The Character of a Painted Woman: Makeup in Graduate School

I came early to my calling (pedantry).

In that spirit, I’m joining with another doctoral student, Sylirael of The Painted Rogue, for a collaboration post on makeup in graduate school! (Or, I suppose, a pair of collaboration posts: this is mine, and you can find hers here.) Despite our disciplinary divide–I’m in the humanities, she’s in the sciences–we both have a lot of thoughts on the experience of being a makeup-wearing female academic.

I wear makeup; I can also read. Fancy that!

“I am not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like,” wrote Tom Wolfe in 1972. “Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase–‘graduate school’–and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it.”

Four decades have passed since Wolfe wrote this, and the Great Graduate School Novel has yet to appear. The problem with that hypothetical novel is obvious: nothing really happens in grad school. It’s a period of suspended animation. You do things, you meet people, but mostly you’re waiting for your real life to begin. No one wants to read a novel like that, unless its author is Proust.

But a blog post about grad school, especially a blog post involving makeup? That I can do.

(Before my dissertation seminar last week. I’m wearing NARS Lhasa eyeshadow on my eyes and NYX Butter Gloss in Peach Cobbler on my lips, and displaying my usual deplorable posture. My boyfriend says this blazer makes me look like I’m on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I can live with.)

About half of the female academics I’ve met, graduate students and professors alike, don’t wear makeup at all. The majority of the other half wear no-makeup makeup: mascara, light pencil eyeliner, tinted lip balm. In my experience, grown-ups (i.e. professors) are more likely to wear lip color; in my four years in grad school, I’ve seen perhaps three other grad students wearing non-neutral colors of lipstick.

But let’s go further. Let’s get into cold, hard statistics. At my dissertation seminar on Friday, there were ten female grad students from nine different institutions in the room: an easy-to-work-with sample size, even for a literature PhD candidate. Of those ten, three were wearing visible color makeup. Of those three, one had chosen an unobtrusive bronze eyeshadow, another had some kind of blue eyeliner situation, and a third (me) was wearing the look in the photo above, though with the addition of the mint-green shade from the NARS Habanera duo. I was wearing relatively little makeup by the standards of the world at large, but I felt like the smirking strumpet on the cover of this book:

Does all this mean that there are rules governing makeup in academia? Well, yes and no. It always frustrates me that the most important rules in academia are unwritten. For instance: how do you find a tenure-track job in an increasingly difficult market? The only piece of advice I’ve consistently received is “write a good dissertation,” as if any two professors can agree on what a “good dissertation” looks like. If I asked a female professor about academic beauty rules, I’d probably get the same sort of advice: “be tasteful,” “look professional.” In other words: no one really knows, but everyone sort of knows, and everyone thinks they really know.

To complicate matters further, there’s a lot of unconscious sexism attached to the concept of “looking professional” in academia. I’ve heard female academics gossiped about–by other women, I should add–for daring to wear red lipstick to give a lecture: were they trying to look sexy? Did they not realize? Some academics seem to assume that if you care about the life of the mind, you don’t have much brainspace left for your looks; conversely, if you put obvious effort into your looks, you must not be quite serious about your work. When I first got into makeup, I used to wear bright lipstick to classes and talks, but I always felt self-conscious. At my university, all of the professors and most of the graduate students in my area of specialty are men; none of the other female grad students in my subfield wear color makeup. A female classmate once visited my apartment, saw my collection of nail polish (which at that time numbered under 20 bottles), and said, “I’m totally judging you right now.” In professional settings, no one has ever said anything negative about my makeup, but when you’re the only person you ever see making a certain cosmetic choice, you start to question that choice.

So today I’m going to show you two looks: first, the sort of look I usually wear to academic events; second, the sort of look I sometimes try to get away with. The constants in both of these looks are CoverGirl concealer and LashBlast Length mascara, so I haven’t photographed either of those.

Here are the products I wore yesterday, for an advisor meeting and other sedate campus goings-on:

Clockwise from top left: NARS Lhasa eyeshadow, Revlon Pink Truffle lip butter, NARS Mata Hari blush, and NYX After Party eyeshadow. You may be wondering about the sudden return of After Party, which I reviewed negatively in a recent post. The explanation: sheer laziness. I never got around to returning any of the three NYX eyeshadows I ordered back in March, and when I finally tried them again, I was surprised at how well they applied and blended over primer. Still on the dry and powdery side, but good enough.

Here’s the finished look (forgive the deplorable lighting–it’s been overcast and drizzling all day):

Eyeshadow placement is standard: Lhasa all over lid, After Party on outer corner and blended into crease and upper lashline. I also used the tiniest smudge of NYX Jumbo Pencil in Knight on the outer third of the lower lashline, but I’m pretty sure it’s invisible.

 Let’s keep things in perspective: I like this neutral look, and it’s not a huge, heart-rending sacrifice to save my fuchsia lipsticks for the weekend. But it is a sacrifice, albeit a small one. So I’ve been experimenting with subtle ways to incorporate more color into my everyday looks. I call the following a “watercolor” look: light washes of intense color, coupled with a jelly-finish semi-opaque lipgloss.

Top to bottom: NARS Coeur Battant blush (limited edition for Holiday 2013, tragically), NYX Butter Gloss in Peach Cobbler, NARS Lhasa (in future I’ll try to limit the Lhasa overexposure on this blog), NARS Habanera eyeshadow duo. You saw this look in the second photo in this post, but here’s a better look at the eyes:

If you’re feeling really bold, you can replace the gloss with a satin-finish lipstick in a similar color: here, Maybelline Vibrant Mandarin, which is mostly opaque but retains a bit of translucency.

Like Wolfe and his classmates at Yale, I often feel trapped in the great paradox of graduate school: I can’t talk about it coherently, but I’ve also lost the ability to talk about anything else. Thank you for listening while I tried to do both.

21 thoughts on “The Character of a Painted Woman: Makeup in Graduate School

  1. Wonderful 🙂 Clearly I've spent too long in the sciences – you expressed everything so much more eloquently! I wonder, somtimes, if this problem will ever go away – you know, as we the makeup fans become professors ourselves, as more women take on professorial positions, as more of the men who do have grown up in a (hopefully) increasingly accepting environment. I like to think so :-)You and all your NARS stuff – I HAZ THE ENVIES 😀 (see what 10 years at Uni does for you?)


  2. I've spent just over ten years in uni too! Ugh.You can't win — no makeup at all, and people say you look unkempt or unprofessional, or ask if you're feeling ok. Makeup, and they make comments like you've described. \”Tasteful\” makeup, and you feel stymied. In my research institute, the vast majority of women don't wear visible colour makeup. I feel weird if I do! I've been attempting to be brave and wear more lip products, but it's hard. I feel odd when people make comments about it, even when they're positive ones. I don't necessarily feel judged, and I've never heard anyone say disparaging things, but still. Maybe I should just get over it?In other news, I bought a Dior Fluid Stick tonight! I had a rewards voucher and there was a double reward points event so I indulged, woops.


  3. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading this.There are silent rules in every work space, and I personally felt stifled by a conservative law firm standard, even as the pressure to wear makeup was quite apparent. (Keep it \”classy\” and not too trendy. Power house reds are okay for women actually in power, or else what are you trying to convey? Sparkles are for children.) It was a relief to leave. But there's something extra confining and hypocritical about what you describe in the academic arena. For people who are supposed to keep an open mind, they're really closed off about things that they themselves are not comfortable about. I didn't go to grad school for literature, but a lot of my friends did. Anyone who advanced to PhD with tenure in mind supposedly didn't give a rat's ass about physical appearance — except that they totally did, which became apparent the second anyone landed a teaching gig or had to go to job interviews. Suddenly they scrambled to look presentable to a crowd of 300 18 year-olds.I totally judge your nail polish judging comrade. 😉


  4. You're so right about the hypocrisy of academics who judge makeup-wearing colleagues while pretending to be open-minded and creative. I would almost rather work at a place where there were written rules about makeup than try to figure out the many unwritten rules in an environment that pretends to be accepting. I'm sorry about your experience in that law firm! At least in academia there's no real pressure to wear makeup when you don't want to–but then the pressure goes the other way. Ugh.


  5. I'm not *quite* at ten, having just finished my ninth. It will definitely be ten or even eleven before I'm done, though! And yes, I'd imagine that the academic environment is even less makeup-friendly in the sciences. It's so hard to figure out what certain compliments mean–does \”I like your lipstick\” mean \”I like your lipstick,\” or \”I think you're brave for wearing an obviously inappropriate lip color\”? And if this thought crosses your mind, you wonder if you're just being paranoid. I don't know why I keep saying \”you\” when I mean \”me\”…Ooh, which Fluid Stick did you buy? Are you liking it so far?


  6. Aww, thanks! I wonder if the problem will go away, too, but it's hard for me to be optimistic when the majority of grad students I know don't wear makeup at all. Then again, maybe this is a grad-school problem and having a stable job brings confidence.Haha, don't envy me too much. The NARS stuff in my post is literally all of my NARS stuff, minus three lipsticks.


  7. I have my PhD in chemistry, and this post did make me laugh. It's the same everywhere, I think. I've also noticed that women here simply don't seem to wear a lot of makeup (or lip color), so even when I'm out and about and wearing lipstick, I feel a bit odd.As far as my grad school experiences go, I wore eye makeup and such from the start. Usually something more everyday (just because I gravitate toward neutrals), but I also often wore colorful eye shadow (though not something super bright). My group mates and boss never said anything about it. Neither did anyone else. Occasionally other female students (though not ALL female students) and I would chat about how we enjoyed wearing skirts and makeup even though we were \”scientists,\” and it became clear that we enjoyed having some solidarity; that is, since someone wore lipstick, it became more comfortable for others to do it, as well. So, for the day to day life, we pretty much kept to our own devices. For exams and presentations, I stuck to professional neutrals, but I think that is the same \”dress code\” in other professional settings (besides artistic fields).Currently, I lecture at a university, and while I initially felt a bit awkward about it, I do wear lipstick (including bold fuchsias and reds) to lecture. We have to start somewhere.Sorry for the essay! Perhaps I'll write a post, as well. It's a worthy topic, I think, and one that doesn't get addressed all that often.


  8. I wish you would write a post about these issues! I'd love to read it, and I'm sure others would, too. I agree that the departmental culture plays a role in how comfortable people feel wearing certain kinds of makeup; my own department (to say nothing of my university) is rather strait-laced, and grad students tend to dress accordingly. And I think you're absolutely right that individual grad students can help change the culture of a department. I've actually persuaded one of my friends to wear bright lipstick sometimes, and another friend has started asking me about how to choose and apply makeup, so all is not lost. 🙂


  9. Nailed. It. with the unspoken rules thing. Also tricksy to navigate in my most recent jobs (all semi-creative, in publishing and media), which require some makeup but neither blandly Bobbi-bot corporate (clearly you're not creative enough for interesting projects…) nor too scene ('are you the new intern?') and need to reflect sensitivity to but not slavish adoption of trends… oy.Personally, I felt much freer back in academia (I was one of those who wore sparkly emerald green shadow to DPhil seminars without a second thought) but the humanities in the UK are much more properly liberal about such things than the lib arts departments in the US I find. In any case, thank you and the Rogue for starting this discussion; makeup isn't terribly interesting to me in a vacuum, but so endlessly fascinating in our various imagined social contexts.


  10. Didn't you once mention that you focused on Jacobean revenge tragedy for your DPhil? Because if so, omg, can we just take a moment to enthuse about it? (Also, please tell me you've seen the film version of Revenger's Tragedy, set in decadent post-apocalyptic Liverpool.) It seems that the British DPhil system is so much saner than the American doctoral system. You graduate in just a few years, you get to wear all the sparkly emerald eyeshadow your heart desires…Haha, \”Bobbi-bot.\” That's why I love those eyeshadow and blush tutorials from Maquia: they feature conventional, \”safe\” colors in unexpected groupings and placements. The Japanese know what they're doing.


  11. As I already told Sylirael, these posts are wonderful. There are a surprising number of closet makeup-loving Ph.D. students, it seems! Since I'm in a heavily male-dominated engineering field, I was surprised and delighted to read these. (And she has given me permission to take a turn at \”what I do/what I want to do.\” Whee!)


  12. I think the self-consciousness and fear of negative judgment when it comes to wearing more adventurous or colourful makeup in academia is pretty much the same in most work settings. Somehow, professional = tame/'natural', and wearing makeup means frivolity and superficiality. At the same time, I suppose in more corporate settings, some level of makeup is expected, but mainly to look more 'presentable' and polished.


  13. Thank you–I'm so glad you enjoyed our posts! Since getting into beauty blogging earlier this year, I've been surprised at how many science types write and read beauty blogs. Being a humanities person, I always assumed that we were the aesthetes of academia. Not so!


  14. I agree: it's a complex balancing act no matter your workplace, with some exceptions (one of my friends works in the Seattle burlesque scene, and she had no qualms about wearing glitter to her job interview). I hope I didn't imply that academics are uniquely afflicted by these problems! It's just that I have no real experience of any other work environment, so I didn't want to make assumptions about anything I didn't know personally. It does seem that the biggest difference between academic and corporate environments, beauty-wise, is that women in corporate fields can rarely get away with no makeup whatsoever, whereas in academia that's accepted and even expected.


  15. I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH. ❤ I do think that smarties usually judge people who look like they care about their physical appearance (at least, to dress up and stuff) in a not-so-gracious light, and to be honest, rather unfairly. But, we all know it's not mutually exclusive. I think maybe people in the academe tend to read more into red lipstick than being content with the "I JUST FELT LIKE IT" reason for wearing it!


  16. I LOVE YOUR BLOG SO MUCH. ❤ And I think you're absolutely right: academics are very prone to introspection and overanalysis! When we wear red lipstick we're more likely to ask "but what does it MEAN, what does it SAY ABOUT ME," than we are to just put it on 'cause we want to and forget about it. And maybe a small dose of "'cause I want to" would be a good idea, in my case. 😉


  17. The IRONY that people are complaining about being shallowly pigeon-holed based on their makeup… when makeup itself is a shallow psychosocial-aesthetic phenomenon… which, incidentally, almost all research suggests IS based on increasing one's sexual worth (increase the proportion and contrast of the eyes relative to the facial skin to appear more youthful; moisten and enrich the lips to appear ovulating… etc etc etc) thus to reap the gains and advantages of greater prominence in the subconscious minds of the opposite sex. Perhaps THAT is what irks the academic elite; a niggling grasp of the hypocrisy of it. P.s. yes I am a scientist. No I do not take part in gossiping about women wearing makeup with peers.


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