Verity Johnson: I went a week without wearing make up and everyone had a reaction

OPINION: Last week, a guy I work with suggested to the office that women should go make up free for a week. You'd have thought he was advocating communal strip searches judging by the response he got.

Tell a TV presenter to go on camera without make-up? Are you mad? That would be akin to turning up to a meeting with no pants on. It'd certainly provoke the same level of managerial outrage. 

I was one of the few people, and the only woman, who was neutral on the idea. It didn't seem particularly difficult so I didn't mind giving it a crack. And so I did a make-up free work week, including going on camera and to work functions without it. 

Now initially, when I was drafting this column I was pretty blasé about the whole thing. The week wasn't that bad, I didn't feel particularly different.

There were moments, particularly when I went on camera, when I looked like a cross between a sloth and someone you'd see on Extreme Hoarders! But overall it wasn't as tough as wearing a waist trainer for a week. (Now that was psychologically disturbing.)

But the big problem was, as many people pointed out to me, that I don't really wear make-up anyway. I do on screen, or for interviewing people, but apart from that I've always been happy to bowl into the office bare-faced.

And, as one friend said: "You don't know what you're talking about Verity because you've got great skin and don't need make-up."  

I do have rosy cheeks... and a sweating condition which means I normally look like a very wet apple. But in general I'm lucky. So I never really got into the habit of wearing it every day.

Even after presenting Paul Henry every morning I'd come home and take it all off. So given these things, my insights into a make-up free week were about as legitimate as Geordie Shore giving tips on being classy. 

But what the week did show me is that women have incredibly strong opinions on make-up. I'd have strangers approach me in the loos, passersby would stop to comment, and everyone had a 15 minute conversation tucked in their brain. Everyone.

So what did people say to me when they find out I was paint free? 

They all, without fail, said they'd never do it. 

Of course the first reason why was that it just made them feel a bit prettier. One colleague in her 20s said she just feels a bit ugly without it. "I'm not wearing make-up today, and I'm just like don't look at me!" She admitted that she was self-conscious about her bad skin, and doesn't like people seeing it.

When she told me this I realised that I had a similar feelings going to events make-up-free. I had wished I'd had a little make-up to make me feel equal to those other, stunning women in the crowd. 

The author with no make up on while on camera
The author looking unimpressed to be on camera with no make up

Converse to my expectations, I also found that the older you get, the less self-conscious you are about it. You still feel you need it, but just a less full-on version.

One TV presenter in her 50s said: "I would have worn a full face of make-up to the dairy in my 20s… now I wear less because I just don't care as much." Other older women said they replaced the full on make-up of their youth with more natural looks as they aged. 

Instead, it becomes a matter of routine as you get older. One colleague in her 40s said: "I always wear make-up, I didn't wear it one day last week and I felt like sh*t." She said she does her face every morning so she has the basics there to present a good face to the world.

And the more I think about it, the more I felt like this too. When I had to go to meetings bare-faced, I felt as though I wasn't fully prepared to go to work. It was like I had toothpaste on my face or had written my questions on a Weetbix box. It's the key to feeling professional.

That feeling of professionalism spread out into a wider idea of feeling in command of your life. "It just makes me feel like I've got my sh*t together," said one woman in her 20s. 

It's also easy to see how this makes you unwilling to stop using it. Another colleague in her late 20s said she didn't wear it for a whole year, and then after she got back into it, "I became back hooked on it. I felt like I needed it, which was irrational because I'd lived without it." 

What this all showed me was that make-up wasn't just about feeling pretty. It's about identity, self confidence and professionalism. This is why it's so difficult to be one of those idealistic, all natural Instagram beauties who endorse make up free selfies and herbal teas. 

It's not so easy to give it up, because it's not just skin deep. 

Verity Johnson is a Newshub reporter and columnist.