Monday, January 25, 2010

All Made Up and Everywhere on the Go

Perhaps it’s just me, but does anyone else notice ever more women applying make-up on trains, subways and buses? And does anyone else find this rude?

Why rude? We all know that urban dwellers must get used to the anonymity of crowds or else go a little batty. That means learning to ignore whole classes of behavior (people talking to their shoes, for example) and behavior in ways one would never think to behave in other circumstances. We observe an implicit contract in crowds whereby I’m not rude in failing to say hello to the people I pass each day walking between Dupont Circle and Rhode Island Avenue, and they aren’t rude not to say hello to me. It’s quite enough that we’ve reached a stage in social evolution where we no longer assume all strangers to be threats—real progress, the anthropologists tell us, as human affairs go.

But the acquired ability to mutually ignore one another in crowded settings only works because it’s non-discriminatory: We could care less about each other equally. When a woman dons make-up in a subway car, however, she says, in effect: “I care what some others think about my looks, and so take some trouble to make myself attractive, but you’re not among those I care about. Indeed, I care so little that I think nothing of making you an involuntary witness to a preparation designed for the benefit of others.” That’s discriminatory, therefore rude.

Of course, the proliferation of public make-up artists pales besides the most egregious current form of public rudeness: cell phone chatter breaking out in confined spaces. But this isn’t arguable: There is broad, though obviously not yet universal, agreement about not inflicting half a cell phone conversation on innocent bystanders (or bysitters, if you’re fortunate enough to get a seat) who are trying to read, work a sudoku puzzle or decide what to do about lunch. The cell phone crisis probably explains why, when I’ve expressed consternation over female make-up artists acting out in public, some have brusquely dismissed my complaint.

“What do you care?” says my reality-check of a wife, who never applies make-up in public (and rarely does so in private, for that matter). “You don’t know them, they don’t know you, and what difference does it make compared to that horrible man on the bus yakking all the time on his cell phone about his damned show dogs?” (There is such a horrible man, it’s true.)

But, I tell her, one form of rudeness does not excuse another. I’m not just picking on women either. If I saw a man intently styling his hair on a subway car, I’d think the same thing. If I saw a fellow pull out tools to give himself a manicure on the bus, I’d move as far from him as possible. If I saw a dude click on an electric razor to trim his mustache on an airplane, I’d probably lock myself in the little excuse for a toilet they have in economy class and stay there until we landed.

None of this ever happens, however. I’ve never seen a guy do any of these things. We men may surreptitiously inspect a nostril now and again while we’re out and about, or maybe scratch something. But the closest we, here in Washington at least, ever come to putting on make-up in public is a rapid sun-screen slather on our nose and neck around the swimming pool, or maybe while watching the Washington Nationals baseball club from the bleachers during a day game.

As with any form of rudeness, women applying make-up in public spaces comes in different degrees of offense. There are three such degrees.

By far the most common violation concerns lipstick. In a standard third-degree offense, a woman will open her purse, pull out a shiny cylindrical harquebus and a small compact, flip open the mirror on the compact and set to painting. This operation is mostly unexceptional, except at the end when the woman will usually sit back a bit from the mirror, lift her head ever so slightly, mash her lips together and then seem to pucker up and gently kiss the air in front of her. All the while she is peering into the little mirror as if saying to herself, urging hope to vanquish uncertainty, “Oh, you gorgeous dame, you.”

I suppose this maneuver is supposed to even out the lipstick at the top of the lips and at the corners of the mouth. But it looks slightly balmy, as any mildly lascivious self-regarding pantomime is bound to do.

As a rule, a lipstick artist can finish her work in only two or three minutes. Get caught up in some book and you miss the whole thing. But if you don’t miss it, this is rude—though it can also be mildly entertaining, depending on the woman, if your taste runs to John Waters films.

Beyond mere lipstick is the application of powder and sometimes rouge. The compact comes out again, but so does a flat round pad about the size of a silver dollar pancake that the woman uses to apply some powdery substance to, as best I can tell, every skin surface she can locate from the neck up. The act itself resembles auto-massage, and the expression on the transgressor’s face—especially as the application of the substance in question requires the soft closing of the eyes as the pad approaches them—is unmistakably sensual. With lipstick application thrown in, a second-degree powder violation can exceed four or even five minutes in duration. So this is very rude.

The first-degree offense is the full make-up monty. Beyond lipstick and powder it entails eye shadow, eye-liner, mascara applied on the eyelashes with a kooky-looking little brush and—yes, I once actually saw this on Amtrak (more of which below)—eyebrow plucking! On the train I have also seen women painting their fingernails; the odor is enough to melt the icing off your breakfast Danish.

The full make-up monty can take up to and sometimes beyond fifteen minutes on a serious commute, during which time a determined make-up woman manages to pretend that no one else is anywhere near her. It is, of course, very, very rude.

Aside from its duration, the rudeness of public make-up offenses varies with propinquity to the transgressor. If I’m sitting right next to a make-up artist on a train or bus, that feels much ruder than if the offender is three seats away on the other side of the aisle. But what happened last month on a train from Washington to New York was by far the most egregious episode I have ever encountered: a full make-up monty at 19 inches and closing.

I boarded the 10:10 headed for Penn Station, and was alone until a young woman—no wedding ring, probably on the not-yet side of thirty years—sat down next to me at the BWI airport stop. Then, somewhere north of Baltimore, she began her make-up session, a rare full monty lacking only the pungency of fingernail polish. Her order of battle was impressive, as was her gear. She hauled out a black leather make-up kit larger than a construction worker’s lunchbox, inside of which was a colorfully diverse collection of frankly I-don’t-know-what. The inside top of the kit contained an inset mirror, so both her hands were free to work.

And work she did, whipping out one specialized tool after another. She was serious yet graceful as her art unfurled, all the way into and out of Philadelphia. And then—the coup d’grace—she plucked her eyebrows. Not a lot of them, mind you, but any is altogether too many at close quarters on Amtrak.

I didn’t say a word. I wanted to, but then I might have been rude. (What would John Waters have done?) By the time she finished we were nearly in New Jersey. She left the train at Newark.

The point? Just this: If you are a woman who paints and puckers in public spaces, please consider that putting on make-up is all of a part with dressing, and so ought to remain a private matter from start to finish. You wouldn’t think of putting on your blouse or your stockings in a subway car or a bus, would you? So why your lipstick or mascara?

There was a time when the only women who painted themselves in public did it on street corners and in bars. It was considered a naughtily sexy thing to do, which was in fact closely related to its most common actual purpose. But at least it had a purpose. The purpose of public making-up now seems to be no purpose at all, except perhaps to save time in mostly absentminded fits of multi-tasking. We all sympathize: It’s always been hard to be a working woman, it’s not gotten any easier and time is the most precious gift of all. Still…..

The postmodern variety of generic rudeness started, I suspect, with the abomination of call-waiting, which encouraged one human exchange to be blithely interrupted by the mere prospect of another. But that’s another story. For now, just a plaint to all you make-up offenders out there: Please don’t paint and powder in public. Consider that this is a case, perhaps, where beauty is in the eye of the non-beholder.


  1. Not to negate your sensibilities here, but I'll take make-up appliers any day over cell-phone users, loud-music listeners, eaters and drinkers, masturbaters, breast feeders, and loud, insipid teenagers any day of the week.

  2. 1) women have been putting on lipstick in public since the dawn of time (or since the invention of lipstick)

    2) you definitely ought to listen to your wife.

  3. I enjoy a good rant, and this is a particularly well-written one. Still, you're wrong. You are picking on women. Let me ask you this, who is more likely clear their throat and then spit out a honker right on the public sidewalk - a man or a woman? Believe me, I'd much rather watch a woman putting on lipstick.

  4. I've never thought of putting on make-up as sensual! Maybe it's a man's view of a woman putting on make-up, but it's always been a chore for me.

    And as for men never doing anything like this, I agree with Freewheel about the spitting, plus I've seen a man clipping his toenails on the metro, and I've been at a bus stop with a man who used his electric razor to "finish up his shave". Ewwww! I think that anything that leaves DNA (i.e. toenails, tiny little hairs, spit, or other stuff that will remain nameless) or creates a noxious odor (nail polish) should definitely be done in private. But putting on make-up? I think you're over-thinking it.

  5. women do this because we are trying to take care of ourselves, and our husbands, and our children, and work full time, and do the grocery shopping, and travel for business, and a million other things. If I had time to put my makeup on at home, I would...but I just look at it as a time saver. Instead of being bored on the train and reading a book or staring blankly at my blackberry email for hours, I can use this time to do something constructive and necessary, such as put my makeup on. As long as I am not being loud or obnoxious and I am not in your personal space, It is my time to do with what I wish.

  6. You suck. Judgmental, condescending, projecting your own insecurities, self-righteous in your perception of what is socially acceptable. Good luck in life, you sound like a miserable person.

  7. You've thought about this wayyyy too much. A woman putting on makeup on the metro says nothing about her feelings towards you or anyone else so much as it says "I was late this morning, and need to do this before I get to work."
    If you've noticed an uptick, perhaps it's because it's hard to get out of bed on these cold winter mornings.
    And the lipstick, in particular: women have been reapplying their lipstick in public forever. This is hardly new.

  8. Are you kidding me? What woman takes 2-3 minutes to put on lipstick? Women can do this in under 30 seconds when in a pinch. As for what goes into putting on the lipstick - mashing of the lips and such - you try it and then let me know if there's a better way.

    Also, I think you've gone way overboard here. You sound like you're describing this stuff happening in the 30s or something. "Oh you gorgeous dame, you." Really??

    hahaha to Freewheel. So true.

  9. you need to move to the country...

  10. You are delusional - it takes most women under 30 seconds to put on lipstick, lipgloss etc and there is nothing wrong with that. We don't do it to think we are miss thang and its not sensual either. time is of essence and most of the time we are running late.

  11. ...fine fine fine: The author would probably take 25 minutes just to put on lipstick (he really is that inept at self discoloration), and wouldn't do a very good pout when he did--thereby ensuring that he didn't get an even line (or whatever it is that is sought through the pout); true, 2nd-hand-cellphone-conversations, loud i-pods and babbling teenagers are more obnoxiously intrusive than someone who thinks they look better after transforming them self into what is ostensibly an cubicle-clown (Who else paints there face?); and yes, without a doubt, this is an expression of one man's personal conception of what is appropriate in public...

    But to say the author is delusional? self-righteous? A "miserable person"? Wow...those "judgmental" and "condescending" comments only highlight the fact that you don't understand the concept of etiquette in public vs. private spaces. (blogs are public and shouldn't be used to insult people; that's what private massages are for.) Women look ridiculous putting on make up--as do men, this can't be turned into a gender spat--and, in my opinion, equally ridiculous once they've put it on, so sue me! You can agree to disagree, but what's wrong with someone expressing their opinion? Was this article rude to say what one man thinks?
    Beyond the alleged rudeness of putting on makeup, isn't it just outright dangerous? What if you're plucking your mustache on the metro and someone bumps your arm? YOU COULD STAB YOUR NOSE! (Or your eye if you were plucking your brow...) The same goes for mascara and eyeliner, as it would for all those people who so unceremoniously make their lips draw more attention to the dismay of more than just this man.
    Beyond simply doing what is private in public, the application of makeup during a commute also serves to show just how little these face-painters care about the people they are sharing their space with, i.e., "I don't want anyone who matters to see me without my face colored, which is why I couldn't do it in the bathroom/private space of my destination; good thing no one here matters--I'll do it as if they don't exist." Is that not rude?

  12. Gabriel writes: "blogs are public and shouldn't be used to insult people; that's what private massages are for."

    Gabe, you and I have very different ideas about the purpose of private massages.

  13. Oh my...I'm just bummed I forgot to bring some popcorn. Overwrought/over-detailed post, followed by tetchy comments, followed by a frothing 'defense of the author' (is Gabriel the author?) that's angry enough to be virtually unreadable. And all over a little bit of lipstick. Best day on the Internet ever!

  14. Well, how interesting. Never have I written a blog post on a sillier subject, and never have I gotten so many comments. I wonder what that means....

    But anyway, to reply, one by one:

    J.M. Tewkesbury, you make a fair point, but, as I said in my post, one form of rudeness does not negate any other. All these abominations you mention are obvious; I was trying to draw attention to one that isn't.

    Alex, you miss the point. I don't care how long it has been going on or how common it is. Would you have made the same remark about slavery in 1852?

    Freewheel, first of all, thanks for your comment on my writing, but no, I am not picking on women, not at all, as the post made very, very clear. You're probably right that a guy is more likely to hcko a loogie on a sidewalk than a woman (good Lord, I hope so), but again that's obvious.

    Chris, thank you -- you're no doubt a gentleman, a scholar, and someone who never hocks loogies on a sidewalk.

    Giggles, I am shocked to hear about the things you've seen men do in public. Maybe you're hanging out in the wrong neighborhoods. I think you are spot on in your general comment about DNA. But really, to chastize me for overdoing it? Where's your sense of literary humor?

    Nifty, I sympathize with the time pressures you are under, as I said in my post. I still think you are being insensitive to those around you. My case stands.

    Jaylin, look at the tone of your comment and then at the tone of everyone else's. And you think I'm miserable? Look in the mirror.

    Penelope, you're just making excuses, like busy Nifty. Again, I sympathize, but you're not looking at this behavior as others see it. Remember Robert Burns' excellent advice: "Oh would God the gift to gi' us, to see ourselves as others see us."

    Carrie, if it sounds like the 1930s to you, you're close in the sense that the "Oh, you gorgeous dame, you" is a takeoff from Damon Runyon, or maybe the style of S.J. Perelman. Like Giggles, you seem to lack a literary imagination... Otherwise, no thanks to trying the lipstick myself--I'll pass. Just so you know what this mashing motion looks like to others.

    Carylmarx, the thought has occurred to me. Are you saying that people in the country are less rude, more sensitive to what others think and feel? I think you're probably right, if that's what you mean.

    Zipcode, again, third time: I sympathize with your time issues, and I am sure, as you say, you do not mean to be rude or sensual. But you are, both. And if you are such a speedy make-up artist, good for you. But did you ever ask yourself why you even bother? You don't need makeup. You've been sold a bill of goods since you were a child by corporations and advertisers playing on your vanity. Save the money you spend on lipstick; donate it to the Haitian relief effort.

    Gabriel, you have better things to do, though i appreciate your intentions.

    And finally Shannon, stop complaining; no one made you read my post and the comments on it. If this is too frivolous for you, why are you reading it?

  15. Oh, my. You misread the tone of my comment. I'm not complaining in the least. I find the whole damn thing hilarious and entertaining from start to finish - the endless rant sexualizing lipstick, the huffy commenter responses (who knew doing makeup on the train was a statement of familial and workplace devotion?), everything. I love a good bit of internet frivolity. Actually, I'm worried YOU are taking this far too seriously.

    Your antagonistic responses to the people who went to the effort of leaving a comment make it all the better. Commenters are the lifeblood of any blog, and responding snottily is just going to make people leave even more rude comments for the pure fun of antagonizing you. Commenters are half the fun of blogging - take a chill pill and enjoy the ride.

  16. Shannon, I am enjoying it, some. But I don't think I was any snottier than the comments directed toward me, rather less, I think. What you don't know, can't know, really, is that this is the first time I have gotten any sort of response to a blog post, and it floors me that it's about something so trivial. It certainly qualifies as a form of entertainment.