My Painted Face: The tradition of cosmetics in the culture of Women

Every morning when I wake up, I have a certain routine to which I abide to. Step one: roll out of bed; Step Two: jump into the shower; Step Three: decide how I will present myself through clothing and cosmetics. And through this process of presentation, I not only determine how people will perceive me but also how I will interact within my daily life. But today, while applying my lipstick, I questioned why I was painting my face with a variety of products. It’s a bit startling when you see the bluntness of your actions, without any of the meaning behind it. I was, in reality, smearing tinted wax on my lips. It was as if I were going to war and applying my war paint. And as dramatic as such an analogy is, I find myself discovering a simple truth of it.

Despite popular beliefs that cosmetics are merely a mask for imperfections or a crutch of superficiality, I will rather argue them to be a key component in how women want society to denote who they are. The application of cosmetics is an almost invisible and yet very much traditional ritual within the female gender. From the time of the ancient Egyptians spanning towards the modern age, cosmetics and the application of such has played a vital role for many woman across cultures to enhance their femininity, appearance of health, stature in society and sexual receptivity.

When looking back at the role cosmetics played in the evolution of history, it is astounding to see the vast array of cultures that this ritual became ingrained in and the reasons in which it was an important element in the construction of society. In ancient China, during the Chou Dynasty, a mixture of gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg were used to stain fingernails gold and silver of its upperclass citizens and royalty, branding them with social status(1). Commoners were forbidden to practice this. The declaration of status through the use of cosmetics can also be seen emerging in the European Renaissance age. Because the elite bourgeois would not tend to the menial tasks of manual labour in the fields, they were much paler(5). Thus the introduction of white face paint in European fashion became a cornerstone of aristocracy during this period, tying once again into the need for social recognition.

Within the broader stigma of social ranking, sub groups of class and designation were also represented with the use of traditional cosmetics. Much like the stripes on a veteran’s shoulder, Japan’s geishas, famous for their use of exaggerated and elaborate painted faces, embraced a very strict regiment of regulations regarding their make-up use according to their experience in their profession and public esteem. The younger and less experienced (the maiko) were subjected to wearing their full face of make-up for the majority of their training(1). This would include everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, doing chores and practicing their instruments. Older geishas (over 30 years old) will have converted to a more subdued presentation, only donning the iconic white face for ceremonial events(3). This was to show maturity and dominance over their younger counterparts.

Each component of the geisha’s face make-up was a strategic representation of what they were, most notably with the lip colour application. The geishas rarely wore their full lips painted red. Rather they would only partially paint their lips, covering the rest with their white face paint. The ratio of how much lip to paint in would be determined by the level of geisha: new maikos (geisha apprentices) would only colour their lower lips with a sliver of red; upper-year maikos would also include a sliver of red on the top; freshman geishas would colour in the top fully and leave the bottom clear; and full-fledged geishas would completely colour the top with a sliver of red on the bottom(3). This would show male suitors, as well as other competing geishas, the level of expertise that the geisha had achieved. The time-consuming application of makeup for the geisha was a vital ritual of almost religious significance to their tradition, where anything below perfection and accuracy fell short. It was a painted face depicting their achievements and beauty, intertwined within each other.

Comparing traditional applications of cosmetics with my own seems dramatic but that doesn’t make the meaning any less present. As I’ve grown, so has my use and technique of make up, as many other females can relate to. If I hadn’t adapted throughout my life, I’d still be walking around with bright pink lipgloss and baby blue eyeshadow, which would be incredibly unnerving and disjointed to who I am presently. But what doesn’t work for me now as a mature woman, did work for me when I was a 15 year old girl starting on the road to self actualization and sexuality. Bright pink lip gloss showed my station in age, subconsciously self-determined by the image of what the media had told me the ideal of a female of that age should look like through the idols I adored. As I grew older, my priorities changed and so did my self image – and so the way in which I decided to apply my make-up transformed.

In my rebellious late teens, charcoal eyes and bright lip colours entered me into the world of parties and concerts, which had its own set of social norm presentation requirements. And as I began to mature, my make-up became more toned down, much like that of the mature geisha mentioned previously. The subdued choice in cosmetics present an air of responsibility and restraint to which I had limited amounts in my youth. I also wore more make-up in my youth in attempt to look older, contrasting now as I wear less to look younger. The ideal version of myself through my self image has shifted.

Much like the transition of maturity, another important aspect of what cosmetics mean to the modern woman is the ability to transform, stand out and fit in. As some men wear sport team jerseys to declare their allegiance, the way a woman chooses to apply her make-up tells the world which social group she belongs to. This is a subtle declaration but nonetheless is signifier in how that female identifies herself within the masses. A goth girl will feel comfortable wearing darker shades and a more dramatic application whereas an athlete or a naturalist might just feel comfortable at the bare minimum. Even the lack of make-up can say a lot about the female. These are choices that females make, not only due to their lifestyle, but to be identified as being a part of that lifestyle.

But despite the cultural or psychological aspects, there is a underlying reason why masses of women throughout the ages have introduced cosmetics as a fundamental ritual in their lives: the appearance of health and fertility. It is a biological urge to want to enhance these aspects in order to attract the opposite (or preferred) sex. If a subject looks unhealthy or has faulty attributes, instinctively they send the message to the mate that they are sick, less fertile or have a weaker gene pool. An example of this is skin concealer. Skin can be considered one of the key indicator of good health. If someone has clear and glowing skin, this is a sign that they are hydrated, hormonally balance and vital. A subject with bad skin gives off the impression of vulnerability to infection or disease. Thus concealer masks these imperfections. Pale skin, despite the current trend of tanning, has been considered throughout the ages to be a virtue. Because male skin is typically darker and as females age the pigmentation begins to deepen also, pale skin was a sign of fertility and youth(2). Studies have also shown that the use of make-up creates more facial contrast, therefore allow the intended mate to conceive faster gender recognition(4). As the multi-billion dollar anti-aging cosmetic industry would probably agree, youth/fertility is a driving force in the purpose of modern make-up application in the western world, much like social status was that of Renaissance age in Europe.

It’s hard to think that the subconscious decisions of my morning cosmetics routine depict who and where I am in society but they do. My use in cosmetics says everything about who I see myself as a person and where I see myself fitting in. And through this, I can map out my stations of self through a timeline of my make-up case collection. My makeup is not only a tool to hide those embarrassing pimples or emerging wrinkles but it is a tradition, a ritual well built into our society and history. Popular belief may not see applying makeup as a traditional and biological practice but realistically, modern times haven’t stepped too far away from that in its core. Biologically we all want mates, socially we all want to fit in to some social group, and psychologically we all want to project a certain social economic status. As I finish up my lipstick, I feel ready to go to war.


  1. Cai, Zong-qi, ed. How to read Chinese poetry: A guided anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Web.
  2. Dingman, Sherry. “Cosmetic Surgery: Feminist Perspectives.” Woman & Therapy 35.3-4 (2012): 181. Web.
  3. Kalman, Bobbie. Japan the Culture. Wisconsin: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1989. Web.
  4. Waters, Melanie, Dr. Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
  5. Williams, Neville. Powder and Paint: A History of the Englishwoman’s Toilet, Elizabeth I – Elizabeth II. London, New York: Longmans, Green, 1957. Print.

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