Workout makeup is part feminist send-up, driven by the desire to give us more time and more options, and part performative external pressure.
Workout makeup is part feminist send-up, driven by the desire to give us more time and more options, and part performative external pressure. (Photo: Courtesy Puma x Maybelline)

Makeup, But Make It Athleisure

More companies are selling makeup specifically for sweating in. But do women really need it?

Workout makeup is part feminist send-up, driven by the desire to give us more time and more options, and part performative external pressure.

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She’s boxing. At least I think she is. With her lids covered in opalescent purple shadow and her face perfectly highlighted, model Adriana Lima is flexing her arms and baring her toned abs in shorts and a crop top. The ad has found the sweet spot all women’s fitness marketing seems to aspire to—somewhere right between sporty and sexy.

Lima is posing for Puma X Maybelline, a workout-makeup collaboration that includes highlighter, smudge-proof mascara, and liquid lipstick in shades like Fearless, a saturated pink, and Fierce, a dark purple. Maybelline isn’t alone in trying to make women sparkle while they sweat. Cosmetics company Tarte has a whole athleisure collection, subscription beauty company Birchbox’s in-house brand, Arrow, is made for an “on-the-go, active life,” and Insta-famous Nike trainer Kirsty Godso reps CliniqueFit, whose products include a mascara and cheek tint. In January, Wet n Wild released a collection it calls Ath-Beauty, while Covergirl debuted its Active line, geared toward sporty, image-conscious consumers.

Although some of these offerings are specially formulated for sweaty workouts, others just seem to be tagging normal makeup with an “athleisure” label. Still, many of the products are selling the same ideal of Lululemon leggings: the ability to pivot from a workout to the rest of your life, whether that’s grocery shopping or a drink with friends. Athleisure assumes a constant state of busyness that doesn’t afford you time to switch modes. So these new goods are less blush for the backcountry and more makeup for weekdays, when you’re trying to break away from the computer and go for a run. “Our customer is a multitasker who is looking for easy-to-use products that will serve a clear purpose in her routine,” says Kirstin Ratcliffe, the makeup merchant for Arrow.

Such multitasking is both appealing and terrifying. On one hand, yes, efficiency, please. To that end, Ratcliffe says Arrow offers women products that make their daily life easier, because they can use its makeup and skincare in and out of the gym. But the negative implication of that efficiency is that women—and this is all marketed toward women—should be made up at the gym and shouldn’t be barefaced even while nailing dumbbell rows. It creates yet another narrative around female beauty standards that distracts from our athletic accomplishments and goals. 

Still, a clean-face workout may be a tough ask for many women. “It’s no secret that most dermatologists promote makeup-free sweating. But it’s just not realistic for most. For me personally, I rarely go out of the house without something on my face,” says Courtney Jones, cofounder of Sweat Cosmetics, a line of foundations and highlighters designed to be worn while working out. 

According to dermatologists, working out with makeup on doesn’t have serious health impacts. But because your pores open during exercise, whatever is on your skin—sweat, oil, and makeup—will be more readily absorbed, which can clog pores and cause acne. Meghan Feely, a board-certified dermatologist, recommends looking for products that are noncomedogenic and oil-free and washing your face after sweating. Jones, a former professional soccer player, started Sweat when she and her cofounders couldn’t find makeup that fit within these dermatological standards to wear during all-day training sessions. She says the response to the new athletic-makeup line has been strongly positive, because she thinks it provides a better option for women who would be wearing makeup while sweating anyway. 

At face value, these options seem like a good thing to me. I know plenty of people who like the playfulness and creativity that comes with being able to change their looks. I have friends who say that putting on makeup before they work out makes them feel more confident—and confidence is one of the main reasons why they exercise. “Usually, it’s just whatever is left over from the day. Mascara, that kind of thing,” says Sierra Shafer, editor-in-chief of Powder magazine. “But I will say, even if I’m working out in the morning, I still get up and put on my makeup, because it makes me feel good about myself. If I’m there just feeling insecure every time I pass a mirror, I know I’m not going to get a good workout. But if I feel cute, I feel like myself.” 

I wonder if that confidence would feel slightly different if there weren’t a parade of Instagram influencers giving concrete—but often staged—examples of how much better you could look every time you scroll through your phone. The problem isn’t that several lines of athleisure makeup exist, it’s that these examples are everywhere and feel inescapable.

For me, and I’m guessing I’m not alone, exercise has often been the only time and space when I’m not thinking about how I look. Addressing my appearance before I start sweating takes away some of that freedom. It brings the creep of the ever present external gaze back in, and it pulls away that safe space where no one is judging you but yourself. 

While I don’t want to dunk on anyone who feels better in mascara, the rise of workout makeup seems like the amalgam of a lot of negative trends: the implication that no place is appropriate to be barefaced and the onslaught of fitfluencers whose lives and asses are perfectly contoured. It is a constant, exhausting need to be on, which at some point will drive us face first into our graves. 

That said, it’s not a simple pro or con. It’s hard to untangle #selfcare from what feels socially enforced, and the line of demarcation is different for everyone. Workout makeup is part feminist send-up, driven by the desire to give us more time and more options, yet it’s also part performative external pressure, pushed by companies trying to capitalize on unrealistic standards of what women should look like. 

But that’s what being a woman often feels like these days.

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