Journo Resources Fellow

July 10, 2024 (Updated )

What does it mean to look ‘professional’ in the newsroom? How can it affect our careers? And, crucially, who’s judging? We delve into the make-up bag and ask if women journalists are held to different standards than their male counterparts.

Am I really doing this for myself? It’s a question I often wonder, as I settle once again in front of the mirror. Usually, it’s the crack of dawn and the sleep is still in my eyes, my hefty make-up bag in hand.

Then comes the next question — what happens if I don’t wear any make-up today? It’s a thought usually accompanied by a fleeting feeling of relief. But then comes the dread — what if they treat me differently? And so, I pick up the make-up brush once more.

As a former fashion student and a budding fashion journalist, I’ve always wondered how important our aesthetics are in the newsroom. Are those without cosmetics and well-tailored clothing overlooked? Perhaps not intentionally, but does a subconscious bias bubble under the surface?

Are those without full coverage not taken as seriously? Do they miss out on exciting opportunities because they somehow look less “professional”? Or is it the other way around? More importantly for me, will I ever get a foot inside the world of journalism if I don’t look the part?

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Alex Peters, beauty editor at Dazed (L) and Jenny Holliday, freelance wrier for Refinery 29, Glamour, and Grazia (R)

The Pressure To Look ‘Presentable’

As women, we are taught that we always have to look ‘presentable’,” agrees Alex Peters. She’s the beauty editor at Dazed and has also written for titles like Vogue, Flipboard, and The Face. “That usually means wearing make-up, and generally women are more successful when they do.”

It’s something backed up by academic research: when sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner collected data from 14,000 employees in 2016 they found that women who were “well-groomed” earned significantly more than their “less-groomed” peers. No such gap existed for men.

In 2020, a study by the law firm Slater and Gordon also found that nearly one in ten women had been told by bosses to wear make-up, high heels, or short skirts. One in five felt more attention was paid to their appearance than to male colleagues. Josephine Van Lierop, an employment lawyer at the firm, described the findings as “very disappointing but not surprising”.

Meanwhile, in the same year, an academic paper looking at YouTube beauty influencers found that women of colour may be more motivated to use cosmetics due to racist, colonialist, and Eurocentric beauty standards. This was also linked to disparities in pay, subscriber counts, and sponsorship deals.

Alex continues: “When I had my first beauty internship, I wore make-up every single day — including red lipstick. I think that pressure came more from myself than the team though, because when I think back on it, they weren’t wearing full beats every day themselves.”

Journo Resources
“Make-up was de rigeur [expected] for me, it still is. I saw dressing smartly as a mark of respect for those I was to interview.”
Melanie Whitehouse, freelance journalist, editor, and author

‘I Saw Dressing Smartly As A Mark Of Respect’

It’s a nuanced and complicated question — while there’s well-documented research about the pressures women can face, often this is subtle, implied, or even internalised.

In journalism, it can be even trickier. How should we look if we’re presenting on screen? If we’re interviewing someone important? If our job is to review beauty products? And what if we actually just like wearing make-up?

For Melanie Whitehouse, a trained news reporter since 1977, taking care in your appearance is paramount. “Make-up was de rigeur [expected] for me, it still is. I saw dressing smartly as a mark of respect for those I was to interview.” Even today, while semi-retired, make-up is still part of her daily ritual — though she stresses men were also expected to wear full suits and ties in her Fleet Street days.

“I remember going to interview [writer] Barbara Cartland, so I picked out a Cartland-pink shirt and teamed it with a black, pleated skirt, leather knee-high boots, and a Russian-style coat.

“She was very appreciative that I’d bothered to dress up and gave me a brilliant interview with high tea in her dining room afterwards, and a tour of the house and grounds— proving to me that dressing for the occasion could pay dividends. I still remember one quote verbatim: ‘I lie on my chaise longue, with my Pekingese at my head, pray to god — and I get a plot.’ What a great line.”

And, so, I continue to book my fortnightly eyebrow threading sessions and monthly laser hair removal appointments and reach for my make-up bag once more. It’s a funny game we women play with make-up: insecurity and the need to be accepted on one side, but empowerment and creativity on the other. I love wearing make-up, but would my employers love me without it?

Want To Read More From Our 2023/24 Fellows? Well, You're In Luck!

‘Preparation’ Over ‘Appearance’

For many of us, it’s also linked to confidence. “My confidence is partly connected to how I look, and I think that’s inevitable in our society,” says Alex. “It does make me feel good about myself when I’ve got an outfit on that I’m happy with — and red lipstick can definitely help me feel confident.”

Several academic studies have confirmed a link between wearing make-up and increased self-esteem, but Alex stresses this isn’t her main metric. “I think what plays a much bigger part in how confident I feel is if I’m completely prepared for whatever [I’m doing]”

“If it’s an interview, for example, have I done my research? Do I have my questions ready? Do I feel like I know what I’m talking about? Being good and diligent at my job has always made me feel more confident than how I look.”

Jenny Holliday, a journalist who’s written for publications such as Refinery29, Glamour, and Grazia has a similar sentiment. “For me, it’s about preparation rather than appearance. But, with appearance in mind, I tend to wear my hair down, and at least ‘do’ my eyebrows. That makes me feel more ready.”

For those like me who are still pitching for our first journalism jobs, it’s reassuring to know that most journalists put the quality of your work ahead of how you choose to present yourself. And yet, still, the doubts swirl round and round in my head.

Because I remember feeling invisible at university, people looking me up and down — as if deciding how to treat me. I remember people rolling their eyes, huffing, not hearing my ideas. I remember forgetting my mascara at work one day and my manager asking why I looked so tired. Such memories don’t fade overnight — so how do I find my confidence?

Journo Resources
“You have to believe in yourself and your work. In the end, that will give you a core confidence that can’t be undermined by appearances."
Alex Peters, beauty editor at Dazed

‘Your Work Speaks So Much Louder Than How You Look’

“Journalism is a strange grey area where we can be more expressive, I think,” says Jenny. “Confidence comes from being ourselves, so dressing as ‘us’ is the best thing to do.”

“Your work speaks much louder than how you look,” Alex reiterates. “When someone pitches me, I don’t know what they look like or if they wear make-up. I just judge if their writing is good. That will always be the case at Dazed Beauty.

“You have to believe in yourself and your work. In the end, that will give you a core confidence that can’t be undermined by appearances. I’ve been to beauty events where I’ve been dressed totally different to everyone else there. Maybe I’ve lost out in ways I don’t know about because of it, but because I believe so strongly in the work I’m doing, I’ve never left feeling like I don’t belong in those rooms.”

The conversations I’ve had as part of this piece have overwhelmingly left me with a sense of relief. Perhaps my success and confidence aren’t inextricably linked to how I present myself. It’s a reassuring thought, that makes things seem a little less scary for a newcomer like me.

And, yet, for now, I think I’ll still hold on tightly to my make-up brushes. Not just because I love make-up, but also because I don’t yet have the experience that I hope will one day give me the confidence to go without it. It’s perhaps not the most empowering conclusion to reach, but a realistic one.

Ayza Alavi
Ayza Alavi

Ayza has a degree in fashion journalism from the University of the Arts London. As part of this, she has written extensively for Shift, the university’s fashion publication. She also wrote, designed, and illustrated her own fashion magazine Facade, looking at the “facades” women create to get through everyday life.

Ayza’s piece for Journo Resources explores if women feel compelled to dress a certain way or use makeup to fit into the newsroom. You can find Ayza on LinkedIn.

Header image courtesy of Giorgio Trovato via Unsplash