Old wives’ tales, fake news articles, and apocryphal laws have bolstered the idea that cosmetics are intended to fool men.
In various books, academic articles, blogs, legal notes, and social-media posts, you can find references to a law passed by England in 1770 that made it legal for a man to divorce his wife if she tricked him into marriage using witchcraft, such as makeup, to enhance her looks. Called the Hoops and Heels Act, it stated that any woman who tried to “seduce and betray into matrimony” a man using “scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, [or] bolstered hips” would be tried for witchcraft and have her marriage voided if found guilty.
Except it never happened. But generations of researchers have been fooled, some stating that the law was passed in 1774, others saying that it was voted down by Parliament, and another group claiming that under the counsel of their mistresses and wives, members of Parliament decided not to vote on it at all.
Though generations of researchers have been fooled... these stories are all urban legend.
Law librarian Dean Willard tried to chase down the original bill and ruling and found no mention of it in notes or documents from Parliamentary sessions. The first reference he could find was in an 1879 copy of Art of Perfumery, which was then cited by Encyclopedia Britannica, and the reputation of these two texts gave the story the legitimacy that would sustain it for the next 150 years.
Just because the law is fake doesn’t mean that everyone in the 18th century would have been opposed to it. A 1711 letter written to the Spectator, a British daily paper, detailed the plight of an “injured gentleman” who had just married what he called one of the “women who do not let their husbands see their faces till they are married.” He referenced a play called Silent Woman, in which a character receives a divorce because of “error personae” — discovering his new wife was not the woman he intended to marry — and asked if this law could be used to “be rid of [his] wife.” The paper responded sympathetically, recalling secondhand stories of women tricking men for the pleasure of tormenting them, and agreed that true justice would be a swift separation, though they weren’t sure if the law would support his case.
Three hundred years later and newspapers are printing the same stories. At the end of 2015 and 2016 two similar accounts hit the news, republished in outlets from Emirates Women to Marie Claire. In the first, an Algerian man woke up the morning after his wedding horrified at the sight of his wife’s bare face, fearing a thief had broken into the apartment. He felt betrayed at the discovery that she was not as beautiful as she had looked before the wedding, and immediately divorced and sued her for $20,000, citing psychological suffering.
In the second case, a just-married Arab couple went to the beach, where the man saw his wife’s “features change” as the water washed her face. Apparently she had undergone cosmetic surgery and worn fake eyelashes, intending to eventually tell him the truth. As in the story from 2015, the man felt betrayed that his bride had been prettier before the wedding. He, too, divorced her, and both articles breathlessly explain that the women sought psychological counseling to deal with the trauma of the situation.
In the second case, a just-married Arab couple went to the beach where the man saw his wife’s “features change” as the water washed her face.
These stories were predated by the extensive 2012 news coverage of a Chinese man divorcing his wife after discovering she’d undergone extensive plastic surgery, her deceit exposed when she gave birth to ugly children. This story first started circling the internet in 2004, with the husband suing on the grounds of false pretenses and supposedly being awarded anywhere between $67,000 and $120,000, depending on the source.
Besides superficial husbands, these stories have a few major things in common: They’re all fake, as confirmed by Snopes; they’re found on sites taking credit for planting stories; and they suffer from an overall lack of sources and additional information about the results of each lawsuit. They all feature women intentionally using cosmetics or surgery to lie, and involve either psychological trauma, witchcraft, or the shame of having ugly kids. Because these stories were difficult to verify since they took place far in the past or in foreign countries, news outlets rushed to recycle the same handful of quotes and failed to fact-check each story as it spread across the internet, with only a few adding caveats about taking the news with a grain of salt until more information could come to light.
These salacious stories of cosmetic trickery are entertaining because, despite their absurdity, they seem plausible. The use of womanly wiles and feminine trickery have been blamed for many things since the Garden of Eden, and makeup is seen as an extension of this inherent dishonesty. Women, we imagine, are willing to lie to get what they want, even if that involves trapping men through the long con of contour and lipstick.
Makeup is seen as an extension of this inherent dishonesty, with women willing to lie to get what they want, even if that involves trapping men through the long con of contour and lipstick.
Online forums feature men bemoaning before-and-after pictures of makeup, advising a trip to the pool on the first date, and calling makeup a “trick” since women “are cheating in the natural selection game.” In each photo set, “after” pictures feature thick eyeliner, expertly applied smoky eyes, and brows clearly filled with product. These women aren’t hiding the fact that they wear makeup. In fact, they’re even posting photos of their bare faces for comparison. How much of a trick can it really be when someone is upfront about their cosmetics usage?
Artist Megan Nicole Dong’s delightful comic strips illustrate this point, showing lipstick tricking men into bees’ nests, mascara lying about the weather, eyebrows pointing someone off a cliff, and a bit of eyeliner and lipstick tricking a man into kissing a pig’s ass. They’re ridiculous, kind of like the idea that shimmery gold eyeshadow is part of a malicious attempt to deceive people.
The photos used in these sensationalized stories of dishonest brides show women blatantly wearing a full face of product. The shock toward their bare faces reflects a kind of wishful thinking — do we really believe that women spend time, energy, and money to paint their faces so they’ll look exactly like they did before they started? These stories imagine that the goal of these women’s makeup routines is to get the man and, eventually, get married, but in what ways are they benefited by linking themselves to partners too naive to imagine what lies beneath their smoky eyes and pink lipstick? The worth of their male protagonists is inflated in these scenarios: The men are framed as so desirable that they are the target of makeup manipulation, reaffirming to a male audience that it’s reasonable to have high aesthetic expectations for their partners — expectations that many women are unable to meet.
When someone’s view of a woman is so removed from reality that they can praise her for going bare-faced even if she is clearly wearing makeup, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the viewer’s end.
The core issue, one we see repeated in our favorite magazines and across popular media, is the extreme divorce between what women look like and what we want them to look like. When someone’s view of a woman is so removed from reality that they can praise her for going bare-faced even if she is clearly wearing makeup, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the viewer’s end. Just think back to the Wonderland magazine cover of Taylor Swift, or the images of countless other celebrities in editorials or on the red carpet who were mistakenly praised for wearing no makeup. While “natural” makeup looks are applauded, they are still part of a longer makeup routine involving time, energy, and plenty of products. There’s a skewed perception of what a fresh-faced woman looks like, and not even celebrities, the professional pretty people, are able to pull that off.
Even if makeup is subtle, it’s not invisible. People use these products for a reason: They change how you look. Few people have perfect skin, many have darkness under their eyes, and some have barely-there eyebrows. These facial features are not malicious weapons that cause psychological trauma worth suing over, and women certainly don’t hide them as part of a master plan to marry someone superficial enough to be disgusted and seek a divorce when they discover the the obvious “truth.”
Women do use makeup to cover up and transform themselves, but their goals are much more personal and far less conniving than these articles suggest. A strong cat eye can make you feel invincible, and a bold red lip can shift a gloomy mood. Makeup can change a person, altering their face as well as their mental and emotional state. But when a woman washes off her face and shows it to a man, it’s not a “gotcha” moment. No one is being trapped and no one is being tricked.