The Vagenda

My Personal Quest to Get The London Look


When I was growing up I practised my make-up skills on a dismembered head I kept on my desk. She had luscious blonde locks, tarantula-like eye-lashes, and a wide-eyed, shocked, deer-in-the-headlights stare, possibly owing to the fact that she was wondering why she could not feel her legs. I splashed mascara, blusher, and lipstick over her face, teased her hair, and thought she looked stunning. In retrospect, what she actually looked like was a Disney Princess who had been put through the Tim Burton finishing school. With clumpy, thick black mascara melting into garish electric blue eye shadow and cheeks rouged postbox red, she was poised to star in a clown porn film rather than throw a leather jacket over her shoulder, turn awkwardly to the camera and tell us all through an impossibly glossy, digitally-enhanced pout to “Get The London Look.”

But I was a little girl and yet to become familiar with the old adage ‘less is more’ – which can apply to many things in life, apart from bank balances and penises (with the latter, I jest). Therefore, the more make-up I could smear across the face of this body-less head, the more beautiful and feminine I thought she looked.

It is odd, really, that little girls are given plastic replica heads of women to play with when the subtext is the need to urgently perfect the art of self-grooming. If we started sending aspiring pianists prosthetic fingers in order to play Chopsticks there’s no doubt people would talk. And while it would be easy to dismiss the macabre thing as “just a toy,” what its existence actually does is indoctrinate girls from a young age to believe that in order to be considered attractive we must invest heavily in cosmetics, conceal any “blemishes” (which includes the natural pigmentation of the skin, FYI gals), and obscure our appearance as and when necessary to conform to very narrow notions of arbitrary western female beauty. This is all quite a loaded message for a toy, especially one which does not come with a disclaimer warning about the incubation of self-loathing and damage to self-esteem. The potential for choking aside, this would not happen with good ol’ trusty Buckaroo. Nope, you know where you are with an over-excited celebrity donkey.

This, combined with the Barbie dolls being bandied around the playground, made me believe that on turning 16 I would automatically sprout thick golden glossy tresses, perfectly round, symmetrical breasts, and develop the ability to apply eye-liner with a quick flick of the wrist whilst lounging on the veranda of a Dreamhouse. I thought that, through some sort of osmotic process, as I got older I would automatically acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become an elegant, glamorous woman, equipped with all the necessary paraphernalia: shoulder pads, high-heels, handbags with loose change collecting in the bottom, and a penchant for a good Chardonnay. However, more than a decade later, I can tell you that I have never dated a construction worker, an astronaut or a cowboy, my heels (on the odd occasion worn) are very rarely more fierce than a kitten, I don’t like wine, and it is more likely that I would be able to pull full equestrian wear or a ballerina’s tutu out of the bag at short notice than I could perfect the natural make-up look or be convincingly smoky of the eye.

While peers in school started experimenting with make-up during our early teens, and would not leave the house without first spreading generous lashings of foundation and lipstick over themselves, I could never really be bothered besides one brief flirtation with a Collection 2000 blue mascara in the late 1990s. At the time I disliked the feel on my skin, and I always felt bored when applying it, aware that I could be doing other things. If truth be told, I also lacked the creative flair to be good at this stuff, and more often than not my face looked like I’d had a good go on it with a Spirograph.

As I became older, I began to wear it on special occasions, largely because I felt it was expected. Now when I attend interviews I turn up with a face that looks something like a rushed amateur piece of artwork (traditional, not postmodern. I don’t fashion a tin of Campbell’s Soup on my forehead) because I am fully aware of the importance employers place on appearance.

For women, “making the effort” is synonymous with wearing make-up. This so-called “making the effort” requires us to get up that extra half an hour early, pull out the necessary tools, and trowel various substances on to our faces to fill in the gaps and cover the cracks, until we look like newly rendered walls. We are not ready until we actually resemble distorted, kindly-filtered reflections, more walking Instagram photographs of ourselves rather than organic creatures with the capacity to crease and sweat and blush.

We are told to wear make-up not to change our appearances, but to enhance our best featuresL that to do so will increase our professional, romantic, and social desirability. We are provided with no explanation as to why our appearances need to be enhanced in the first place; why a man can attend an interview or turn up to speed date with an acne-scarred face and not worry that it will hugely hinder his chances (which it shouldn’t), while a woman would have to pay for a pyrotechnic display involving fireworks, smoke, and flashing lights in order to distract attention from her perceived “flaws.” No one has offered a legitimate explanation as to why the ability to effectively pluck an eye brow is deemed so important. It may increase our so-called “erotic capital,” but at the same time this is just a theory that tacitly accepts the treatment of the female body as a commodity instead of challenging rigid, inflexible ideas of what constitutes beauty and therefore the pressures we face to emulate it. It is not that men are completely free of these pressures – in fact, the 21st century has been particularly bad for them – but it is undeniable that the vast majority of products out there claiming to offer a short-cut to perfection are aimed at women, and we are under much more unforgiving scrutiny on a continual basis than our male counterparts.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say I’m entirely against cosmetics. I am not advocating some sort of make-up amnesty, girls and women being herded through metal detectors in public places, patted down and thrown in the cells if they are found to be concealing a top-of-the-range Bobbie Brown eyelash curler (currently priced at no less than £15, which I’ll think you’ll agree is the real crime here). Admittedly my own technique has never really developed, and I have the knack of looking like I’ve spent eight hours in full glittery drag on the top shelf of an oven before I have even left the house, but I do still wear the slap on occasion. Indeed, there are also some events where making-up the face seems to be so imperative that to not load up concealer, foundation, and bronzer would be tantamount to turning up with your muff hanging out (weddings would be one such event where it would be prudent not to have either a naked eye or exposed genitalia on show). So, like most people, I go ahead and do it.

But where is the real money in beauty products? You only need to open your nearest magazines or turn on the nearest TV to see. Female celebrities endorse pricey products, participating in split screens showing before and after shots. Red blotches, under-eye bags, and slight wrinkles are magically replaced with clear, porcelain skin. We are effectively told that we should be repulsed by our own bodies; that we are inadequate and in need of repair, when the truth is discoloration here, the odd mole there, is just part of being human. So far, so tediously normal. If you don’t have the “London Look” like them, you’re not trying hard enough.

To really “Get The London Look”, though, you need to do more than apply a bit of lippy. You need to be in the dressing room at the crack of a sparrow’s fart being basted in gloss by a yawning woman before being powdered down and strategically placed in front of a green screen under a series of flattering lights. I don’t know about you, but I do not think that employing these resources on a daily basis would be practical for the modern woman. The benchmark as to whether something can be scheduled is usually whether or not you have time to learn the nuances of tantric sex: if you cannot invest time indulging in traditional Indian and Buddhist sexual practices, then you don’t have time to humour a production team working on a national ad campaign who holster make-up brushes like guns and emit cinematic horror movie screams if you happen to get lipstick on your teeth.

I cannot speak for everyone, but for me, and many women I see during rush hour suggest that the actual London look is fairly bare-faced during the week as we concentrate on our professional commitments rather than twirling around in multi-coloured garbs, grabbing on to virtual prison bars, and kissing the air. The London look is hair tied back into buns reminiscent of Mrs Doubtfire so it is out of our way when we type. The London look is conservative clothes and comfortable trainers worn during the daily commute, with office shoes kept in a rucksack to slip on, Cinderella-style, before we start the daily grind. The London look is busy and pensive and determined, juggling five or six things while meandering through the busy streets and smiling wryly as your concentration is broken by some bloke who shouts over, “Cheer up love, it may never happen.” It is very different to The Look being touted by Rimmel and, as much as I do enjoy a good bit of advertising, I am sceptical about the powers of a lipstick or mascara to transform my London look or my lifestyle.

Advertising executives working for cosmetic industries do us a double disservice. They effectively exploit our physical insecurities while simultaneously claiming to offer a solution akin to magic fairy dust which boosts their profits. The worse they make us feel, the better their bonuses. Make-up in and of itself is not the problem. If it was the case that we could just dip and dab the powder brush without feeling the obligation to do so, it would be fun to have materials at our disposal which could potentially make us look like absolutely anything or anyone in the world, should we feel so inclined. As it is, I’m failing to feel the excitement – even though I’d really, really like to.

-Ms Ordinary blogs here

11 thoughts on “My Personal Quest to Get The London Look

  1. I was always too much of a tomboy to want one of those creepy make-up heads, and remained so throughout my teens when lot of girls were learning to use it. Consequently I’m still rubbish at applying it and feel so uncomfortable and un-confident in my appearance that I still don’t bother with it for interviews and so on. It’s their loss, eh?

  2. I never wear makeup under any circumstances, weddings, interviews and white tie balls included, and… most of the time no one even notices. Seriously.

    Much as I’d love to think I’m some sort of astonishing natural beauty with porcelain skin and impeccable contouring, I am not. Therefore I can only assume that the same industries that exist to sell us solutions to problems they created have not only made us feel crap about ourselves, but have also made us believe that others pay far, far more attention to our appearance than they actually do.

  3. I’ve always struggled to work out what I think about the make up issue. It seems unfair to me both that society expects women to wear make up, but also that men are largely expected not to.

    In general I don’t wear make up on a daily basis, but it’s always nice to have the option. We live in a world where, much as we fight against it, appearance is considered very important. As women we have much more licence to alter or enhance our appearance whilst still remaining in the normal ‘rules’ of society, which is a plus. However this obviously comes with the expectation that as women we will take advantage of this and spend valuable time painting stuff on to our faces which could be used for sleeping/eating/anything else.

    Really, wouldn’t it be great if anyone of any or no gender could feel free to have blue eyelashes one day if they wanted to? As you said, make up should be an art form not an obligation!

  4. Due to a problem with one of my eyes, which is made infinitely worse by wearing make-up, about a year ago I stopped wearing make-up to work at all. I still have to explain that I’m not ill, tired or have been crying (THIS IS JUST MY NORMAL FACE PEOPLE!), and female colleagues still tell me how ‘brave’ I am for being consistently ‘bare-faced’.

    This makes me sad. Since when was it considered ‘brave’ to just leave your appearance in its natural form?!

  5. “To really “Get The London Look”, though, you need to do more than apply a bit of lippy. You need to be in the dressing room at the crack of a sparrow’s fart being basted in gloss by a yawning woman before being powdered down and strategically placed in front of a green screen under a series of flattering lights. I don’t know about you, but I do not think that employing these resources on a daily basis would be practical for the modern woman.” – I love this! Haha brilliant! I love make up but I like it more for expression really and I don’t wear it all the time. I’ve deliberately not worn make up to interviews and on dates sometimes. I hate that it takes up time to think of that type of internal debate though, the “will I wear it or will that look ott or should I not wear it and have people potentially think I’m sick” (I’m very pale with dark circles under my eyes, naturally). I actually said aloud on my third date with a guy recently, “why do I even wear make up?” and he said, “yeah, why do girls wear make up?”.

  6. I have a love/hate relationship with makeup. I love looking at it, the colours, the textures…they always make me feel like I have the potential to be an artist. But more often than not I don’t wear makeup on an every day basis. But like the comments above I like to have the option if I fancy it, or if I feel like experimenting. Ultimately I guess, I’m happy enough with the way my face looks without it, even though I have ‘nasty red patches’ as someone once kindly pointed out. *No really? I wonder why I never noticed those on my own face?!* So if I fancy an extra half hour of sleep I’m not going to stress over not having time to put it on.

  7. (Oops, I wrote an essay)

    I loved make up. I couldn’t wait til I finally got a doll-head. It smelled great, I didn’t know what to do with the hair, but i could put lipstick on it, and it looked grown-up.
    I don’t ever remember being “bad” at make up, perhaps no one has really been brave enough to tell me (my boyfriend tells me that at least one time he was taken aback at my make-up, so that’s the sole spot on my otherwise “perfect” record.)
    I absolutely delighted when we were allowed to wear it to school during sixth form, I revelled in wearing red lipstick because I could and it was exciting, I had two make up bags and it didn’t feel like enough, let alone excessive. I needed more colours, more variety, more tools.

    Since discovering feminism, I’ve worn it a lot less. I still enjoy becoming a painting for special occassions, but I now also enjoy revelling in my humanness the rest of the time, the act of not wearing make -p has become to me a symbolic, political act of resistance and a message to my few-years-ago self: It’s okay not to “make an effort”, and in fact, the fact you feel obliged to “make an effort” wastes a lot of your time and energy for something that doesn’t and can’t last.

    Constantly creating fashion portrait versions of myself was fun, but kind of exhausting: it makes the real you inadequate by comparison.

    I’d love to wear make-up more now, but this message to myself and the public that I don’t believe I’m a work of art anymore is more important than my basic human vanity. It’s the same reason I deliberately don’t shave my armpits. I’ll shave when society stops saying I have to.

  8. I love wearing make up, and one of my male best friends does too. That being said I love sleeping. So it is not an everyday thing for me, if I have a little extra time in the mornings I’ll put makeup on because I think I’m pretty good at it, and I do consider it an art when I spend a lot of time on it. I can change my look depending on my mood and I think that’s so fun. I was never given a make up head as a young girl, the women in my family always encouraged me to love myself for who I am and I really do, I’m not a very insecure person but I think makeup might be the bet thing since sliced bread for me. However I understand what you’re saying and I completely agree that the cosmetics advertising world is dirty and fake.

  9. I still feel quite conflicted regarding make-up. I wear the basics (lip stain, mascara, eyeliner) when I can be bothered.
    There’s a part of me that wants to invest the time and money to create masks to suit my mood and outfit. The other part fiercely resents that it is a societal norm for women to invest their resources in presenting and beats the other part into submission.

  10. This article is SO shaming of women who wear makeup, I love makeup and even if I looked like a ‘clown who belongs in a porn film’ that is my choice

  11. Thank you for this article – it’s a well written and very thought provoking piece.

    I’m in my early 20s and I’m currently trying to wean myself off makeup. During the wonderful(ly terrible) years of teenage hormones, combined with glossy magazines and girls at college and uni who all seemed slimmer, prettier and much cooler than me, makeup became a refuge. My skin is challenging. My nose is very oily, but the rest of my face is dry. My cheeks have a touch of rosacea, and don’t get me started on spots. On top of that is the occasional bout of hereditary psoriasis (thanks dad) and blonde hair, which makes my eyelashes seem invisible without mascara and my eyes look really odd. For a long time I was convinced I needed to wear makeup, and I’m still stuck in that rut to a certain degree. I don’t think I’m naturally pretty, but somehow adding foundation, concealer, powder, eyeliner, mascara and eyeshadow makes me feel presentable.

    If I know I don’t need to leave the house on a particular day, that will be a no makeup day. If I’m going shopping, having lunch with friends or going to work, out comes the slap. In the last 6 months I’ve managed to go to work twice without wearing makeup. No one noticed, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. I’m gradually building up the courage to do that more often. I shouldn’t be ashamed of my natural face and hide it under layers of trickery and camouflage. It would be nice to get to the stage of wearing makeup because I want to, not because my brain tells me I have to.

    This article has really touched a nerve, and I’ll definitely keep it on hand to re-read whenever I need to convince myself that going ‘bare-faced’ is natural and completely acceptable. Thank you!!