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Disapproving glances, tuts and angry comments: why is applying make-up on the train so divisive?


More and more of us are using the precious time on our commute to apply our make-up. It’s time we joined forces against the onslaught of disapproving glances

Words: Joanna McGarry
Photography: Sarah Brimley

If you happen to be on the glorious East London Line between 8.06am and 8.19am each morning, there’s a very real chance that I’ll be sat opposite you, putting my face on. In which case, hi! Don’t be scared, I’m perfectly normal, honest. I haven’t been out all night. My alarm clock works just fine and I’m a vociferously clean morning shower type of person. I just choose to do my make-up on the train to work. That’s all. 

And yet, an ever-growing groundswell of fellow commuters display the sort of guttural disgust towards my putting on mascara that I’d normally reserve for dog owners who flee the scene after the business happens. On any given day, the reactions to my train make-up routine run the gamut from captive fascination, bemusement, huffiness, snarls, eye rolls, bitchy-resting-faces, scowls and my favourite, a flurry of tuts from middle-aged gentlemen with briefcases. 

It is completely bizarre to me. People are utterly affronted that I would groom myself in their presence. It’s like I’ve just walked into their bathroom and run myself a bath. Except the Tube isn’t their house, nor is it mine. It is a benign, neutral space, in which we can do as we please (so long as we don’t deliberately make physical contact or inhale a steaming pile of bacon or pungent crisps right under their noses. Sidenote: this is not OK).

To me, commuter make-up is the ultimate act of productivity: finding pockets of time to use as you see fit. So why do people have such a problem with it? There are so many bigger things to give a damn about. The creeping cost of travel, for instance. You see, while I am a champion of the transformative power of make-up, I find painting it all on unbearably dull. Getting it on my face is a functional rather than pleasurable act; it is a means to an end. I’d rather spend that time doing something useful at home – like hitting snooze another couple of times for an extra half hour in bed, or dressing myself in something half decent, or fashioning a lunchbox from last night’s leftovers.

The most commonly hawked refrain against public make-up application is the, “Ooh aren’t you messy/sloppy/lazy” or as one female colleague puts it, “be more organised you narcissistic fool”. Come on! That argument is entirely redundant. Commuter beauty is actually a supreme display of efficiency. I – like the two-thirds of British women who do their make-up on the way to work – actually intend to use that time in this way. It’s not the result of occasional absent-mindedness or time mismanagement. It is an entirely deliberate act. 

After nine years in the capital, working 10-hour days and with a heap of after-work events to show my face at, applying make-up on the go has not only become a habit but an actual necessity for me. And I’ve become seriously good at it. I’m far more proud of my stealth-like make-up routine than I am my ability to drive a car. It takes skill, a really dextrous, piano-fingers sort of skill to get my whole face on, while in constant motion, in 13 minutes flat.

Indeed, it’s a skill that has a part of the brain all to itself, says psychologist Elaine Slater. This sort of activity is managed by the cerebellum at the back of the brain where the spinal cord meets the brain stem. It controls balance, coordination and equilibrium. If that part is damaged, movement can become affected.

So surely onlookers should be wowed by my very clever cerebellum, rather than be disgusted by the sight of my stubby eyeliner pencil? Well, there’s more to it than that, says Slater. “As humans we’re innately judgmental – that’s what keeps us alive,” she says. “It’s a natural survival quality. We like to belong to a community for reasons of self-preservation. So when we see someone acting outside of our familiar behaviours, they’re displaying that they don’t belong in our group and we respond defensively.”

I can’t help but feel there is also a sort of anti-feminist politic at play here, too. When my male friends bemoan public displays of make-up, with sneers of, “Why can’t they just do it at home? I don’t want to see it!” I am automatically suspicious. Any point of view that seeks women to hide themselves away behind closed doors suggests that their bodies or behaviours are somehow shameful.

It brings to mind an old boyfriend who would physically recoil whenever a tampon ad came on the TV. He would occasionally mimic the sound of vomiting, too. Do we still live in a world in which we must uphold the fantasy that women wake up with their make-up magically done, their hair automatically curled (by the hair elves) and it all happens under a cloak of darkness? How utterly childish. Look, make-up is stuff we want to do – stuff we actively choose to do as women – but it takes time, which we scarcely have. If we fill an otherwise dead pocket of time with something as innocuous as pencilling our brows, that’s our prerogative.

Around five years ago, my sister was verbally attacked by a man on the Tube for sweeping cerise pink blush across her face in front of him. He’d been sat, seething with anger until finally he erupted, screaming, “You’re sick! You’re disgusting!” over and over again, until he was cut down to size by a couple of guys next to him. Of course, this is an extreme example but it’s one of many. That ugly disdain towards a woman doing a specifically female thing still lives on and only compels me to apply my make-up with even more gusto, so that any disapproving male observers might further expose their innate prejudice for all to see. 

Of course, this isn’t a gender-specific issue – women can be equally as appalled by my cavalier use of a concealer stick as men – and a huge number of them cite hygiene as the problem. It’s a fair point. Especially when you consider that one in four commuters reportedly carries bacteria from faeces on their hands. Except at no point do my own hands touch my face during my make-up routine; it’s all sponges and applicators that work just as well on the train as they would in the privacy of my own home. And, frankly, living in any large city is going to pass around bacteria, like it or not. 

Let’s focus our efforts into making the Tubes cleaner, more make-up friendly places rather than dirt-shaming women for daring to apply colour to their face in a less-than-sterile environment. How many of us have washed their make-up brushes in the past six months? Exactly. 

So, when I next glimpse a woman stood snaked around the Tube handrail, painting the most perfect eyeliner flick along her lash line with just a golf-ball sized mirror in the other hand, I’ll give her a nod of solidarity, knowing that she too isn’t ashamed of the fact that she wears make-up or that she finds it convenient to apply it in public. It’s time we all felt comfortable enough to bring make-up out of the closet for good. See you in the scrum.

My commuter beauty speed kit

Browse the gallery below for the essentials for getting the job done while wobbling around on a bus

Annie Davies

“I start my 12-hour shift at 7.30am so I usually have a bit of privacy to do my make-up on the bus. When I consider what I have to face day to day, other people’s reactions wouldn’t phase me anyway. Although it’s only a bit of concealer, eyeshadow and mascara, make-up is like my war paint; it helps me get into the right headspace for whatever’s going to be thrown at me that day.”

Dara Wilcox

“Some women live busy lives and applying your make-up on your commute is another aspect of that. I try to keep myself to myself but a while ago, when I was applying blusher, the lady next to me pointed out the sprinkles of powder on her coat. That was embarrassing. Now I’ve developed a stealth mode of putting on a full face on without people really noticing.”

Yvonne Hagan

“People tut, but I see big suitcases taking up space, so why can’t I do my make-up on the train? It’s my prerogative. When the train pauses because of signal failure, I think of it as the perfect opportunity to do my eyeliner. It can go too far, though. I saw a woman waxing her arms last week. I was mortified. Waxing is way too personal to do in public.”

Emma Weiss

“No matter what time I get up, once I’ve got my three kids ready, my only option is to do my make-up on the move. I’m always really careful with it because I’ve got an audience. Some people are waiting for you to make a mistake. I go into my own little world, stick my music on and try and hold my mirror so it blocks them out. I’m doing it for me, not anyone else.”

Jenny Crothers

“If I’ve forgotten my mirror, I’ll just use my iPhone on selfie mode. It makes me feel better when I see other women doing the same, we’re all in this together. Sometimes I get competitive and try to do it standing up! This can backfire though – I once pulled out my foundation and it spilled over my leg, but who cares, it’s not like I’ll ever see these people again.”

Eleanor Maclure

“I’m not great in the mornings so I’ve whittled down my make-up routine to fit my journey. I start with concealer and apply eyeliner and mascara when the train stops at a station. I never worry about what others think. I’m not hurting anybody. One woman told me she was impressed and it turned out she was a make-up artist.”

Natalie Sahota

“I’ve got quite a long commute, so I’d rather make good use of that time. I’ll pop my moisturiser and foundation on at home, then do my mascara and brows on the train. My friend said it made him feel uncomfortable and that was a revelation. It’s just a bit of lipstick, I’m not disrupting anyone’s day. But that has made me think about it a little bit more.”

Jenny Bowes

“I travel from Milton Keynes and look for a table seat to lay out all my products. I apply moisturiser and check my emails as it sinks in before foundation and concealer. The ticket collectors know me as the girl who does her make-up. I get my powder done quickly before the train fills up and then use eyelash curlers. It takes practice and a steady hand.”

Shot on location at the London Transport Museum

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