make up and womenKicking off the new year, the New York Times, on January 2, 2013, invited seven people to talk about make-up. That’s right, the paper of record invited scholars, authors, bloggers, and makeup artists to write about “the power of the rouge pot” for its opinion page. The Select Seven were to address the question, “does it [make-up] ultimately damage a woman’s self-esteem, or elevate it?

That’s a question about the wearer of the make-up. What I wonder about are the people making the judgments and dishing out the advice.

When I was in high school (back in the Stone Age, admittedly), we were all periodically herded into the gymnasium to watch educational films. The movies hit on themes you might expect, such as the cautionary tales about how you and all your friends will end up in a pile of blood and guts if you drive drunk.

Then one day there was something else entirely. A film about make-up. It went on and on about how you can achieve the natural look. Apply this product, then a dab of that, and some of something else, and then in the end, you look….natural! I was perplexed by that. If you wanted to look natural, why not skip all the glop and save yourself a lot of time and money?

Regardless of how make-up makes you feel (the Times’ question), other people sometimes want to look at your make-up (or lack thereof) and draw conclusions about who you are as a person. There are scientific studies of the implications of wearing make-up – really, there are. So far as I know, there is no study that answers the question that I’m curious about: Do other people look especially closely at make-up when judging people who are single?

If you grew up among people who tried to set you up, or who liked to endlessly ponder the question of why you were single (I didn’t, but I’ve heard from lots of people who did), then you have probably received lots of advice about appearance. You should cut your hair. You should let your hair grow. You should wear trendier clothes. You should tone it down. You should wear more make-up. You should wear less make-up.

I think that in the minds of the advice-givers, one of the questions they are mulling is, “Are you single because you are just not trying hard enough?” If you are a single woman and you do not wear make-up, maybe that is the definition (or one definition) of not trying hard enough.

What’s interesting about this is that the point sometimes comes up even in very positive stories about people who are single. Previously, I wrote a post for this blog on an in-depth newspaper story of a 55-year old woman who had always been single, and who just died. The story, though pocked with bits of singlism, was mostly terrific at recognizing how full Shelagh’s life was and how many contributions she had made to those around her.

The reporter visited the home where the single woman had lived. Among her many observations was the following:

“Shelagh didn’t spend much time on how she looked, I could see. There wasn’t a tube of mascara or cover-up in sight.”

Last January, a cover story of the Washington Post Magazine was about people who stay single. Again, it was a mostly positive story about the single people the reporter had interviewed. One of those people was me. Here’s one sentence from the story:

“DePaulo, now a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is a warm, enthusiastic presence who wears a wide smile and no trace of makeup.”

I’m not complaining. I’m just observing. I wonder whether stories about married women are equally likely to comment on their make-up, or lack of it.

There is a cliché that appears at the end of many published journal articles: “More research is needed.” I’m not sure the study should be at the top of your research list, but if you do it, I’d be interested in hearing about the findings.

Make up photo available from Shutterstock