Inspired by Pamela: What a week without make-up taught me about the psychology of beauty

By Nell Geraets

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Pamela Anderson arrived at this year’s Paris Fashion Week without make-up, simply because she “wasn’t in the mood to play the game”.

Speaking to Vogue shortly after being photographed wearing nothing but homemade rosehip oil on her face, the 56-year-old former Baywatch star said she’d prefer to enjoy the city rather than sit in a make-up chair for hours. It’s a feeling many people – non-celebrities included – can probably relate to.

Taking a leaf out of Pamela Anderson’s book, I went a week without make-up to test how much cosmetics impact my daily life.Credit: Getty; compiled by Kathleen Adele

So, why do many of us continue playing the never-ending cosmetics game?

To test how much make-up really impacts our daily lives, I decided to stop “playing the game” for seven days. The ground-rules were simple: I couldn’t wear any make-up (though, like Pamela, I allowed myself to continue with skincare).

Throughout the week, I spoke to body image and beauty experts to examine not only what I was feeling while going make-up free, but why I was feeling that way.

My experience was punctuated by moments of liberation, insecurity, revelation and apathy. But it taught me there’s far more to make-up than the facade it creates.


My first day of my challenge began with promise – excitement even – but once I arrived at work, I found out I would be attending the launch of the new season of The Real Housewives of Sydney – a TV franchise known for it’s “glam” – at a swanky Melbourne restaurant.

Before leaving the office, I went to the bathroom to see what I could salvage. I will admit, I filled in my eyebrows with a pencil I’d snuck into my bag before leaving home, but it didn’t really help – all I could focus on were my “beady” eyes and the redness of my skin.

The cast of The Real Housewives of Sydney’s second season – all “glammed” up.Credit: James Gourley

I wanted to better understand why I was uncomfortable with my bare face, so it was one of the first questions I asked Nicole Mathieson, author of The Beauty Load.

“Make-up is the original filter. It’s the mask that we wear to perform beauty and to feel like we fit in,” Mathieson says. “The expectation that a woman’s face should be made-up has been conditioned into us … through advertising and other messaging because us feeling that way has made big bucks for big corporations.”

Filters and edits on social media have merely exacerbated these beauty expectations and online retailers, such as TikTok storefronts, have made it easier than ever to mimic another person’s beauty regime. “The beauty and fashion industry’s global profits are over US$500 billion a year and rising. I would argue this money is mainly spent by women to appease the inner angst.”

I certainly experienced this inner angst at the Housewives launch. No one looked at me strangely or said anything rude, yet I still felt like a shrinking violet.

While I initially thought no one was making eye contact with me at the event because of how plain I looked, I was the one trying to fade into the background, casting my eyes downwards, as I explained why I wasn’t wearing make-up (as if I needed an excuse). No one else treated me differently, except me.

Productivity and performance

Before my make-up-free-week, I read studies that suggested wearing make-up can have a positive impact on productivity and success in the workplace. But my week without make-up was as productive as ever. I spent most of the time with my head down at my desk to avoid having to explain to people why they could suddenly see the pimple on my face. Though somewhat isolating, I got a lot done.

However, Dr Sarah Bonell, a body image researcher, assured me the studies are correct.

“It largely has to do with pretty privilege,” Bonell says. “If people are perceiving you as looking conventionally attractive, they’re going to give you more opportunities to do work that gets you promoted faster. We see that consistently.”

It also tracks back to the confidence make-up can imbue us with. Hannah McCann, a researcher in beauty culture at The University of Melbourne, says wearing make-up can make us feel affirmed in our identity, which could then translate to our professional performance.

“Our face is what we present to the world. So, being able to control that surface can make us feel in control of how we’re received by others,” says McCann.


One of the things that stood out most during my make-up-free week was how much time I saved. My morning routine suddenly took 20 minutes compared to an hour. I was able to get more sleep and spent less time staring at myself in a mirror, which meant fewer opportunities to be hyper-critical of my “flaws”.

In 2017, it was estimated that a woman would spend approximately 3276 hours over the course of their life on make-up, hair and skincare. If Mathieson’s suggestion that anxieties around beauty are increasing are correct, then this figure has likely risen. With the issue of being “time-poor” frequently cropping up, why do we continue to invest so much time in our looks?

Writer Nell Geraets without (left) and with make-up on (right).

“For millennia, women’s value has not been found in building societies, creating worlds or waging battles, like that of men’s. We’ve had to find our safety and belonging in other ways.” Mathieson says. “This prioritisation [of beauty] may not be what’s best for us, but may be what feels safest. So, people spending time on beauty above other pastimes makes sense, as it’s providing them with social security, a sense of fitting into the world around them.”

Despite enjoying the extra sleep, I felt rather lost some mornings through week, as if I was forgetting to do something. This makes sense once Bonell explains that applying make-up can feel like a meditative experience, a routine used to mentally calibrate yourself for the day ahead.

“It’s akin to having your morning coffee,” Bonell said. “It also can be like an art form – something you enjoy as an artistic pursuit. That would be like doing your hobby at the start of every day, which can only be good for your mental health.”

In this sense, applying make-up shouldn’t necessarily be considered “wasted time”, McCann says. “There’s something radical to it – spending time doing your make-up or getting your nails done instead of doing the ‘productive’ work expected under capitalism.”

Celebrity vs common folk

Anderson not wearing make-up became a global headline. Bonell says there’s an element of power in her decision. By illuminating the fact that applying make-up has become a “game” of sorts, it encourages us to resist the beauty norms that drive it.

But Anderson is not a “normal person”. She’s in her own league, Bonell says, one in which her loyal fans will support her regardless. I, on the other hand, am more likely to be dismissed for looking “plain” than praised for being a trailblazer. When everyday folk battle social systems, they don’t have a fan army to back them.

McCann agrees, adding that the phrase “make-up-free” can be misleading.

“The emphasis with the make-up-free look is so-called natural beauty, which I think can be more insidious,” says McCann. “The idea of natural beauty hides all the costs, labour, and time that goes into constructing it, whereas more obvious make-up looks don’t hide their artifice.”

I thought I would come out of my make-up-free week with a clearer picture of the beauty industry, hyper-aware that I’m merely a cog in the capitalist machine. But it’s actually much more complicated than that.

Applying make-up can be a creative outlet, a meditative exercise. But our dedication to make-up is also something that’s been pushed on us by an unforgiving and unrelenting industry bent on increasing profits by telling us we’re never good enough.

The experiment didn’t change me forever – I’m back to my normal make-up routine. However, I now apply my concealer with a slightly better understanding of what I’m truly trying to conceal.

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