Voices from the Past: Beauty vs. Brains

by Brooke Edwards

Long before the Ensign magazine existed, members of the Relief Society could look forward to a publication called The Woman’s Exponent. It was published every two weeks from 1872 to 1914 and contained news items, doctrinal insights, poems, advertisements, and editorials. The archives are full of insights into the daily life and attitudes of the women who first settled and then helped to develop the Salt Lake Valley.

I recently read through the very first edition, overseen by a young 22-year-old editor-in-chief Louisa Greene. I was struck by an editorial written by a sister identifying herself as M.A.P.J. Titled “Personal Development,” it reads in part:

The development of the moral and intellectual faculties of every person depends, chiefly on his or her energies and industry in study. By continually seeking and acquiring knowledge our intellects expand, and we thirst for more intelligence and grow eager for further advancement: labor and perseverance attain to eminence.

Having a knowledge that God is our Father, and that He holds us accountable for the use we make of the talents He has given us, how necessary it is that we should cultivate and improve those God-given germs and apply them to usefulness in his kingdom. . . .

. . . [W]e have everything to encourage us to renewed diligence and perseverance; true to the maxim, “There is no excellence without labor.” Then, my young friends, let us not waste precious time in decorating our bodies after the vain and unbecoming fashions and frivolities which surround us, but devote our energies to the adorning beautifying of our mental and physical faculties, that we may be prepared for future usefulness in the Kingdom of God. [1]

This sister’s zeal for intellectual development is inspiring, and her desire for intelligence to be used for the benefit of others as well as the building of Zion is admirable. But it was the tension regarding the demands on women’s time, particularly the temptation to spend time that could be spent on learning on outward beauty instead that struck me because it’s a concern that women are still writing editorials about more than 140 years later.

Just two weeks ago, The Atlantic published an editorial written by Olga Khazan about what has become known as “The Makeup Tax” – “the time and money [women invest] into doing their makeup because it impacts their relationships and their paychecks.” [2] Studies cited by Khazan reveal that women are viewed as more “competent, likable, and attractive.” [2] So makeup and a culturally appropriate “professional” look can be essential to a woman’s success in the workplace, as well as in society in general. But the time and effort required to achieve such a look also puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to time and financial resources, and when compared with their male colleagues. The average woman’s makeup contains $170 worth of cosmetics and it’s estimated that women lose approximately two weeks out every year doing their hair and makeup. [3] In other words, fail to wear makeup and you may not get promoted, wear it and you’ll spend a good chunk of your bigger paycheck paying to keep up the right look.

Part of the pressure modern women feel has to do with the sheer volume of advertising repeatedly reminding us of the “correct” look women should aim for. It’s estimated the average person sees 5,000 advertisements each day, many of them featuring airbrushed and made-up women. [4] We have become so accustomed to seeing women with makeup that it seems odd and unprofessional for women to appear without it. [3]

Cosmetic norms are certainly different than they were for the women reading that Woman’s Exponent editorial on the importance of labor and perseverance, and those readers definitely saw fewer advertisements. It’s comical to compare the handful of text ads in the 1872 publication with the number of glossy, full-color, full-page advertisements in any woman’s magazine gracing the grocery store checkout today. However, the “makeup tax” is not something our great-great-grandmothers were completely unfamiliar with.

While the editorial written by “Sister M.A.P.J.” encouraged women to forego a focus on physical appearance in pursuit of nobler aims, on the very next page, an editorial by “Sister A.W. Franklin” provides the following hints and advice to “careless wives”: “How utterly is the peace of mind and comfort of many husbands ruined by the carelessness and untidiness of their wives!” and “Despair and recklessness have often been planted in a man’s heart by the slovenly dress and cheerless hearth . . . .” [5] And then just a couple of more pages later, women were greeted by advertisements for dressmakers and eye cream.

It’s bittersweet to know that while the world’s fashions are entirely different, nothing has really changed. It’s discouraging to think that so little progress has been made in freeing up the time and energies of women to pursue more important pursuits than looking attractive. But I find it somewhat comforting to know that women juggling their work as Relief Society members, wives, mothers, editors, and suffragettes also had to stress about whether to spend money on a new eye cream and about finding the correct balance between spending time on mental and spiritual, instead of physical, development. There’s a sense of solidarity knowing that, on days I’m running late in front of the mirror while trying to get a toddler to get her shoes on and worrying about an assignment at work, they just might have understood, but hopefully, in another 140 years as women navigate the tug-of-war of time management they won’t still be paying the makeup tax.



  1. “Personal Development,” Woman’s Exponent, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1, 1872, available at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/WomansExp/id/963/rec/2
  2. “The Makeup Tax,” The Atlantic, Aug. 5, 2015, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/08/the-makeup-tax/400478/
  3. “78 Percent of Women Spend an Hour a Day on Their Appearance, Study Says,” Huffington Post, Feb. 24, 2014, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/24/women-daily-appearance-study_n_4847848.html
  4. “Anywhere the Eye Can See, Its Likely to See an Ad,” The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2007, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/media/15everywhere.html?_r=0
  5. “Hints to Careless Wives,” Woman’s Exponent, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1, 1872, available at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/WomansExp/id/963/rec/3
  6. Advertising, Woman’s Exponent, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1, 1872, available at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/WomansExp/id/963/rec/8

One Comment on “Voices from the Past: Beauty vs. Brains

  1. This is both fascinating and depressing. I think the “moderation in all things” maxim is particular apropos here. I wear makeup almost every day, but I can do my whole face in less than 4 minutes and my hair takes me, perhaps, another 15 if I have to blow dry and 5 if I don’t. Do I have the latest products and most intricate look? No. Do I keep up or even pay attention to beauty trends? No. Do I have a classic, clean look that can be worn for work, church, date night, or whatever else? Yes, 20 minutes tops for hair and makeup. I think it could be really easy to go way overboard on the time and expense of beauty products and procedures, but for me there comes a tipping point where that investment just isn’t worth it to me. (I should note, it takes my sweetheart about 15 minutes to shave/groom his facial hair, so we are about even when it comes to time/effort spent as part of our “grooming tax.”)


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