The science behind how makeup usage affects self-esteem and mental health, as well as young people’s growing dependence on makeup.

When you hear the phrase “psychological addiction”, what are the first things that come to mind? Maybe you think of alcohol, drugs or even phone addiction.

The Smithsonian Institution provides a detailed history on the history of makeup use in America. In eighteenth-century America, both men and women of the upper classes wore make-up. However, the use of visible or brightly colored cosmetics became socially unacceptable shortly after the American Revolution. Another shift occurred in the 1920s reflecting the growing influence of Hollywood, causing an increase in makeup usage as a way to imitate respected female actors. By the 1950s and 1960s, teenage girls were commonly wearing make-up and cosmetic companies altered their marketing campaigns to cater to a younger audience.

Though makeup is so commonly used today, it remains a controversial concept in our society. When it comes to how it affects mental health, some say that it destroys self-esteem and can even cause psychological addiction to alter your appearance. Others say that it boosts self-image and is an outlet for self-expression. No matter who you are, everyone seems to have mixed opinions on makeup usage among teens today.

Negative effects on self-esteem

Several MVHS students provided some insight into how makeup has negatively affected their overall self-image.

Sophomore Anishka Khatwani expanded on the idea of makeup drastically changing the way you look and how that can affect the way you view yourself. “It depends on what you use it for…I feel like if you use a lot of contour and highlighter, it changes your face structure, and then when you take it off, it can negatively affect your self-esteem because you look so different without it. But if you’re using makeup that highlights your natural features, then I think it can enhance self-esteem,” she said. 

Dr. Rebecca Jedel, a local clinical psychologist, explained that when it comes to enhancing or damaging self-esteem, makeup usage can go either way. “If girls with low self-esteem are going to use it to try to counterbalance it [with makeup], it doesn’t help with self-esteem. For those who do feel confident, it’s just another way of expressing their confidence… In clear research for children, teens, and adults, when people wear makeup, they do feel more confident whether or not it’s well-based confidence,” said Jedel. 

A psychological addiction to makeup

With the routine application of makeup becoming more and more normalized within recent years, many makeup users find themselves unable to leave their house without at least a touch of concealer or coat of mascara on. This phenomenon is similar to other common addictions like alcohol and drug abuse.

Jedel spoke on her concerns regarding this issue. “I think it’s over 25% of girls who routinely wear makeup and they feel very uncomfortable being out in public without it…there’s a good percentage of those who just simply won’t go out in public,” said Jedel.

Khatwani talked about her personal experiences with this, stating that she does feel like since starting to use makeup, she has become quite dependent on it. Khatwani said “I do think that I’m pretty dependent on makeup. The other morning I woke up really late…I had two minutes before I had to leave the house and I spent my two minutes putting mascara on instead of brushing my teeth or doing anything else.”

Young age demographic

Many people recently have shown concern with the lowering age demographic of makeup users. Jedel spoke on this prevalent issue. “[The age of makeup users] has been trending lower… An interesting correlation to that is that puberty onset has also begun earlier in girls…having early puberty takes you into a different mindset and different expectations of you. Trying to live up to those expectations could be associated with increased makeup use…younger and younger people are getting access and exposure to social media, so it makes sense that there is this interest and desire to, you know, begin using makeup earlier,” Jedel said.

Positive effects on mental health and identity

Despite these concerns, makeup has had a very positive effect on many people. In a study conducted by Kirsten Dellinger and Christine L. Williams, it was found that some women used makeup as a way to focus on themselves and temporarily remove themselves from stresses or responsibilities. Getting ready in general and having makeup involved in that process can feel like a form of self-care for many people. 

Jedel also spoke in depth on how makeup is used as a form of self-expression for many teens today. “Hair color, nail polish, styles of eye makeup, and so forth, they can absolutely be opportunities to explore [one’s identity]. One thing that has always been true of adolescents is that there is a drive to be different from the adult mainstream. It’s part of what’s called an individuation process. You can [differentiate yourself] through your music, you could do it through clothes, appearance…there’s a lot of different ways of expressing that. And makeup could certainly fall into that category.” 

Maintaining a healthy relationship with makeup

In order to protect our self-image and use makeup as a method of self-care or self-expression rather than a way to cover up or alter our natural features, we must take active measures to maintain a healthy relationship with makeup. 

Khatwani suggested “doing a couple, no makeup days a week and like being comfortable with not wearing makeup or like just playing around with different makeup…not getting too used to one routine helps you maintain a healthy relationship with makeup.” 

Jedel’s advice to teenagers who base their self-worth on their appearance is to “Find a role model that you appreciate…There are many examples of women who don’t wear much makeup and yet they’re respected and accomplish amazing things…[Wearing makeup] is part of identity exploration, as long as it’s what you want…if it’s you trying out different things [for yourself] and you’re not doing it to compare yourself to celebrities, influencers, or other people at school. Something for teens to be aware of is who are you doing this for? Why, and what is your motivation?”

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