Perfect, Pretty and Poised: The Hidden yet Visible World of the Gender Beauty Gap


Words || Aylish Dowsett

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, or so the saying goes. Attractiveness is subjective, prettiness means nought. But behind these romantic ideas hides stifling beauty standards which women are faced with every day. 

Clearly no one saw who was whispering to the beholder.   

Known by many names including the ‘grooming gap,’ and ‘the beauty expectation gap,’ the Gender Beauty Gap is a term used to describe the expectations placed on a woman’s appearance; in that, there is a significant gap between what men and women can look like. 

Take, for example, a man who looks a little bit untidy, with messy hair and unkempt clothes. You might think “oh he must be in a band,” or “he’s some cool hipster,” and maybe even “gosh, he looks so manly with that wild hair.” This, however, is a big no no for women. A scruffy appearance means you don’t take care of yourself and have most certainly lost the plot. But, in actual fact, we don’t look scruffy at all; we just couldn’t be bothered to put makeup on that morning.

Like many women, I have definitely felt societal pressures to look a certain way. Trends go in and out all the time, but I’m always aware that to look put together, I should be wearing makeup and form-fitting clothes. This fact is particularly evident when it comes to corporate environments, interviews, dates and any time we step within a metre of another human being. 

Don’t get me wrong – I love high waisted jeans and heels are great on the rare occasion, but the problem arises when I’m expected to wear these things, instead of it being a choice.

And this is what irks me.  

According to a 2016 study, Australian women spend $15 billion a year on grooming, whilst men spend a measly $7 billion. Yes, 7 billion is still a lot but that difference is huge. Think of all the things we could be doing with that extra cash! But cash isn’t the only thing we’re spending – it’s our precious time too. 

Journalist Tracey Spicer says that women spend on average 27 minutes each day getting ready in the morning. This, scarily, totals up to 10 full working days over the expanse of a year. 

“Over our lives, on average, women will take 3,276 hours in grooming; for men it’s 1,092 [hours],” says Tracey. 

So looking the part is expected of us, but in a world that rewards beautiful women, and belittles ‘plain’ ones, this can be difficult. 

“[I was told to] put on some blush for work,” says Yumi Stynes, author, podcaster and radio presenter. At 19-years-old, Yumi was working as a chemist shop assistant and was questioned about her appearance. “Use some rouge and some eyeliner… you want the customers to look at you and think that you’re using the products we sell, maybe even want to imitate you. I felt both mortified and flattered,” she tells the ABC. 

Aside from makeup, women are also expected to change their hair with dyes and chemical treatments. A man with grey hair is seen as a ‘silver fox,’ but on a woman it means that she no longer cares about her appearance. Author, former model and human rights activist Tara Moss says women of colour are particularly targeted. “Curly hair, and especially naturally curly hair, must be straightened and ‘tamed’ to look more professional,” she says. “Women’s grooming is… often an expectation, with career consequences for those who don’t ‘look the part.’”

Although we’re expected to look a certain way, apparently there is a fine line between looking good, but not too good. I’ve most certainly felt this pressure and have worried that people will judge me for my makeup choices. Marketing officer Kate has also experienced this concern. After uploading an image of herself to the internal system at her work, she was told by a female manager that her photo looked “too glam.” 

“She said ‘People may think you are just about makeup and looks and not really take you seriously,’” she tells the ABC. Kate, understandably, was taken aback and the comments affected her greatly. 

“It impacted my mental health… I couldn’t wait for the day to leave my job.” 

Sadly, this treatment doesn’t surprise me. We have to look good, but not too good, otherwise people will judge us. A study completed by Harvard university in 2016 confirms this problem, finding that women who wear some makeup are deemed as more “likeable and competent, but those with ‘glamorous makeup’ are not.” Don’t wear enough makeup and people will think you’re not qualified to do your job. But wear too much and you’re seen as incompetent and untrustworthy. We really can’t win, can we? 

So, what can we do about the Gender Beauty Gap? Well, the best thing is to stay informed, support other women and be aware of your actions. 

I wanted to write this article to educate other women about this issue, which I knew existed, but didn’t know its name and how much of an impact it has on us. Beauty standards will continue to change and evolve, but with awareness, we can learn to recognise when we’re playing to them or acting for ourselves. The next time you reach for your makeup, stop and think to yourself “Am I doing this because I want to, or is it just what people expect me to do?” Thinking this through will help you make better, informed decisions.

But remember to also have some fun! Makeup and clothing are great tools for self-expression and I completely endorse experimenting with your style (I know I have and will continue to do so). So wear those high heels, rock your natural hair and amaze people with your perfect winged eyeliner – only if YOU want to.