by Patricia Siswandjo on

From Mondays to Thursdays, I have to squeeze past disgruntled commuters in order to get off the train on my way to work. Every Friday, however, these commuters part like the Red Sea and I breeze past them.

It’s the same crowded, rush-hour timings and at the same stations on all the days, but with just one difference on Friday: I have makeup on, a nice dress and heels on, unlike on the other days when I have a bare face, loose dress and sneakers.

About six months ago, for the sake of my skin and the environment, I decided to reduce the days I wore makeup, and stopped buying fast-fashion. And in that short period, I’ve noticed that when I am better groomed, I am treated better.

I get attention. Store proprietors are more likely to assist me, commuters are more willing to give way, and passers-by smile back at me. If I go without, I become almost invisible to others.

But unfortunately, it’s not just me – it appears that society, as a whole, rewards those who are conventionally attractive.

Looking good pays off – literally

If you’re a woman and you decide not to wear makeup to work, you’re probably getting paid less. This sociological study published in the journal, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, found that, across the board, “physically attractive” individuals earn more than average-looking ones.

Helena Rubinstein, dubbed the woman who invented beauty, once said: “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones.”

Which suggests you can work at being beautiful. Small, single-lidded eyes? Double eyelid tape and circle lens. Don’t like your face shape? Contour.

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This mantra, or idea that any and every woman can “put on her face”, is prevalent worldwide and encourages women to spend countless hours and dollars on their grooming.

In South Korea, the beauty capital of the world, beauty regimes commonly require women to spend hours applying makeup or carrying out lengthy skincare routines that involve 10 steps or more, each day. And wearing spectacles are a no-no, even though 70 per cent of South Korea’s population under 30 are reported to be nearsighted.

And it doesn’t just end at time and money. A third of South Korean women have gone for plastic surgery to enhance their appearance – that’s a third of them who have opted for pain and risk, simply to enhance their looks.

In Singapore, that trend is gaining traction. A third of Singaporean youths say plastic surgery is OK, and in recent years, more Singaporeans are turning to plastic surgery. This starts from young, as more teenagers are getting plastic surgery, say surgeons, with the youngest patient being a girl who was just 12 years old when she went under the knife.

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These days, people have also turned to non-surgical options such as Instagram-advertised beauty fads – from appetite suppressant lollipops, diet tea, which is essentially just flavoured laxative water, to ‘waist trainers’, or modern day corsets – many of which have not been cleared by any regulating bodies.

My friends and I have tried these fads and none of them have worked in the long run for any of us. All they’ve done is painfully reinforce the fact that we don’t look the way we imagine we should.

I’m not proud to admit that when I was a younger, more impressionable teenager, this pressure resulted in eating disorders and an expensive obsession with makeup and clothes.

So it’s no secret that putting people under immense pressure to look a certain way affects their mental health. Linking one’s looks to one’s worth is a dangerous, toxic mentality, I feel.

Why should our worth be tied to our appearance?

I used to waste loads of energy daily worrying about being pretty. These days, with flat shoes, comfortable clothes, and glasses instead of contact lenses, I find it easier to hunker down and focus on work.

In fact, high achievers like Mark Zuckerberg with his grey tee and fuss-free hairstyle to scruffy Silicon Valley geniuses have shown that success does not have a dress code.

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However, I’m not trying to incite an anti-grooming or anti-makeup riot – I still wear makeup for dates and dinners. I just don’t want to feel pressured to wear makeup on days I don’t feel like it. But I don’t feel I should be treated differently on days I go makeup-free.

And I’m not saying people should stop focusing on their personal grooming completely. Some things, like cleanliness and dental hygiene, are a must. But hours of vanity work, shopping for apparel, expensive and potentially life-threatening elective surgery, is unnecessary.

Unless your job requires it – there are some industries like marketing or the arts where there is a premium on appearance – people should be allowed to groom themselves only if they want to, and not be penalised or seen as lazy if they don’t.

Are there advantages to being beautiful?

While it appears beautiful people are perceived as more likeable and trustworthy, and are more persuasive, being beautiful isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

Women who are dolled up on a night out would notice men opening doors for them or buying them drinks at a bar. I get that, too, and it might sound like a big upside – until I consider that they are doing it because they want something from me. Am I flattered or do I feel desirable? No. It makes me feel objectified.

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Kristin Donnelly, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of California, San Diego, says: “If you’ve gone your whole life with this reward structure, that you’re constantly told you’re attractive and so much of your self-worth is tied into your appearance, that can be a dangerous thing.”

The truth is, people like good-looking people. It’s an inescapable truth that we judge others by the way they look.

But, according to a study by McGill University, people who were told to try to make a good impression – be it through positive body language or being affable and polite – were viewed more confidently and positively, independent of their attractiveness.

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So instead of worrying so much about how you look, worry instead about how you present yourself. That, rather than the way you look, would be a better indicator of who you are. And if focusing on how you present yourself includes some time spent on makeup and grooming, then well and good as long as it is not the only thing you’re focusing on.

Because beauty is just skin deep, after all.