When Eva Mendes jokingly told “Extra” that wearing sweatpants causes divorce (a comment for which she later apologized), I rolled my eyes. I am a proud sweatpants lounger, which means, since I work from home, I often wear them all day. My boyfriend has wistfully wondered why he doesn’t see the fishnets and dresses I sported when we first started dating three years ago; I told him that was part of the price of living together. He has to handle me dressed up and dressed down; he sees me fresh from a new haircut, but also when I’m on deadline and my almost waist-length tresses are a rat’s nest.
I resisted the idea that women hiding that we wear and enjoy sweatpants, and sometimes just want to let it all hang out, is the key to a happy relationship. Isn’t the point of being with someone that you can truly be yourself? In fact, I didn’t think I was keeping any beauty secrets from my boyfriend until one fateful recent day. When I told him I needed to swing by our local drugstore, he asked casually, “What for?”
Stumped, I replied, “I just need … something.” As open as I am with him about most aspects of my life — he’s seen me bawl incessantly and nursed me through assorted illnesses — I didn’t want him to know I was buying wax strips to remove the hair from above my upper lip.
Eventually, he let it go. But then I felt guilty — and I didn’t want him to think there was something more urgent I needed! When I fessed up that we were stopping by the pharmacy for waxing strips, he replied just as casually as he had at first, “Oh, I know you do that. I’ve seen the package in our bathroom.”
My cover was blown, but it was actually a relief. I didn’t want to have to hide the fact that I do this from him, and now I didn’t have to. But it got me wondering what other upkeep rituals women keep from their partners — surely I couldn’t be the only one. As it turns out, many women consider their routine skincare, hair and beauty maintenance classified information.
Emma* said of her live-in partner:
“I don’t mind him knowing that I get my eyebrows threaded and waxed and that I pluck them, but I don’t want him to know that I do the same to my upper lip from time to time. Somehow, slightly thick or unruly eyebrows don’t seem like a big deal — some supermodels even have heavy brows! — but an errant dark hair above my mouth feels really unfeminine to me.”
Maya’s secret beauty indulgence involves her eyes. “For special occasions, I get professional lash extensions. Weddings, vacations, holidays — I’ll take whatever excuse I can get,” she said. “When I have the extensions done, I wake up looking like a Disney princess. There’s just this refreshed, soft, feminine glow about my face.”
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She prefers to keep this all to herself, though. “I don’t tell my partner when I have it done, mostly because it’s pricey and more than I’d like to be paying for something that’s not an essential service. Also, when I have it done, I don’t think he can specifically tell, but I notice he keeps his gaze on me a bit longer or remarks that I look so pretty,” even if her hair’s in a bun and she’s not wearing a stitch of makeup. He’s usually appreciative of her beauty choices, Maya continued, “but when I have my lash game on, he’s downright enamored.”
In 2013, Mint.com compiled data showing that the average woman will spend $15,000 over her lifetime on makeup. That sounds like a lot, but $216 a year probably sounds far more reasonable — if you’re a makeup user, of course. If you’re not, even a one-time purchase can seem frivolous. For instance, cost is the deciding factor for Rita in what purchases she shares with her boyfriend; normally she balks at letting him in on the price of her skincare supplies. Why? Because he just doesn’t get it.
Rita knows exactly what the value of her favorite products are worth to her, but the specifics may cause sticker shock for the uninitiated. She described how once, when she happened to be at a Sephora one day with her boyfriend, she says he was “stunned” that her favorite Clinique moisturizer cost $40. He asked her, “Are you sure that’s the one you want?” Rita’s partner wasn’t trying to make her feel guilty per se, but his reaction hampered her shopping experience; she was sure, because she’s tried others and knows this is the one she prefers. She also hides her predilection for spending an hour a day reading makeup reviews; her boyfriend knows it’s a hobby, but not the details of how much time she spends doing it.
While makeup certainly can be a hobby, for many women it’s actually a professional necessity. “This is a discussion my husband and I have often,” said retail analyst and on-air contributor Hitha Prabhakar. “I work on a daily TV show where I am in front of a camera for an hour out of the day. My beauty/maintenance costs can skyrocket up to 300% more than what my husband spends on his routine per month. While I try to keep it to the bare minimum, unfortunately the cold hard truth is women’s haircuts, group fitness memberships, dermatologist visits and makeup cost more and do add up.” Statistics back this up; a 2013 YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that 35% of women used one or two products a day, and 17% used three or four, while 54% of men didn’t use any. Given that discrepancy, of course $40 for a moisturizer may seem overboard to a man, even if it doesn’t feel extravagant to his partner
It’s not just male partners who are kept in the dark about women’s beauty rituals. According to Shar Rednour, author of The Femme’s Guide to the Universe:
“Lesbians with extended beauty rituals are just as likely to hide their regimen from a paramour as any straight woman. There is the degree of beauty management that is trying to look ‘natural,’ then ‘pretty femmey’ and lastly, ‘high femme. To many LGBTQ people, ‘natural’ means clean and well-groomed — no one needs to be convinced we have no leg hair.”
Rednour thinks it’s perfectly fine to hide prices from one’s partner. She doesn’t let her wife Jackie know exactly how much her haircuts and colorings cost; she simply tells her they’re “expensive” without elaborating on specifics. “‘Expensive’ to her and to me might be two different prices, so I dare not test it,” Rednour said.
Kerry, though, took the opposite view of most of my interviewees. “I actually don’t mind my husband seeing everything because I want him to know how much work it is to stay this way,” she said of her daily rituals. “And if it’s a turn-off, so be it; more sleep for me. But men really aren’t that picky about these things. I think they can appreciate the effort because some people stop grooming altogether! Plus, he can just leave the room if it’s something that he can’t handle. It’s not like I keep him locked up in the bathroom and force him to watch as I shave my armpits.”
According to beauty blogger Nadine Jolie Courtney, author of Beauty Confidential, it makes perfect sense to let him peek behind the glam curtain, especially once you’re in a long-term relationship. “Good luck trying to keep things secret from your husband once you’re married,” said Courtney. She continued:
“In my opinion, one of the things that makes marriage wonderful is letting your guard down and achieving true intimacy with somebody. That level of intimacy and acceptance is never going to be there if you’re constantly worrying about him seeing you clip your toenails or bleach your upper lip. Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, and so I think most women—justifiably so—worry that their partners will stop finding them sexy and desirable if they let down the veil on what it takes to look our best. Ideally, you can strike a middle ground: a place where your partner accepts you, warts and all, but doesn’t necessarily need to be privy to every bloody detail of your beauty routine.”
Kim White, a New York-based makeup artist represented by Wilhelmina, who also writes the blog Do I Have Lipstick On My Teeth?, got an early lesson in keeping the beauty process hidden from her grandmother, who had a walk-in closet that was off limits to everyone else. “When she was in her closet with the door shut, you just didn’t go in there,” White said. “She walked around the house and she looked great at all times.”
White understands the desire to hide these practices, because they’re “an admission that you’re not perfect. We see so many Photoshopped images and the like that we’re brainwashed sometimes to believe that we need to be perfect.”
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Ultimately, she believes having private beauty rituals can be either good or bad, depending on the situation and what lengths you go to in order to keep your habits secret. If it’s a matter of adding a little mystery to your makeup routine, like Maya’s lash extensions, that’s one thing; feeling like you have to go out of your way to ensure your partner never sees a pimple or dark circles under your eyes is another. “I think a little bit of transparency is necessary in order for you to feel comfortable and to have positive feelings about yourself,” explained White. “If you have to wake up and go in the bathroom and put makeup on before your partner wakes up, then that’s a problem.” (After all, this concept fueled the very popular ‘Maybe she’s born with it!’ Maybelline campaign.) Beauty blogger Courtney concurred, adding, “Quite frankly, I think most men have very little interest in the boring details, anyway.”
As an example, White offered, “I have girlfriends who wear weaves and their partners have never seen their real hair. That’s a lot of maintenance. At some point there’s going to be downtime between the take out and the reinstall.” Yet she’s done it, so she gets the impulse. She continued:
“When I was [single and] dating outside my race, I didn’t want to go to bed with my bonnet on or tie my hair up in a silk scarf—which is necessary for me not to lose all my hair—but it’s something that white girls just don’t do. You don’t want to do it in front of a white boy.”
Along the same lines, men don’t always know how to assess what makeup truly means in a woman’s life unless it’s explained to them step by step. Some of them probably also prefer to think of beautifying as a magical process; we women have to then decide how much of their illusions to shatter. “Men are very, very visual,” said White. “I’ve dated so many guys who’ll say, ‘I hate makeup, I hate makeup.’ Their fantasy woman is a Janet Jackson or a Kim Kardashian. These girls are heavily made up; what do you mean?” Most men are so detached from what women actually look like without makeup, hair extensions, or tanning that their concept of ‘natural beauty’ is completely skewed to begin with.
Ultimately, every woman has to assess for herself what she wants to share with a mate, and what she wants to keep as her own special je ne sais quoi. I agree with White that we shouldn’t feel threatened that our relationship may be at stake if we are not always fully primped at home, or our partner catches us in the act of dealing with unwanted body hair, contouring or otherwise making ourselves look and feel better. So if you’re running up credit card debt on shopping binges or trying to hide your age behind layers of makeup, that’s a problem. If your partner is that vain, maybe they don’t truly love the “real you.”
Bottom line: if you just want to maintain a bit of feminine mystique, that’s your prerogative. Sometimes it simply may be easier to keep mum; take it from a woman who is teased every time she spends an hour washing and conditioning her hair!
*Some names have been changed.
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