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Beauty, Bumble And Beyond – Is A Make-Up Free First Date The Final Frontier?

Recently, my friend – who we’ll call Amy – went on a Bumble date. It went something like this: initial attraction, right swipe, some chat, a date, a kiss, and then… nothing. Ghosted. So far, so 2018.

Until she WhatsApped her match – who we’ll call Sam – to see whether a second date was on the cards. She’s persistent, our Amy. ‘It’s just that you had the audacity to turn up without any make-up on. It’s like you couldn’t even be bothered to make an effort,’ he replied. What the..? Needless to say: that was the end of Sam. And is it really, in the vein of a Jane Austen novel, that audacious to head out to attract a mate with your own unadorned face?

The collective outrage this story has garnered from every angle (colleagues, friends, people on the bus) very much points to the obvious misogyny at play, yet it haunts me slightly as I contemplate my own curated Bumble profile. Liking, as I do, to believe the best in humankind, I trust I’m unlikely to run into a specimen like Sam. But I can’t help wondering: do my six best profile photos faithfully represent an authentic version of me IRL? And, even as someone with the most minimal of make-up routines, would I ever date bare-faced?

A staggering majority of us now wear make-up regularly, with 83 per cent of women wearing it every day, according to a 2O17 Mintel survey. This, perhaps, goes part way to explaining why a lack of make-up, rather than a surplus of it, stands out more in the dating landscape today. Indeed, of more than 1,5OO women surveyed, 72 per cent seemed to view make-up as a vital part of online dating, claiming that they would ‘never’ go on a first date without make-up.

While wearing red lipstick on a date is hardly a modern phenomenon, this raises the question: do the contents of our bathroom cabinets now carry greater significance, as we aim to live up to the ‘perfect’ versions of ourselves that we project to our online matches?

The London-based psychologist Suzy Reading, who specialises in wellbeing, points out the role that make-up plays in the specific context of dating. ‘It’s about making the most of our features and being confident that we are presenting our best self. Make-up boosts self-esteem, helping us feel ready and poised for the demands of the task at hand.’

The crux of this, of course, lies in the confidence-building aspect of make-up – ask any woman why she’s spent 15 minutes this morning individually pencilling eyebrow hairs onto her face, and she’ll tell you it’s for herself. And, while the same Mintel survey tells us that 64 per cent of women attest to wearing make-up to feel confident, more than two in five also do so to feel ‘attractive’.

‘I think women have more realistic expectations of other women

Despite the age-old wisdom that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it transpires that female attractiveness can – supposedly – be scientifically analysed. Biologically speaking, the contrast between lips and the surrounding skin, or dark eyes and the rest of the face, directly correlate with ‘perceived attractiveness’, as does the appearance of skin texture.

The idea of a holy trinity of socially recognised beauty – lips, eyes and skin – is supported by consumer reports, which show that foundation, mascara and lipstick are consistently the most purchased products in the cosmetics market. So, in the most basic evolutionary sense, make-up’s role is clear: it’s there to help us attract a potential mate.

However, we thankfully no longer live in a time when you fancy someone based entirely on their presumed fertility. Do the people we’re dating care about the degree of eye-to-face contrast? ‘By modern society’s terms, make-up is an indication of effort being made, but I don’t think I’d expect a girl to wear make-up on a date,’ says Charlie, a colleague at Esquire. ‘I’d hope that she would just wear as much or as little as she wanted.

I might even be a bit put off if they were overly made up. Surely first dates are the most important time to be as much “yourself” as possible?’ The caveat to this statement is that Charlie works in fashion (a business dominated by women), has a long-term girlfriend, and spends his nine-to-five thinking mainly about style, so he can’t be said to wholly represent the UK’s population of straight males.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the case of my friend Amy, the man in question was also something of an anomaly, or a less polite word beginning with ‘a’. The general population, however, can give a pretty good indication and, when surveyed, 71 per cent claimed they ‘wouldn’t notice’ if a woman turned up to a date bare-faced.

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The male gaze has been endlessly picked over, but what about the female gaze? Emmanuelle – who’s bisexual – says, ‘I wear make-up for me. I think on a first date, I’d do the same make-up whether I was dating a man or a woman, but I’d probably relax my make-up routine more quickly if I were continuing to see a girl. I think women have more realistic expectations of other women.’

My friend Steph, who exclusively dates women, agrees. ‘There’s less pressure when you date women, because they know what you look like without make-up on, naturally. They understand the transformative nature of make-up first-hand.’ Whereas with men, Steph says it’s the opposite: ‘Men have this misconception that women look a certain way without make-up, but when they see you without it, they’re kind of startled.’

‘For some trans women, it’s survival they’re seen with make-up

‘I honestly wouldn’t think anything of whether or not a woman wore make-up to a date,’adds Emmanuelle. ‘In some contexts, if you can see that someone’s put more make-up on than usual, you can see they’ve made more effort and want to look especially good. You might pick up on something like that.’ This is a sentiment echoed by 41 per cent of men surveyed, who said that although make-up, or a lack of it, wouldn’t particularly bother them on a date, they would view it as an indication of a degree of effort.

And while that effort might be either to impress a date or to bolster self-esteem, the ritual of getting ready can carry even more significance for some women. ‘It gives me a sense of stepping into myself,’ says Rhyannon Styles, former ELLE columnist and author of The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is, chronicling her transition. ‘I view make-up as an accessory,’ she tells me. ‘In lots of ways, for a trans woman make-up is a way to represent your gender; it’s a good signifier to people that you’re a woman.’

This is not singular thinking in the trans community – in fact, perceptual psychologist Richard Russell studied the existence of sex differences in the facial contrasts of men and women, and found that the degree to which facial features contrast with surrounding skin influences the viewer’s perception of masculinity or femininity. This reaffirms the notion that women are often seen as ‘more feminine’ if they darken their eyes or redden their lips.

For Rhyannon, it goes further. ‘For me, when I was dating, it almost acted like war paint, because when I had make-up on, I felt like I had a layer of protection. I’m fortunate that I am now able to go bare-faced and still have feminine attributes. But for some trans women, it’s absolute survival that they are seen with a face of make-up, because without it they’d feel like people would only see their masculinity and not their femininity.’

‘War paint’ is a phrase floating in the foremost realms of my consciousness when, four days later, I find myself heading for a post-work drink with my Bumble match Alex. In contrast to my profile, in which I am golden-hour glow-y (thank you, Guerlain), I am not only make-up-free, I am box-fresh, post-facial bare. The facial is not an advantage: rarely do I find that they leave you radiant in the direct aftermath, but rather, vaguely oily. To my mind, I look 12. I feel so vastly, woefully under-prepared that I type out my cancellation message (and delete it again) three times.

Of course, Alex doesn’t even seem to notice. At one point, I am so desperate for the poor man to comment on my bare face, I want to yell, ‘Look at me! No make-up! Look!’ But I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t make for a good date. Besides, it’s only under the harsh lighting of the women’s loos that I feel in need of a good colour corrector; at 23, it’s pretty difficult to look haggard in a dimly lit bar.

‘So would I date bare-faced next time? Not a problem’

Toying with the idea of asking Alex whether I look the same as in my pictures, I bottle it. Of course I look the same, just less filtered, perhaps, less golden, certainly, but isn’t Valencia really just concealer for the Instagram age? Alex himself is distinctly less chiselled than in his own photos, and yet all the more attractive for it. I arrive home (several glasses of wine later) wondering what all the fuss was about, and feeling mildly smug about the amount of cotton wool I won’t be needing to steal from my housemate tonight.

If the women in this piece, and my #nofilter experiment, have taught me anything, it’s that make-up’s real importance is entirely created by our own perceptions and expectations. So would I date bare-faced next time? Not a problem (sorry, Alex). And for the record, come the next morning (the effects of the facial somewhat negated by the cheap sauvignon), I was once again happily blending three shades of highlighter into my cupid’s bow with my pinkie. Because, date or no date, it makes me feel good, and that’s the joy of make-up.

This article appears in the November 2018 edition of ELLE UK. Subscribe here to make sure you never miss an issue.