Why This Therapist Says Your Makeup Routine Can Be an Invaluable Form of Self-Expression

Makeup can often be written off as a mask — it’s frivolous, vain, or a phony impression of who you really are. But anyone who owns even one tube of lipstick knows that’s not always true. Makeup, like the clothes we wear, the decor we choose to adorn our home with, or even the music we listen to on repeat, is a form of self-expression.

Julia Jarrold, LCSW, a therapist at Real, defines self-expression as how we express or convey our thoughts, feelings, and ideas. For many of us, Jarrold says, outlets of self-expression, like makeup, are ways in which we connect with our lives — it’s how we process who we are and our experiences. “These outlets can be coping mechanisms for how we experience our feelings, and, depending on our relationship with self-expression and the form it takes in our life, it may even be a patterned familiar practice that can help us to do that connecting and processing safely or in a way that feels contained.”

But makeup, and our relationship to it, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rewind 6,000 years, and the purpose of makeup was bound by society’s standards. In fact, the makeup helped define them. Some ancient Egyptians, for example, went as far as to use lead-based face makeup to lighten their skin, most likely to share their social status. Years later, makeup would be used to weaponize femininity. Whether it’s been fluctuating religious ideals or misogynistic standards, everyday products, like blush and lipstick, have been used to control women’s place in society.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and makeup is a booming business — it’s estimated that the US cosmetic industry was valued at $70 billion in 2021. Even while functioning within a largely patriarchal society where beauty standards still run rampant — standards that, specifically, target marginalized communities — we love makeup. So can makeup still be a form of self-expression — and, if it is, how can we use it to feel empowered, not oppressed?

Exclusionary Self-Expression and Beauty Standards

Self-expression isn’t a human right; neither is feeling beautiful by today’s standards. Whether it’s European beauty standards or respectability politics, some folks — specifically those in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities — don’t have the freedom to express themselves without the fear of being harmed or rebuffed.

“When our ability to express ourselves is limited, it can impact our relationship with ourselves, and that looks differently for all of us,” Jarrold says. “It may result in our feeling silenced, and that silence weighs on our ability to connect with ourselves, and so we don’t attempt to generate that self-relationship. For others, it may mean that in spite of our external circumstances, we work much harder to engage in this self-relationship.”

Beauty standards aren’t something we necessarily learn in school; these are the kinds of lessons we adopt by example, whether that’s through the media we consume or the comments we retain from peers. In many ways, the standards we face today were set centuries ago. The aforementioned lead-based makeup might not be in production in 2022, but the white-washed implications remain. It was only a few years ago that major beauty brands expanded shade ranges to include darker skin tones — and many still do not. “Our social positioning is deeply impacted by what society places value on,” Jarrold says. “When a person is socialized to believe that an identity or presentation is less valuable, undesirable or wrong, the expression of that identity can become avoided, risky and even unsafe. That could mean that self-expression may become all the more necessary and critical as a means of fighting against that oppression.”

Makeup and Its Effect on Mental Health

When we think of mental health maintenance, activities like meditation, journaling, or our weekly therapy appointments come to mind. But creative expression, even through makeup, can play an important role in our well-being, too. “There have been multiple studies that link creative expression to a strengthened immune system, the management of chronic pain, the decrease of anxiety, and more,” Jarrold says. “If we view our makeup routine as a form of creative self-expression, these potential outcomes can certainly apply.”

Again, self-expression, and the power it holds, can look different for everyone. For marginalized groups, specifically, finding spaces in which self-expression is safe and celebrated is crucial. “When populations of people have experienced being oppressed and marginalized, they have had to learn how to survive in the face of these power dynamics. Self-expression can be a way in which they can reassert agency in their relationship with themselves and their identity,” she says.

“Self-expression can also be the means through which a person challenges the systems of oppression that they face; we can see this in so many different ways: people of color increasingly embracing their natural hair texture or curls, male-identifying folks wearing nail polish, or women intentionally choosing to no longer use makeup,” she says.

A common misconception about makeup-wearing people is that they lack confidence; you might even hear the same claim about people who opt out of makeup. Jarrold says we don’t need to get wrapped up in the products — what we use and when we use them — but how they make us feel. The relationship between our routines and confidence, she says, is rooted in awareness. “What makes a makeup routine rooted in self-expression is our relationship to the routine and expression itself,” she says. “How does it offer you a connection with yourself? How does it show who you are?”

Redefining and Reclaiming Beauty

Jarrold notes just how important awareness is when engaging with makeup. In other words, asking yourself why you’re wearing that red lipstick or mascara is OK — and encouraged. Our conception of beauty is ever-evolving, so our relationship with it can follow suit.

The importance of self-expression in a world that measures itself by antiquated beauty standards depends on the individual and if they feel safe enough to do so. But self-expression, Jarrold says, can help facilitate our self-relationship, which can be empowering. The more comfortable we feel to express ourselves, the more likely we can reclaim what beauty really means.

Even if you aren’t entirely sure why you wear makeup or how your love for it functions within the historically exclusive industry, the fact that you express yourself at all can help concoct an answer. And when we face criticism for doing exactly that, Jarrold advises looking inward. “There is not an assigned series of steps or actions to take when receiving backlash, because I think that looks differently for everyone,” she says. “I think it’s really important to connect to the form of self-expression and the purpose that it serves and find ways to preserve and protect that for ourselves.”

You don’t need permission to express yourself; releasing the idea that you have to look a certain way to feel acceptance from others can, eventually, help self-expression come easier. “We can’t control how others receive our self-expression, but ultimately, it is important to remember that we’re not expressing ourselves for them,” Jarrold says. Makeup is as personal as it gets, so when a million little voices that don’t sound like your own start racing through your head, remember that, as cliche as it sounds, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and the only beholder who counts is you.

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