On the Morality of Wearing Makeup

Update July 24, 2018:
I have a complete opinion on this matter that I wrote last December.

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.

Read the rest here.

Lately, I have been thinking about the morality of wearing makeup. As in all moral questions in this household, St. Thomas Aquinas gave his opinion from the Summa Theologica first. If you don’t want to read the questions linked, I will make a brief summary.

In the first article he asks if there can be “virtue and vice in connection with outward apparel”? He answers that the vice one could have from outward apparel comes from the person using the apparel immoderatly, 1) being contrary to the customs among those whom one lives and 2) by having immoderate attachment to the apparel. Under number two one can have these vices a) dressing to seek glory, b) too much attention to sensuous pleasure (only focusing on the bodies pleasure in dress), and c) being too solicitous in regards to one’s outward attire. Thus, one must seek the virtues of humility and contentment to overcome the vices of immoderation in dress.  While one can be too focused in this way, one can also be deficient.  In neglecting one’s outward apparel, one can also be seeking glory by giving the appearance of being in the service of God, thus deriving glory from others’ opinions. But one can also be deficient in the social customs of dress and neglect to have the correct knowledge of how one is to present oneself. One last point is that one should dress according to one’s station in life so as to be truthful in how one presents oneself.

So, how does this apply to makeup and cosmetics? The second question is “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of moral sin?”

Okay, I am not trying to make anyone angry, and I am not trying to offend anyone. Part of being a Christian is examining our lives and choosing to live morally. I am simply trying to examine the morality of wearing makeup which is so culturally expected and in many cases required of women. Be prepared for a shocking response….

St. Thomas says that a woman should dress so as to not lead others into sin. That sounds about right. He also says that a “married woman can adorn herself to please her husband without sin.” So, if one’s husband prefers it (and it does not violate moral law), she should please him! What if one is single? If one has no wish to marry, then it is wrong to wear things that incite men to lust, especially if that is one’s intention.

St. Frances De Sales says in Chapter 25 of Introduction to the Devout Life, that “a wife may dress to please her husband, and that it is lawful for a maiden to dress to please her friends.” He explains 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.” This sounds reasonable and even very practical. One dresses nicer for a wedding than for everyday occasions. And it would be silly to paint the house or scrub the floor in my best clothes! Once again one is to pay attention to the social acceptability. When considering cleanliness there is frequent bathing (which is often hard for mother’s of young children) and maintaining other hygienic habits.

One thing I want to say here is that the social customs, no matter how prevalent, do not usurp the moral law. And while I will not list them here, there are a number of common social customs that are clearly in violation of the moral law. That being said, it is possible for social customs to be wrong.

Now we come to Question 169, Article 2, Objection 2 (links and text from the source linked above at newadvent.org): Cyprian says (De Habit. Virg.): “I hold that not only virgins and widows, but also wives and all women without exception, should be admonished that nowise should they deface God’s work and fabric, the clay that He has fashioned, with the aid of yellow pigments, black powders or rouge, or by applying any dye that alters the natural features.” And afterwards he adds: “They lay hands on God, when they strive to reform what He has formed. This is an assault on the Divine handiwork, a distortion of the truth. Thou shalt not be able to see God, having no longer the eyes that God made, but those the devil has unmade; with him shalt thou burn on whose account thou art bedecked.” But this is not due except to mortal sin. Therefore the adornment of women is not devoid of mortal sin.”

St. Thomas responds to the objection with this: Cyprian is speaking of women painting themselves: this is a kind of falsification, which cannot be devoid of sin. Wherefore Augustine says (Ep. ccxlv ad Possid.): “To dye oneself with paints in order to have a rosier or a paler complexion is a lying counterfeit. I doubt whether even their husbands are willing to be deceived by it, by whom alone” (i.e. the husbands) “are they to be permitted, but not ordered, to adorn themselves.” However, such painting does not always involve a mortal sin, but only when it is done for the sake of sensuous pleasure or in contempt of God, and it is to like cases that Cyprian refers. 

It must, however, be observed that it is one thing to counterfeit a beauty one has not, and another to hide a disfigurement arising from some cause such as sickness or the like. For this is lawful, since according to the Apostle (1 Corinthians 12:23), “such as we think to be the less honorable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honor.””

The main objection is that when one puts makeup on a human face, one is creating a falsehood by presenting ones made-up face as one’s own face, and further “assaulting” the “Divine handiwork.” These are strong accusations and I have already heard several reactions to them.

1) These statements were made for that time and not our time. I do not see this a a good objection. Women throughout history have always worn makeup and covering one’s face in the past is not different than covering one’s face now.

2) Makeup is to accentuate one’s beauty and does not cover up God’s creation except the blemishes which St. Thomas says is okay. I think this is a valid point and can see how makeup does not cause one to counterfeit one’s appearance.

3) What about social custom?  It is socially prevalent, and one person compared it to “shaving legs.” Another person pointed out that there is a material difference between removing body hair and applying layers of chemicals to one’s face creating a sort of mask.  Another point is that are the social customs just adding to the objectification of women? If a woman does not wear makeup in the workplace is she seen as less? Is expecting woman to wear makeup making her lower than men? (I have heard from a trustworthy man that he has heard many negative things about women who don’t wear makeup from other men). If a woman in Western society does not wear makeup, is she deficient in the social customs category? Does it depend on how socially acceptable her natural complexion is?

These are all questions that have disturbed me while considering the morality and I really am not sure how to answer them. If you have an opinion, I would love to hear it. Please comment here so as to keep the discussion in one place!

One thing is clear to me, and that is if there is vanity and lack of humility in one’s personal wearing of makeup, then it is sinful to do so. The points about seeking glory, seeking pleasure, and inordinate attachment to are applicable to wearing makeup. Can one also be deficient?

13 thoughts on “On the Morality of Wearing Makeup”

  1. It seems to me that there is a significant difference between the way that different sets of people wear makeup. Some choose to wear no makeup, others wear minimal makeup to – as you discussed – accentuate their natural beauty and minimize blemishes, while still others seem to wear so much makeup as to – again, as you discussed – hide their natural beauty and present an alternate face.

    This seems to bear a significant relationship to questions regarding facial hair (for men) and haircuts (for men and women). Should I, as a man, allow my facial hair to grow unbridled to 'accentuate my natural beauty?' Or, on the other hand, should I shave my face for the same purpose? How much time (and money) should I (or any man or woman) spend on caring for and cultivating my hair and the 'look' that I want to present?

  2. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to think about my own motivations for applying makeup.

    You pose the question: "If a woman does not wear makeup in the workplace is she seen as less?"

    I work as a teacher at a Catholic college prep school. I truly believe that people at work would see me as less competent if I did not dress and look like a certain way (this includes wearing make-up).

    Is that a good thing? Probably, not. Am I willing to break the trend and go to work "bare faced"? Probably, not.

    I hope that I can give a good example to my eyeliner crazy students about how to tastefully wear makeup.

    When it comes down to it though I like wearing makeup. If God calls me to abstain from Cover Girl in the pursuit of holiness, it would take a lot of conviction and a lot of grace to get me there.

    Lots to think about!

  3. interesting summary of the discussion. I think that your point about inordinate attachment to adornment is something crucial. I don't know that we can make an objective statement about the morality of wearing makeup across the board, but more to the morals that underline the wearing of makeup. For example, for some people makeup is ESSENTIAL. They do not feel comfortable facing the world without it. Which makes makeup at least a crutch and possibly an idol. For others, not wearing makeup is a source of pride – or contrary-wise, connected to despair (along the lines of "I'm a lost cause"). So, here, as in so many cases, the sin, or lack thereof, is in attitudes rather than in the act.

  4. Very good explanation Genevieve. Particualrly liked the last line. Reminded me of the case with NFP.

  5. Some people wear makeup to protect their skin from the sun (some makeup does have SPF in it). Not all reasons for wearing makeup are sinful, nor are they a result of vanity.

  6. I am going to give a response to several of the above comments:

    Gregor: You have a good point. The face is a very important to respect, especially in the natural beauty and features that we each have. God made us all a certain way for a reason and when we adorn it or choose how much hair we want present (shaving for men is similar to women shaping eyebrows) should respect the face He created. I think that the value of the face in relation to the whole person is very important. Not as the beauty of the face telling us about the beauty of the person, but as the place where we communicate so many things and focus when we are in visual communication with another.

    Anonymous: I am happy to have given you something to think about. That was my goal. So many times we accept things as normal without thinking about them!

    Genevieve: You are right! It is largely based I motive as we find I a lot of human acts. Respecting our appearance is important in what we do and don't do and the Saints who discuss that have always held that opinion. I was talking to a Protestant friend about dressing according to one's state in life, and we realized that Cathiolicism does not look down on this and I think it is largely because we have vocations within the Church that choose the ugly clothes and lack of adornment as a sacrifice.

    Second Anonymous: I can see your point, but there are also lotions with SPF, so I don't think skin conditions at least in relation to the sun are a "reason" to wear makeup. I hope you did not take me to mean that all makeup wearing is sinful. I was simply trying to raise awareness of the fact that it could be, especially since a quick google search brought me no results except from a discussion forum that was largely divided.

    Also, another person asked me to comment about using makeup, skirts, heels, dresses, to combat the common tendency towards informality. I agree that there is a trend toward informality, though I have seen many girls in sweats, sloppy hair and a full face of makeup. This could be an instance of using makeup wrongly. I agree that dressing nicely is important, especially since it shows respect to our bodies which get so little respect in modern society. I also think that tasteful makeup that accentuates natural beauty and conceals real blemishes in a formal or professional situation are not wrong and could be a good thing if one has the right interior motives. And as for everyday life, it really depends on one's daily activities. I could see for some SAHMs that occassional makeup before going to the store or play group could help a lot with moral as long as she does not neglect her motherly duties to apply it.

  7. It's not what on your face, it's what's in your heart. If these old men cannot control their own urges, perhaps they should look in the mirror instead of blaming others and making up rules. Their moral judgments have no greater standing than any other child of God.

  8. Claire sent me this post after we had a similar discussion, albeit with fewer citations.

    For me, make-up merely served as a way to present my best face to the world. Just as I wouldn't walk up to strangers and begin to share with them my flaws, I saw no reason for the world to see my facial imperfections either. While I certainly had vain attachments, (oh, did I love shoes), make-up was not among them.

    Strangely enough, though, as soon as my discernment began to get serious, make-up was out the door. No longer did it seem to make sense to put purple on my eyelids to highlight the green in my eyes or mascara on my lashes so that people knew they were there. While I do occasionally pull out some tinted moisturizer, largely because I already have it and it seems wasteful not to use it up, I rarely use anything that would alter how I look, regardless of how blotchy or broken out I happen to be on a given day.

    Would it be a sin to discern and wear make-up? Probably not, but given that many are trying to present their best faces so that a potential husband can see the beauty hidden beneath the blotchiness, wearing make-up while discerning doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. I made my decision to not wear make-up rather quickly almost entirely because it felt right, so I certainly don't consider myself an expert on the subject.

    Anyway, thought I'd add my own two cents from a somewhat different perspective.

  9. Uncle Steve: It really is what is in your heart that matters, but the way you act externally affects your heart, and that is why it is important to examine our actions and why we perform them.

    I am not sure that I can consider the theologians I cited to be old men considering that they were not very old when they began studying and writing theology. Also, the positions they present are not "made up rules" but those that have been within the tradition of the Church. The Scriptures in the Old and New Testament find "paint" on faces and women "adorning" themselves to be suspect, and theologians as early as St. Augustine discouraged it. Further, St. Alphonsus de Ligouri in the 18th century (more modern than the other writers) represented St. Thomas' views in his own moral writings. If you would like me to share what he said I would be happy to. This is why I value their opinions. Christ gave us the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in preserving and interpreting his teachings at Pentecost. The Church named St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus de Ligouri doctors of the Church which means that the Church holds the doctrine they taught to be of great importance to the whole Church, meaning from you and me to the highest learned cleric. So, in light of that, their moral judgements do have a higher standing than others because they have been endorsed by the Church who is guided by the Holy Spirit. And this is how the traditions of the Church are preserved and passed down to us, through people doing theology in the traditions that came before. That is how it works in theology, and it is similar to how it works in society. As Edmond Burke explains that tradition preserves the accumulated wisdom of the species so that individuals and small groups of people can look to tradition to know truth and how to live.

  10. So I have thought about this topic since you posted it a while ago.

    Many things can "alter our true image". Bras, for example. Why do we wear them? Yes, for support…but also for a certain image. It presents the womanly upper form a bit better than just letting them go free. Correct? We could go without a bra for the sake of "showing our true God-given form", but I don't know about you…I'd rather not.

    I have been blessed with semi-decent skin which means I have rarely have had pimples, etc. I wear a small amount of make-up and when I do it always makes me feel fresh faced and ready to be presentable to those around me. Yes, it boosts me confidence even (especially on the days I may have a pimple or bags under my eyes).

    Now, some people have to deal with horrible acne, scars from acne…etc. Is wearing foundation in order to cover up those immoral? I would argue no. Definitely not.

    When Jesus came among us he did not center his attention on the appearances of people; rather, on their hearts and actions. Am I right? I agree that some people do wear too much make-up that can come across as trampy and ridiculous. When I see that though, not once have I thought, "Oh, how immoral". Never. I always know there must be something deeper going on with them that makes them feel like they need to cover up…that I could never know by just looking at them.

    I could go on about different cultures using make-up for their own traditions etc, but I won't go on and one.

    Our hearts, word and actions are far more important than how we dress our face.

    That's my honest view.


  11. I stopped wearing makeup when I was in college. I found that natural color returned to my face and my skin complexion improved. Frequently people comment "wait, you're not wearing makeup?" So it's not a thomistic answer 🙂 But one that I understand in terms of the conditions laid out. Societally, it's not very obvious. But I also live around a large number of Mennonites, who don't wear makeuo. So perhaps the natural look is more accepted here.

  12. I stopped wearing makeup when I was in college. I found that natural color returned to my face and my skin complexion improved. Frequently people comment "wait, you're not wearing makeup?" So it's not a thomistic answer 🙂 But one that I understand in terms of the conditions laid out. Societally, it's not very obvious. But I also live around a large number of Mennonites, who don't wear makeuo. So perhaps the natural look is more accepted here.

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