Cosmetics and the Objectification of Women

“Since God himself is now near us, we can know him. He shows us his Face and enters our world.” —Pope Benedict XVI

François Boucher, “Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour”, 1758
François Boucher, “Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour”, 1758 (photo: Public Domain)

She came back from the job interview with a job offer in hand. As I talked to her about the student work position on our college campus, she mentioned that her new boss told her that she would be expected to wear makeup at her job. While I knew that women often wore makeup to work, I had never been required to wear it to work. I felt a little upset for my friend who sat through being told by a man that she — a young, pretty woman — had to wear makeup while men who worked in the same workplace had no such requirement.

Up to this point it had seemed normal to me that one would choose to wear makeup in a professional or formal setting, but when it was imposed on my friend I started to feel that there was a problem with it. With so many women coming out with their stories and accusations of men treating them with impropriety, we need to dig deeper into the causes of this problem. The expectation that women use cosmetics is just one of many contributing factors our society’s tendency to reduce women to objects to be used rather than human persons to be loved.

When a woman is expected to cover her face with makeup in order to alter her appearance, to look more “professional,” or to be more attractive to men she is covering up an important part of herself: her face. Our face is the part of the human body that leads most directly to our interior self. They make present to us the other person. We recognize people through their faces. We communicate through our faces. When we venerate icons Christ, Our Lady, and the Saints we venerate images of their faces, because the face shows us who someone is.

God has made each woman beautifully with his own design, and society has told her that her face is not good enough as it is. It has told her that she does not have value if she does not paint her features to fit a certain standard. In the professional world men often criticize and devalue women who do not wear makeup. Or a woman might decide to wear makeup in order to manipulate men through causing them to lust after her or to force them to respect her position in society—and in that case she is objectifying both herself and the man. This is a grave inequality our society has imposed on women, and a problem that serious Christians should not ignore as men and women are equal under God. (Gal. 3:28)

The history of the Church’s thought on the morality of individuals’ choices of dress and ornamentation has always been guided by social custom and social status. What is the norm in society has always been acceptable, given that a person does not have sinful intentions with his or her mode of dress. It is morally sound to base our decisions in how we dress and present ourselves on the customs of our society given that how we dress respects other people and our own bodies. St. Frances De Sales says in his Introduction to the Devout Life that “propriety in dress consists in material, fashion and cleanliness,” and as “to the material and fashion of clothes, propriety in these respects depends on various circumstances such as time, age, rank, those with whom you associate; and it varies on different occasions.” (III.25) When reflecting on these thoughts and the use of cosmetics, it would seem that there is no problem with a woman choosing to wear makeup to fit in with society.

But what if society is wrong? The tradition of the Church has held, while it is not wrong to follow societal customs, it is wrong to be the one to introduce or promote an immoral behavior that is not yet a social custom. The fact of the matter is that the use of cosmetics has been considered as a moral issue throughout the history of the Church.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, whom the Church has named the doctor of moral theology, talks about makeup and other modes of dress in his text Moral Theology. In this text, which is designed to help confessors, he distinguished between mortal (grave) and venial (lesser) sins in each act. He says this about practices that are traditionally seen as immoral:

[We] excuse from mortal sin those who because of a local custom expose their breasts, or use makeup, pigments or fake hair, so long as they are doing it only to appear more beautiful, not out of a lascivious motive, or with some other mortally sinful intent, or if there is a particular law prohibiting something in particular under pain of mortal sin. (Moral Theology, Book 2, Treatise 3, On Charity, Chapter 2.54, trans. Mark K. Spencer)

St. Alphonsus says that women can follow their local customs of wearing makeup without committing mortal sin so long as they have no sinful intent, as I said above. Nevertheless, he holds it is often a venial sin even if it is done just to please one’s husband or to appear more beautiful.

St. Thomas Aquinas considers the question of makeup in the Summa Theologiae (II-II, 169.2). He gives several circumstances in which one might use it with a sinful intent. Firstly, it could be a source of vanity. A woman who uses cosmetics as part of her dress may feel vain about her appearance and afraid of others’ opinions of her were she not to wear it. Secondly, it is wrong to use cosmetics with the intention of leading another person into lust or to control another individual, such as when a woman uses makeup with a specific intention to be desired by and attractive to a person who should not desire her. Both of these intentions seem to contribute to our societal problem of the objectification of women through the social expectation of their use of cosmetics.

Besides these intentions or the person using cosmetics, St. Thomas Aquinas sees as a separate moral problem: the fact that cosmetics cover a person’s face. He says that the use of makeup to change or cover one’s face is a kind of lie. He quotes St. Augustine who says, “To dye oneself with paints in order to have a rosier or a paler complexion is a lying counterfeit.” (ST, 169.2, Reply. Obj. 2) In some cases the use of makeup does not completely cover or alter one’s face and would seem less of a deceit. (St. Thomas Aquinas does point out that using makeup to conceal a blemish but not change one’s whole appearance is not problematic so long as it is done with the right intention.) Yet, so often makeup completely covers a woman’s face or changes her appearance so that she does not look anything like she does naturally. With this being the case, we need to consider more deeply than we have before what this kind of lie is doing to women and men in our society.

Like I said before, we encounter the presence other human beings in the face. Babies look into the faces of their parents when they eat. Couples who are in love gaze at and are in awe of each other’s faces. We teach our children to make eye contact in order to be respectful. When one uses makeup to change one’s coloring and alter one’s looks it covers up the truth that is a person’s face. It tells a visual falsehood about what one really looks like and presents one as different from what they actually are. Further, if used with the wrong intention, it could also be an act of ingratitude as it, in a sense, “defaces” the work of God and the natural beauty he gave to that person.

What can we do about this social custom? For some of us, going against it would be problematic for our careers and our positions in life. For others of us, perhaps it is time to change how we use makeup. We are called to look seriously at our intentions about how we use cosmetics in our dress. We should also think about how we view people who do and do not wear makeup, for we could be contributing to the objectifying of others. Remember: we are not called as Christians to dress sloppily, but to honor our whole person and others in how we dress. St. Paul reminds us “that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel” (1 Tim 2:9). I not am questioning presentable, careful dress, but am questioning the use of cosmetics as something that defaces our God given features and the imposition by society on women to use it to objectify themselves.

St. Peter said his first letter, “Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing and lawless idolatry.” (1 Peter 4:3) With the evidence of our society’s licentious passions so rampant every day in the news, we need to pray about how we can change our own behavior and through that work to convert the world. Every small change we make, for good or ill, changes our souls.