Will knowing anything about the cosmetics women wear directly improve a man's life? Probably not, and they'll likely thank you to stay out of their stuff. But knowledge is power, and there's something to learn from this strange ritual, or at least it's worth knowing why your lady looks one way when you take her to bed and somehow completely different when she wakes up the next morning. What is this witchcraft? It's makeup, and frankly, it's really fucking weird.
In the most general sense, makeup is meant to "fix" areas of your face considered imperfect: Ruddy skin can be made smooth and even; beady eyes can be made larger; and high, arched cheekbones can be created where none existed before. It's commonly used to exaggerate (or enhance, if you will) features we are biologically predisposed to find attractive, some of which are considered universal: For instance, a symmetrical face and clear skin are prized in cultures across the globe, while studies show that men prefer full lips, small chins, and large eyes, all signifiers of higher estrogen levels, and therefore better health and stronger childbearing prospects. Cosmetics may date back to the Paleolithic era; early woman figured out pretty quickly that she might benefit from drawing attention away from her hulking brow ridge or vestigial cheek-tail and lead potential suitors' eyes to her pouty lips and radiant eyes instead.
Of course, we're less shallow these days, right? It would be easy to argue that the continued existence of makeup is just another example of the injurious rule of the all-powerful patriarchy, and that every time a woman pauses to re-apply her lipstick, one of her more forward-thinking comrades smashes into a glass ceiling and dies. But those ideas are equally misguided: Women wear makeup for themselves.
To many of us, makeup is more than just part of a rote morning routine, something you smear haphazardly across your face in your car while stopped at a traffic light or while waiting for your parole officer to come out of the bathroom. Often, it's a form of recreation—and art. While some cosmetics, like concealer, tend toward the utilitarian, there can be something deeply satisfying about spending hours workshopping, say, the perfect cat eye. In many cases, the process of "getting ready" is just that—a process. Taking the time to transition out of Cheeto-dusted sweatpants and into a bathed, dressed, perfumed, and, yes, "made up" adult human female can not only make you feel finished and self-assured, it also allows you the time to make the internal transformation from one's indoor self to the version more ready to face the public.
For my own entertainment, I polled some of my drunk male friends to gauge their knowledge of different products, before schooling them on how wrong they were. Here's a quick and dirty guide to everything you really need to know about the most basic makeup staples.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It creates a face for you to put your other face over," b/w "It keeps the building up. Why are you laughing?"
What It Actually Is: Foundation is a bottle of skin-colored paint that goes all over your face. Left untouched, most of our skin tends to be somewhat uneven, like the surface of the Appalachian Mountains or Mars. What we want is for our faces to look like the polished surface of the Gobi desert after a windstorm. Foundation smoothes over the cracks and crags and pine cones and black bears, leaving it looking even and finished. Successfully applied foundation should be invisible to the untrained eye, meaning that if looks cake-y or is of a clearly different shade than its wearer's neck, something has gone horribly awry.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It's the same as foundation," b/w "It goes on your face to cover the fucked-up parts."
What It Actually Is: Concealer can be shifty. Sometimes it looks like a gluestick the color of human skin, other times it comes in liquid form, and still other times it's a powder—all still the color of human skin. Occasionally it's green, because some smart-ass discovered that green is eerily effective in combatting the redness of pimples.
Think of concealer as spackle, a final assault against the spots so troublesome that even those desperate smears of foundation couldn't blot out. Most often, this means the heavy bags drooping under hungover eyes, or zits. Unlike foundation, which is essentially face paint, it's hard to fuck up concealer. More men should dabble in its curative properties, really. I'll say this: When someone inevitably dangles me over a pit of spitting, fiery lava and demands that I identify my favorite cosmetic, I will probably go with concealer. It is a godsend.
What Dudes Think It Is: "Is that the stuff you put on your face with the cotton swab?" b/w "How this is different from the stuff in a compact?"
What It Actually Is: Powder comes in two forms, loose and pressed. Loose powder comes in a box and is roughly the consistency of flour. It's applied using a makeup brush, and is liable to spill all over hell if nudged by even the gentlest breeze. Pressed powder comes in a compact, and is applied using a makeup sponge.
Do you know what a "T-zone" is? No, it's not a sex thing, unless you ... make it one. It's the region of your face that spans your forehead, your nose and your chin. It secretes more oil than the rest of your face; oil which needs to be blotted up lest you look like a glistening slice of bacon in all your selfies. Powder will do that, but beware—a too-heavy hand will give you the dreaded cake-y effect.
What Dudes Think It Is: "Coloring to make you look not dead."
What It Actually Is: Blush is always some variant of pink or brown. It exists in powder form or, for the bolder among us, "cream," which looks sort of like a dainty compact filled with putty.
Once you have successfully painted the imperfections out of your face, you tend to look monochromatic and a little like a corpse. Blush is here to restore your complexion's youthful vitality, the one you accidentally covered up while trying to disappear the acne scars.
Our current standards of beauty dictate that women perpetually look slightly flushed and sun-kissed, ever fresh from picking apples in the orchard, not staring into the stultifying glare of the computer screen or wiping the baby's spit-up from inside our shoes. Blush makes our sallow cheeks look rosy, American, and just a little consumptive. It goes across our cheekbones with the goal of making them look sharp and well-defined, because round, puffy faces are really only becoming on babies, and sagging cheeks are the mark of senescence. We will work our entire lives to look like neither.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It makes your skin look like Hulk Hogan's?"
What It Actually Is: Like blush, bronzer often comes in a compact or tube. Once you're on to this stuff, Amateur Hour is over. On women with pale complexions, bronzer creates the illusion of having a tan, and for women with darker skin, it further plays up the contours in our faces. But the hazards are many, and for pale women, the line between "bronzed goddess" and "terra cotta pot" is a fine one indeed. Fun fact: Coco Chanel is credited with popularizing the "tan" look, so any poorly applied bronzer you see in the wild is her fault. Also, skin cancer.
What Dudes Think It Is: "Lipstick is lipstick."
What It Actually Is: Lipstick generally arrives in a tube—it goes on your lips, and occasionally on your teeth. Sometimes it's blue, but generally, it's some shade of red: Cherry-red lipstick, for instance, has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years.
But why would anyone want to paint their lips red? One study found women wearing red lipstick got larger tips from male customers, and a separate study found that men's eyes tend to stay trained on a woman's lips for longer if she's wearing red lipstick—and without lipstick, noses drew more attention. Also? It looks cool as hell.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It makes the eye shit stick out."
What It Actually Is: Eyeshadow is a vast paint palette that caters to your eyelids. Scholars have dedicated entire careers to analyzing the nuances of which shades should be applied where (brow ridge, crease, forehead, etc.) to achieve different levels of depth or "smokiness," but there is no need to concern ourselves with that here. Rather, just remember that, like a poltergeist, eyeshadow can take many forms: neutral, subtle browns all the way to ill-advised blues and purples that can sweep all the way to your eyebrows. A good example of bad-assery in eye shadow is Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan, because if there's one thing to which every woman aspires, it's for her life to resemble the plot of an Aronofsky film.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It's just another one of those stupid things, because Big Eyeliner."
What It Actually Is: A pencil, or, in the case of liquid liner, a tube with a thin, black brush. Eyeliner almost always comes in dark hues: blacks, browns, or, if you are reading this in the late '90s, metallic blue. It goes around the edge of your eye.
While eyeshadow makes eyes appear bigger, eyeliner helps delineate where the eye itself is. The best way of doing so is by circling it. (In more professional parlance, eyeliner accentuates the eye.) Since your eyes are invariably the best part of your face, we generally want as much emphasis on them as possible. This is why we draw lines around them, and not, say, our noses and ears.
What Dudes Think It Is: "It makes eyelashes thick and dark and like there are less of them."
What It Actually Is: A tube, from which springs a small black brush that looks like a tiny fake Christmas tree. Intended to darken and elongate eyelashes, mascara is part of the crack team dedicated to combatting looking "washed out." You might not think of having thin, blonde eyelashes is a big deal, until you see someone without eyelashes. Mascara, along with eyeliner, helps to darken women's features for the exotic, stylized Egyptian effect we're all apparently supposed to crave. You know who doesn't have eyelashes? The Mona Lisa. And how many times each week do you find yourself saying, "Man, I would smash the Mona Lisa"? You see my point.
That's it! That's all you need to know about makeup. Now get out there and tell your wife she's beautiful, and that you can barely even see her cheek-tail.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Image by Sam Woolley.