure young women into potentially harmful behavioural patterns.

“Looking good and feeling better about oneself is normal human behaviour. But always striving to do so and in the process creating a false image of one self, which the person herself finds difficult to dissociate with, is not. Constant bombardment and advertisement from all quarters of social media in the last decade has been successful in consolidating and rationalising one thing in the collective conscience and thinking that a woman should always look perfect and flawless," he says, adding,

"This puts immense pressure collectively on the female gender to match up to society's expectations, most of the time beginning right from their teens. This can further lead them to being constantly conscious of their looks, along with living in perpetual fear of critical comments.”

Ms Kamna Chhibber, Head of Department, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, Delhi, agrees with this and adds:

“The constant pressure on women to be a certain way can take away from their confidence and feelings of self-worth. It can lead to skewed beliefs about what is acceptable and what is not, pushing individuals to force themselves to conform to certain so-called prescribed norms and standards. This is detrimental to their self-belief and can impact their moods, quality of life and well-being.”

How Does it Affect Behaviour?

Okay, we get it, makeup brings in a whole new angle of using it to look a certain way. But how does this pressure truly manifest itself in individuals. Ms Chhibber comments on this and says:

“Instead of focusing on who the person is, their personality, temperament and other aspects of who they are, the focus shifts to how they look which is an added unnecessary pressure. Always striving to look a certain way and finding ways to modify one’s appearance is, needless to say, quite unhelpful.”

She adds,

“It leads to a significant impact on how they perceive themselves and also how they believe others perceive them. It can lead to worry, anxiety, affect moods and behaviour, cause them to excessively ruminate about the same.”

Dr Ahmed takes it a step further by giving specific examples such as parents reporting “aggressive behaviour in teens if not allowed to buy high end makeup”, along with development of body image issues and increased self-criticism. The manner in which makeup usage might alter someone’s thought processes is described by the doctor in the following manner:

“To achieve your desired appearance, different products are tried, sometimes high-end, for long duration which gives the person a sense of accomplishment or boosts their confidence. A person has thus created a false image of herself in her mind and in the eyes of others and thus feels always compelled to maintain that image everywhere. This is not practical and feasible as we all age and might not have access to certain products all the time. This leads to anxiety and low self-esteem when they can’t do it, leading to avoidance of social gatherings or even stepping out.”

While this may sound specific to particular cases, there is another side to it - one of the women themselves who use makeup regularly in their daily life and see it as something that uplifts their mood or mental health.

Aayushi Thakur Sinha, a 27-year-old media professional explains her relationship with makeup.

“I wear makeup in varying degrees and it definitely has a positive connotation for me. While I have grown beyond feeling "naked" without it, I still treat it as a valuable addition to my self presentation. The ritualistic nature of taking care of my skin every day and tracing my features makes me feel calm and confident, and in turn, powerful.”

Agreeing with the same sentiment is Deeksha Sharma, also a media professional in her late twenties, who has made makeup a regular part of her routine.

“For me, makeup is not just about looking a certain way. It's like therapy. It lifts me up on a bad day and makes me feel complete. Do I feel naked without makeup? No. Do I feel incomplete without it? Yes. It's like wearing clothes. And people use makeup to look younger, older, dress up or down. It's art,” says Deeksha.

On a more personal level, Deeksha describes it as an activity that she enjoys, but not one which she is entirely dependent on.

“Having said that, if I have to step out without makeup, that's never a problem. It's not like I can't. It's just that taking those 15 minutes out to do something I like, makes me feel complete. Those 15 minutes are my ME time I like to steal amidst running out, living the life in a busy city, talking to people, working etc. Music playing in the background and makeup on a fine or not so fine morning is a good start to the day. I like to tell myself, "Deeksha you deserve this. Blend it all."”


The Gendered Approach to Makeup and Mental Health

Long story short, makeup is feel-good sometimes, and both mental health experts and makeup-users agree on this. At the same time, it can also lead to all kinds of pressures to look a particular way as well. However, is there a gendered nature to it all?

Dr Ahmed agrees that there is a bias when it comes to women who are needed to ‘conceal/cover-up’ their flaws more than men. Ms Chibber, on the other hand, says that there has been a shift in these patterns and more and more men are also getting encompassed by it.

“Men are now more conscious and aware of how they appear. For any individual, regardless of their gender, an excess preoccupation with what may be projected as flaws exists and can be detrimental to their mental health and well-being,” says Ms Chibber.

But How Far Can Preoccupation With Your Appearance Go?

Dr Ahmed shares one of his own experiences.

“This is from a time when everyone wanted blue eyes like (Bollywood actor) Aishwarya Rai. I had a patient who started using dark blue lenses and she was complimented a lot by everyone. When people would ask her if this is her real eye colour, she would say yes, and this went on for years. Even if she had to go downstairs to the garden in her house, she would wear the coloured lenses. Once she had severe conjunctivitis. She dreaded the fact that now she won’t be able to wear lenses and felt miserable. To avoid questions and embarrassment, she instead took a leave for 20 days from work after which she could re-wear her lenses - 20 days off from work simply so that her image doesn’t get impacted.”

Cases of cosmetic surgeries, which were not medically required, are also frequent, says Ms Chhibber. This is an endless loop of look-good-feel-good emotions that are something one should be wary of, underlines both experts.

(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)

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