Is Wearing Makeup Unvirtuous?

Thomas Tuke did not approve of makeup.

Quite often when I tell another woman that I’m a makeup artist, she’ll respond with an immediate confession about her makeup habits. “I don’t wear much makeup,” she’ll say, somewhat timidly, before detailing her routine. Or “I love makeup! …of course, I don’t wear too much.” Or my favorite: “I don’t wear makeup.”

This last comment is usually delivered with a whiff of moral certitude – that makeup is a triviality – or an oppression of women that I’m just not educated enough to understand.

I’m intrigued by these impromptu confessions, and not just because I aspired to be a Catholic priest when I was younger (yeah, that was gonna work). This immediate self-justification of makeup practice is a clue to a question we have about makeup – a question that is not about how to rock a smokey eye.

The equation these women seem to be working out is this: Is makeup unvirtuous? Is spending a few minutes a day applying paint to our faces wrong in some sense? Are we allowed to have a little – but not too much! – interest in these things?

The answer, it seems, depends on where you’re coming from. In the Western world, we have quite a tradition regarding vanity as sinful. Christianity has always regarded modesty and purity of women as virtues, from the Virgin Mary onward. And the tract pictured above, by Protestant reformer Thomas Tuke in 1616, goes even further, railing against the deceit that women practice when they use cosmetics. “What a contempt of God is this, to preferre the worke of thine own finger to the worke of God?” he writes, before promising women that sure hellfire and brimstone await those who deceive men into marrying them by practicing cosmetic witchcraft.

The witchcraft connection is a sure way to put the fear of God – and His enforcers on Earth – securely into any good woman’s heart. And when some of the more extreme Puritans left Europe for America, they brought their distaste for frivolity with them.

But that’s the United States, with its history of Puritans and Pioneers. And that’s not everywhere. I don’t really get the “makeup confession” from Asian women the way I do with my American sisters. And why not?

Here’s an image of Saraswati – the Hindu Goddess of  arts, music, learning, and science. And she is decked out. It’s not just for vanity, though – her beauty is symbolic of the allure of knowledge. And she’s not the only one – religious artists depict the entire Hindu pantheon as beautiful, handsome, strong, and even fearsome – and all with visible face paint as part of their symbolism.

I’m not going to pretend that Asian, and Indian women in particular, don’t have their own feminist battles to fight, but when your religious iconography includes eyeliner, you’re not so likely to worry that a little blush is going to send you straight to hell.

In the United States, our imagery of glamorous women tends toward the profane: movie stars and swimsuit models aren’t generally enticing the kids into studying harder for their exams. Maybe this is one reason our preachers – both religious and political – rail against them?

What do you think? Is makeup a moral issue for you?

Thomas Tuke tract from the New York Public Library.

Image of Saraswati from

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