Does low-maintenance beauty actually exist?

We’re in the age of easy, seemingly effortless, “low-maintenance” beauty. You know the look, replete with a complexion that requires no foundation (but religious application of Retin-A and vitamin C serums). The long, lush, mascara-free lashes (courtesy of eyelash growth serum). And, of course, the wash-and-go hairstyle (thanks to a four-hour chemical smoothing process). 

Many women want to see themselves as a low-maintenance, not high-maintenance. And yet it’s increasingly unclear what those terms mean, and why—for those who associate each with certain attributes—some of us care so much.

“These terms are just so weighted and have negative connotations,” says Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist and a psychiatrist in New York City who doesn’t use the terms with her patients. “They feel judgmental, and obviously that’s not something I want them to feel when they come to me.” High maintenance, in particular, brings to mind not just someone who is reliant on a time-consuming beauty routine, but a woman who might be over-demanding, over-bearing, overly vain. In short, someone who is too much.

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“No one wants to be thought of that way,” says celebrity hair colorist Rita Hazan, who has surely tended to the hair of some of the more highly-maintained celebrities in the business—in whatever sense of the term one means. “It also just sounds expensive, and not in a good way,” and that’s not attractive when it comes to what a partner might think, says Hazan, to say nothing of what it might broadcast to one’s peers.

"So many women want to look as good as they can, to feel good. But they also want it to look effortless."

By contrast, the low maintenance gal is breezy, can be ready in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, is up for anything and “as comfortable in jeans as she is in a little black dress.” She’s not going to keep you waiting or be a pocketbook drain. She is, as Gillian Flynn writes in Gone Girl—a “cool girl.” She’s a natural beauty, and in today’s more-is-less, I-woke-up-like-this Insta-culture, she looks like she’s not wearing a ton of makeup. 

But therein lies the rub: What is natural today? Where is the line between low and high? Who is to say that someone who is quick at the vanity is actually doing less beauty maintenance than someone who painstakingly draws on precision brows every day? Between Botox and fillers, lash extensions and microblading, permanent makeup tattoos and pricey facials, there are ever more behind-the-scenes methods to put forth a glowing face—and only you, your derm, and the inside of your bathroom really knows what is going on. 

“So many women want to look as good as they can, to feel good. But they also want it to look effortless,” says Ty Holbrook, a wizard of keratin treatments and hair extensions at Serge Normant Salon in New York City. 

Effortless. That’s the hope that so many no-makeup-looks and air-dried, beachy waves inspo-boards are built upon. But it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. 

Silk Sheets

Perhaps that’s the whole point about high or low maintenance terminology and why it’s so slippery. It’s performative; it’s about various degrees of transparency, not just time or money. And it’s largely a myth. 

Low maintenance can be just as hard—or harder—to attain and maintain than high maintenance, notes Hazan. “Trust me,” she says. “Someone who looks natural is just doing her stuff in a less obvious way and, in fact, is probably working twice as hard at it.”

"In the office, I can give myself little bits of Botox, and he doesn’t see that. He doesn’t realize that I get a manicure every single week..."

Wechsler’s husband often remarks to her that he finds it funny that while she gets her hair blown out two or three times a week, otherwise, she’s “low-maintenance.” But he’s not quite right, says Wechsler. “In the office, I can give myself little bits of Botox, and he doesn’t see that. He doesn’t realize that I get a manicure every single week, but I put on just clear polish, so my nails are neat.”

Not that any of this should be remotely shameful, says Hazan. That pesky word “maintenance,” with its high or low modifiers, is part of the problem. Instead, consider what you do for yourself a “routine,” “a regimen,” or a “system” (these are Hazan’s and Wechsler’s preferred suite of terms) – in the same way that you may have a system for anything else you care about, or are investing in for the purposes of self-esteem and self-care. 

In the end, whether you identify with high or low maintenance, or reject those terms entirely in favor of some other way to quantify or qualify what you choose to do for beauty/self-care, the goal should be for everyone to find the place that works for them and feel confident in their choice—no smoke and mirrors necessary. That, of course, is the most beautiful thing. —Liz Krieger

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  1. Catherine

    Fascinating article on low versus high-maintenance women. I felt that the perspective of those women who believe that we are beautiful just as we are, without ever wearing a stitch of makeup was pushed aside and not presented as a viable option for women everywhere who are tired of painting their faces. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn makeup for something special, like when I got married, or a really important job interview straight out of college. I was still to young to embrace the mantra that if you don’t love me for who I am, you can exit my life- I fight too hard every against a painful back disability, but even before all of that, my beliefs were exactly the same.

    • Rose Inc.

      Hi Catherine! Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent reply. You make good points about makeup (and all the accoutrements) being optional. I agree. Some days, I wear makeup; other days, I don’t. I feel like myself either way. Makeup—to wear it or not to wear it—is a personal choice. Some women feel stifled by an expectation to wear it, while others feel a sense of possibility when they choose to wear it. Either way, though, I think few women want to be seen as “high-maintenance” when it comes to their appearance. And that is what I find most intriguing. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and for being a reader. —Annie Tomlin, editorial director

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