Before all the big career moments in my life – interviews, clashes with bosses, being asked to talk about Taylor Swift on Radio 4 – I have scurried around for my faithful Chanel mascara, my By Terry Baume de Rose Lip Care and my Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturiser. Because to be professional is to be polished.
This is not the same approach I take in my personal life. On dates, I’d arrive make-up-free with wet hair. A night out might include some glitter and maybe a lipstick, but not much else. On the whole, my make-up bag stays in the bathroom or on my desk. Part of this is sheer laziness, but another part of this is a profound rejection of the idea that women have to do something to their face that men don’t have to do, in order to be deemed acceptable by the world. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I know many women who don’t feel good enough to leave the house without some expensive product on their face. Sometimes, a saunter around beauty counters can feel like the stinging clap of capitalism and the patriarchy high-fiving.
Yet, something about the working environment has meant one rule for work and another for play. Very quickly, I realised that I would only be taken seriously if I had the face of a professional – and that meant groomed; it meant big black lashes, some colour in my cheeks and on my lips. The make-up was a message: I’ve turned up, I’m ready, I’m prepared and you can take me seriously. Part of this was perhaps borne out of feeling young – like clomping around in your mum’s high heels when you’re still sucking your thumb – but there’s something innate in wanting the world to think you’re a grown up when you’re very much not.
And part of this is more problematic. Women have to look (sound and behave) a certain way to be taken seriously, to be acceptable. And this is something men don’t have to do. And so I came to understand that my entry into professionalism relied on a deeply feminised ritual. Reinforcing this fundamental femininity reinforced my professionalism. I didn’t understand why. Especially to other women. But it was there. Women need to prepare themselves accordingly in order for the world to listen to what they’ve got to say. I needed to wear some slap.
Listen to Emma Gunavardhana on skipping her morning beauty regime
Yet, now, I don’t quite feel like the little girl tripping over in her mother's heels (well, a lot of the time, but not all of the time). And my career has taken a slightly different turn than expected. I work from home, but I meet a lot of people. I have a lot of coffees and lunches, trying to persuade people to give me money for my services. And now my skin is thicker, my sell is slicker and I’ve realised I’ve stopped wearing make-up to these meetings. As I sat opposite a Gucci-loafered woman who looked like she might wear grey cashmere around the house, talking to her about a potential project, I realised I’d arrived without a lick of mascara. And, yes, we’re partly in a phase where no make-up is a thing, à la Alicia Keys, and “no make-up make-up” is also a thing, à la a lot of women on Instagram, but I was conscious that I’d broken my own rule 101: professional is polished.
And, yet, I was polished. I had a navy Jaeger blazer on (possibly one of my greatest charity-shop finds ever). I had brushed my hair. And, most significantly, I felt confident. I didn’t need my make-up to prove to this woman that I was to be taken seriously because, maybe for the first time, I realised I could do that by myself.
The older I get, the more I realise that we are actually all very confident. It just gets buried under the layers of self-doubt and insecurity that get piled upon us as we go through life. Yet, with time, you start to peel some of those layers away and your confidence starts to show, like the corner of a dusty box you’ve been looking for, hidden at the back of the garage. For me, turning up to a professional meeting without a scrap of make-up is getting ever closer to the pea of confidence under all those heavy, tear-stained mattresses. That’s why I think it feels significant.
I understand that talking about make-up can be divisive. We’re so deeply tribal at the moment that expressing an opinion on it – one way or another – can be misinterpreted as a shaming of those who feel differently. Yet, last week, I went for lunch with a woman whose bright red lips and thick dark lashes looked incredible under her ash-white hair. She looked great. My choice to not wear make-up is no statement about anyone else.
And I’m pretty sure that, in some professional environments, some women (and men) might still think I should be presenting myself in a certain way – and I’m also sure that more corporate worlds are much trickier to navigate. But if I don’t have those constraints, who exactly was I wearing it for? I know now it certainly wasn’t for me. And leaving that behind feels like a big step in my professional – and personal – development.