Saturday, October 17, 2009


When I have a very early morning flight--as I did traveling to Western City yesterday and as I will on my return on Monday--I try to sleep as late as possible, packing the night before and taking only the briefest of showers. I do wash my hair, and I dress nicely but comfortably. However, I do not put in my contacts and I do not put on any makeup.

And no matter how well I'm dressed, when I'm wearing my glasses and un-made-up, I get treated completely differently. To some degree this is my intention: I don't want to interact with the world at that hour or in those circumstances, so I'm not wearing my public face. But it's still unnerving. If I accidentally bump into someone, and smilingly apologize? If I make a joke or two with an airline agent or small talk with a TSA employee? Old, young, male, female: everyone I encounter is far less likely to respond, to smile, to engage with me in any way.

I guess this is something I've long intuited, and it's probably influenced, over the years, the way I present myself. But it pisses me off to be reminded of what we value and respond to in others. On an overnight flight to Rome last year, the flight attendant checking my passport made an exaggerated, comic routine out of not being sure whether I was the woman in my photo. And at a conference hotel I once ran into a colleague as I was checking in immediately after getting off a 6 a.m. flight. I said hi, and he (after figuring out who I was) said, "wow, you look really. . . tired."

I was tired, and I know that every one of us sometimes has difficulty recognizing people when they change their appearance or are out of their usual context. But I also know that what we read as "awake" and "rested" involves concealer and mascara.


RLB said...

I take your point, but I also wonder whether part of it isn't due to everyone else not being ready to interact with the world at that early hour, either! :)

Have fun in Western City!

C said...

Reading this is the kind of thing that, as an unpretty woman who also doesn't care for makeup, makes me very sad.

Sisyphus said...

Ah, the tyranny of the "natural look!"

You should be like the classic Hollywood movie stars and insist on not appearing anywhere without flattering lighting and a gauze scrim.

Doctor Cleveland said...

What's most remarkable about this is that you report it's universal. I can understand it from straight men, but when straight women, of all generations, treat you differently without makeup ... that's in some ways more unsettling.

Flavia said...

RLM: no, I don't think so--often these encounters happen at a decent time of day (when I'm in a new time zone and/or on a layover).

And Dr. C (and C): yes, that's part of what bothers me, though I think it makes a kind of sense--we're always told of studies that show that people are more inclined to trust and believe competent, intelligent, etc., those whom they rate as good-looking, and though part of that may be simple "lookism," I suspect it's more complicated than that, esp. for women. For a woman who takes certain kinds of pains with her appearance (or who simply thinks she should take certain pains with her appearance--who has internalized and accepted a set of beauty norms), I imagine it's comforting and validating on a subconscious level to encounter other women who are clearly participating in the same system. And perhaps it's less comfortable, or maybe just confusing, to encounter women who don't seem to participate in it.

I'll note, too, that in this post I'm just talking about casual encounters and interactions; I don't think most people are that shallow about people they have sustained contact with--or at any rate, they have more contexts in which to understand and value them.

And Sisyphus: you'd better believe that if I could afford it, I would!

Z said...

I don't know, I always find that a sweet disorder in the dress, kindles in clothes a wantonness. It just somehow more bewitches me than when art is too precise in every part.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Which is why I always wear my glasses, never wear makeup, always dress for comfort rather than for style ... so that people will just get used to the idea that my "tired 6am flight" self is my always self -- there is no more "beautiful" female lurking beneath the surface. There's just me. Get over it.

Flavia said...


i said...

Funny -- I really like getting dolled up, but I also tend to dress comfortably for flights. Most of my flying to date has been long-distance, so I keep the makeup off so I can rub my eyes, sleep, put on face cream during the flight, etc. etc.

In fact, I always found it strange when I saw women who were very dressed up, and very made up, on flights. But I can also imagine that someone might have a meeting (or an interview!) they must go to directly from the airport.

I like RLM's point: to be empirical about this, you would have to wear makeup and nice clothes on an early flight or two and see if people treat you better then.

@Doctor Cleveland: It is a truth universally acknowledged that women dress for other women. I know many men who can't even tell when I'm wearing makeup, even if that makeup happens to be purple eyeshadow, and as many who don't like it. I can assure you, for example, that the use of lip gloss has nothing to do with attracting men, as they don't particularly like to kiss it. Oh no, the plumage is for women.

Professing Mama said...

Flavia, I've had the same experience in a variety of circumstances. On a related note, I received FAR better service anywhere I went (store, restaurant, hotels, you name it) when I was thinner. And then, as now, I received better service and more attention if I was wearing work-type clothes (or dressier) than if I was wearing a sweatshirt and warm-up pants.

My favorite example of this was pre-Pistola--I think I was still working on my M.A., even. I went to an office supply store--I forget what I was looking for. Anyway, I couldn't find what I needed, and I could find NO ONE to help me. I tried repeatedly to get the salespeople's attention, with no luck at all. One guy in particular kept walking by me, ignoring every attempt to flag him down. I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt, sweatpants, no make-up, and a ponytal.

I went back the next day after work. I was wearing casual pants and a sweater that was form-fitting, along with make-up; my hair was down. Employees were coming out of the woodwork to help me, including the same guy who couldn't be bothered with me the day before. I was in the store for all of five minutes, and I swear, at least 10 different employees came up to me--some repeatedly--to see if I "needed anything."

I remember it so vividly because of the disparity in how I was treated by the same people within a 24 hour time frame.