Beauty Work and Intrinsic Motivation

Motivational poster, 1937, Works Progress Administration



A friend of mine who's having trouble sticking to her exercise plan asked me what gets me to the gym. The answer, truly, is habit: Unless I'm specifically taking some time off or there's some sort of concrete scheduling problem, strength training is just a part of my routine. That's not particularly helpful advice to someone who's trying to make exercise a habit, though, so I tried to remember what got me to the point of workouts being habit. A common—and useful—bit of advice in this arena is to not focus so much on the weight loss bit, even if you are interested in reducing your body fat, because it's self-punishing. Instead, you're supposed to think about those other rewards of exercise: reduced stress and better mental health, improved functional strength, heightened flexibility, etc. It's often broken down as internal motivation vs. external motivation—that is, what your goals are "for you" versus what other people/society at large tell you your goals should be.


That's all nice and good, and I agree with it to an extent, but A) it's not like we can separate the two so neatly; motivations from society at large fuel our own motivations, after all, B) in order to be functioning members of society, we need to at least consider the collective ethos of said society, if only to then discard it out of hand, and C) sometimes external motivation—the "bad" motivation—can be a lot more effective than internal motivation. Most of the time I'm more driven to get to the gym by the knowledge that it will help with stress reduction, but does the thought of having a more curvaceous rear end (and therefore a "better" one) sometimes get me to do that third set of hip thrusts? Yes, yes, it does, and I'm fine with that. And certainly in other areas of my life, I lean toward people-pleasing, and the fear of disappointing someone has fueled many a project on my end—but of course, I glean my own rewards from it too. So it's reflexive.


But the full definition of internal motivation contains a particularly intriguing leg—intrinsic motivation, a term that's often (and somewhat erroneously, to my thinking) used interchangeably to mean any internal motivation. As I understand it, though, intrinsic motivation is fairly simple: motivation to pursue an activity for the joy of the activity itself. The motivation comes from not any promise of something good happening, nor of avoiding the occurrence of something bad, and not even just from some deep personal wellspring of happy consequences to come, but from the immediate pleasures the activity brings. It's easy to see how this applies to exercise, even if its most-repeated mantra doesn't mention motivation directly: Find something you love to do, and keep doing it. For me, that was strength training; for some, it's yoga; for others it's fencing, or martial arts, or spin class, or running. Whatever it is: The reward doesn't come from the doing; the reward is the doing.


Naturally, as I do with most things, I began to wonder how this applied to beauty work. I've done a good amount of research on the internal vs. external motivators for wearing makeup—like, how it can embue its wearers with a sense of confidence, vs. how women wearing light makeup are perceived as more competent. There's a lot to look at there, but in thinking about intrinsic motivation—the reward that comes simply from performing the act in question, as opposed to simply our internal reasons for doing something—I'm questioning how much I actually like the act of putting on makeup. I've long held that many of us wear makeup for reasons that go beyond glib you-go-girl talk of "I do it for me" or mere conformity to societal expectations. Personally, my internal motivations for wearing it include its meditative-like ritual, its aid in presenting the public vs. the private self, and, sure, a sense that I look more like how I'm "supposed" to (which shouldn't be confused with kowtowing to some sort of beauty standard, though of course the two aren't entirely separate).


But intrinsically speaking, do I get some reward for my beauty work? I'm not sure. There are parts of my beauty/grooming routine that I actively dislike—I dread shaving my legs, for example, but do it nearly every day because I like the feeling of having smooth legs. Same for washing my hair, which I do maybe twice a week. (O for the days of no shampoo!) The face stuff isn't so bad, but I can't say I derive pleasure from the act of putting on makeup, any more than I derive pleasure from brushing my teeth. If the "Find something you love to do, and keep doing it" maxim applied to beauty work, I'd be one of those Grace Coddington-like souls who wears no makeup whatsoever except bright red lipstick. (I love applying lipstick—so sensual!—but don't like how it feels afterward and nearly always wind up biting it off anyway.)


The idea of intrinsic motivation is that because you find the act in question pleasurable, and pursuit of pleasure is one of our chief drives, things that have that sort of motivation are the things you're likeliest to stick with. But here I am, rarely going a day in the past 20-odd years without applying makeup, even though I don't necessarily derive joy from standing in front of the mirror for six minutes and doing my thing. So I'm wondering if beauty work is an exception here, or if I am, or if I'm being too strict with looking at what "pleasure" constitutes in the context of intrinsic motivation. I mean, I get pleasure out of seeing my face perk up a bit with each step of my makeup process, and I take pleasure in knowing that I look the way I want to look, as opposed to the sleepy-eyed, pale-cheeked version of myself I usually wake up with. Is that enough "pleasure" to qualify as enjoying the act of doing something so much that you'd do it without its other rewards? I really don't know.


I think of women who report approaching their face as a piece of living art—playing with color theory, sculptural lines, or just plain old wacked-out looks. (These women, I presume, constitute the entirety of the market for pink mascara.) Same with women who consistently style their hair differently; I remember listening with awe as a chameleon-like acquaintance explained, after I semi-complimented her new ink-black hair by saying, "Wow! New look!" that she knew it wasn't a flattering color for her, but that she'd always wanted to go jet black, and that hair-dyeing had become something of a leisure pursuit for her, so why not? She'd be donning a flattering, "safe" honey-blonde look in a few weeks anyway, most likely. That seems like a clear-cut example of performing beauty work for its intrinsic motivation—and it's something I really can't imagine doing for myself. (I mean, if I really hated putting on makeup, I wouldn't do it, but it's not hatred—more of a meh.) But what other forms besides artistry and play might intrinsic motivation take in the context of beauty work? Does the meditative, ritualistic aspect "count"? What about the act of transforming from a private figure to a public one (at least for those of us who don't usually wear makeup at home alone)—is that considered a pleasure to be had in and of itself, or is it by definition driven by the public end of that equation?


I asked readers before why they do, or don't, wear makeup. Now I'm asking a more point-blank question: How much pleasure do you take in wearing makeup or styling your hair? And how much pleasure do you take in not?