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A Very Confusing Makeup Guide for Field Scientists

Or, why some scientists wear nail polish under their work boots in Antarctica.

Woman working in a science lab in a blue dress. Hero Images/Getty Images

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At the bottom of the Earth, on a tiny island in Antarctica, there’s a scientific research center. It’s called McMurdo Station, and it’s fully equipped with a bunch of laboratories, three harrowing aircraft runways literally made of ice and compacted snow, a couple of bars, and an interfaith chapel. Oh, and scientists.

In the summer, the place is teeming with “field scientists” — folks who trade in their lab coats for immersion survival suits or headlamps or affectionately nicknamed “Big Red” parkas (yup, the same ones you see everywhere on the streets of New York) to investigate what’s happening in the great outdoors. You might not think that field scientists all the way down at McMurdo Station care about how they look. But appearance can influence a scientist’s professional identity in a really profound and confusing way.

Becky Robinson, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, just spent the austral summer down in Earth’s basement. In between her responsibilities as chief scientist on her research expedition and her impromptu role as activist in the McMurdo Women’s March, she managed to finagle a little bit of downtime. Robinson noticed that some scientists who patronize the local watering holes get all gussied up under their winter gear. They straighten their hair and then throw on hats. They put on mascara and then hide their baby blues underneath their “Big Red” parkas. But it probably isn’t to impress other field scientists. “I think it’s for them. Not for other people or for attracting attention,” says Robinson.

This kind of pampering in Antarctica requires some serious foresight. According to Robinson, “there’s actually a weight limit to how much stuff you can bring. So you become excessively practical.” That means scientists fill up their precious cargo space with necessities like wool socks, long underwear, neck gaiters, those disposable hand warmer packet thingies. Items that are less “I want to look cute” and more “I don’t want to freeze to death.” But for some, creature comforts like hair care and beauty products are necessities, too.

The scientists in the Upside Down aren’t the only ones who make an effort to look nice in “the field.” Even on the high seas, field scientists will head up to the lounge deck of the research boat, carefully apply nail polish to their toes, and then immediately step into their closed-toe work boots and keep on working. But why do they bother getting dolled up when they can’t even revel in it? Pam Barrett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, has embarked on many a seafaring voyage to study the chemistry of the ocean and has, in fact, painted her nails at sea. Barrett thinks it’s a simple act of self-care that helps break up the tedious day-to-day of the field. “You need things that make you feel comfortable and make you feel sane,” she says. “I think if you just are a little more present and treat it like real life, instead of like you’re pulling an all-nighter for a month, you do better.” Sometimes a lady just wants to look pretty, even when that lady is working non-stop in the middle of nowhere. Treat yo’ self, you know.

But it turns out, the relationship between a female field scientist and her makeup bag is really complicated. On one hand, wearing makeup on a field assignment is therapeutic and humanizing. And on the other hand, it can feel deeply uncomfortable.

That’s because scientists who look too “feminine” are often not taken seriously. A recent psychology study showed that scientists with “feminine appearance” were less likely to be perceived as scientists and more likely to be perceived as early childhood educators. So scientists who put on a dash of makeup in the midst of their fieldwork to boost self-confidence may subsequently feel embarrassed that they look “unscientific” and “unprofessional.” Robinson agrees that expressing femininity in science is tough. “It’s a real problem, just in terms of being taken seriously.”

In many other workplaces, makeup is practically a requirement to look more professional and more competent. And, according to Amy Schumer’s genius parody music video, more socially acceptable. But the field workplace is raw and weird and full of unwritten rules about how scientists are supposed to look. It’s casual — think Carhartts and flannel shirts — but also somehow hypercritical. Barrett says, “it’s often hard for a woman to avoid judgment about her appearance in the workplace no matter what, especially in our field, where the sometimes extreme informality makes determining what is deemed appropriate even harder.” What’s the most appropriate look for bunking with your boss in a tiny cabin on a rickety boat? Who. Even. Knows.

Beyond looking too feminine, makeup can also seem self-indulgent in such a stressful work environment. Because fieldwork is expensive and research funding is limited (and ever-dwindling), scientists need to make the most of every second they get in the field. So, like, why would you spend an hour getting ready when you could have spent that hour frantically doing science? Laura Haynes, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University studying the geologic history of the ocean, has participated in an impressive number of field expeditions as a student. When she’s out working in the wild, she knows her time is precious and she thinks that wearing makeup might just take up brainspace that could otherwise be dedicated to her experiments. “If I’m putting makeup on, I’m putting on a front,” she says. “I need to go get this really important data. I can’t be a frivolous human. I’m supposed to be focused, not, like, thinking about myself. I’m supposed to be an automaton, just getting it done.” There’s no doubt that Haynes is dedicated to her field science. But to prove it, she has to see herself as more of a robot than a woman. Kind of awesome. But also a little bit stressful.

There’s an even more sinister reason female scientists may hesitate to wear makeup: It can attract the wrong kind of attention. In a survey of hundreds of field scientists, a whopping 70 percent of women personally experienced sexual harassment in the field (including hearing “comments about physical beauty”). And a quarter (26 percent) of women experienced sexual assault while they were working in the field. So it makes sense that female scientists may try to blend in to avoid unwanted sexual attention. But the pressure to “look like one of the guys” is exhausting — that’s something that takes up too much brainspace. Female scientists should be able to express their femininity without feeling unprofessional or unscientific or just plain unsafe.

The concept of makeup inequality might seem trivial, especially considering the larger issues plaguing female scientists (the gender pay gap, for example). But it’s a symptom of a larger problem: There aren’t enough women in science. Robinson believes relatable role models are essential to help young female trainees identify with the profession. “We need more women, more senior women,” she says. “I think the more women we have in science, the more comfortable people will become looking more feminine.” And the more likely we can break the stereotype that scientists are just a bunch of geeks.

There’s so much beauty in science. Scientists should be able to express their own beauty, too. Even if it’s on a remote island in Antarctica.