Home > musing > Subway etiquette: applying makeup on the 1 train

Subway etiquette: applying makeup on the 1 train

August 11, 2012

I’m a huge fan of public transportation, mostly subways. I used the New York City subway system on average three times a day, especially now that I’m not working. And I like to observe people on the subway, and the sometimes strange etiquette that you see there.

Specifically, I am interested in how people break what I call the two cardinal rules of public transportation:

  1. No eye contact or conversations with people you didn’t get on the subway with. Exceptions when, as described here, somebody incredibly smelly or incredibly sick leaves, or the subway gets irretrievably stuck in the tunnel.
  2. No doing anything weird, even by yourself, to attract undue attention. Things like reading, playing games on your phone, and pretending to sleep are OK, things like eating smelly food or humming or whistling: not okay.

Most people who break these rules I get – they are trying to get you to give them money, or they’re slightly to totally insane, or both. Fair enough, that’s part of the fabric of life in a big city.

But there’s one category of people I just don’t get, namely the women who put outlandish amounts of makeup on while sitting on the subway.

I’m not talking about a dab of lipstick, which seems fine and comparable to chapstick or something. I’m talking about the women who come with a complete set of foundation, eyeliners, mascara, the works. They sit there peering intensely into their tiny mirrors, creating a new persona, utterly absorbed in their transformation, and completely oblivious to the mesmerizing effect that it has on everyone.

Or maybe not, maybe it’s performance art – sometimes I think so. Or perhaps they are actually insane in a small way.

Because otherwise it seems like a contradiction in terms to me. From my perspective, wearing that much makeup usually indicates a willingness to conform at the highest level (these are usually young women, so the idea that they are actually in need of makeup to cover sun spots or wrinkles does not apply), but then the willingness to break the second cardinal rule of subway riding seems to be in direct conflict with that religion of conformism.

For example, whenever I see one of these 25-year-old foundation appliers, I’m wondering, who are you becoming? From whom are you hiding your real face? If it’s your coworkers, what if one of them is on this train right now? Then they’d see the real you in the before shot, at the beginning of your ride. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the makeup? Isn’t that too large a risk to take for you?

Since I don’t wear makeup myself, I’m also wondering if I’m just not understanding the goal of that much makeup. Maybe if I understood more deeply why women wear these masks, I’d also understand why they’re willing to apply them in front of a crowd of strangers.

Categories: musing
  1. Emanuel Derman
    August 11, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I think it’s part of a general breakdown of etiquette, the diminishing gap between private and public, that people do their detailed makeup in public. Similarly you see people eating entire meals sitting next to you on the subway, and I don’t mean just sandwiches. But at least in the latter case they may really be hungry and stressed. Still …


  2. subwaybookclub
    August 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I disagree with your rule 2. I feel like you can do anything on the subway because of rule 1. Because of rule 1, the subway feels almost like it’s not a public space with everyone at least pretending not to notice anything (I recall sitting at one end of a car with a bunch of other riders pretending not to notice the person on crack who took his shirt off and was using it to “clean” the other end of the car while raving incoherently). As a result, I have painted my toenails (without taking my sandals off) on the subway and regularly haul out a stack of cases and mark them up for work.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Eeew! Please, on behalf of the rest of us, don’t do that. The smell alone is enough reason.


  3. somedude
    August 11, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Oh oh, I have seen such things too, although on a train not a subway. But when I asked some female friends of mine about such behaviour, they answered along the lines of if you have a large commute and are expected to wear such things at work, because you have a representative position or so then it is convenient to do it on the commute and sleep a little longer.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Define “expected.” If you don’t want to wear makeup, I doubt someone at work will complain when you don’t. That’s just bizarre.


      • FogOfWar
        August 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

        People in sales positions, people who are real estate agents, etc., etc.

        There’s a classic Curb Your Enthusiasm where the lead goes to his lawyer who is wearing slacks and a button down shirt. “What’s this?” he asks. “It’s casual Friday.” “Oh, so does that mean your going to be casually drafting my new will and the contracts I brought? WTF–I pay you to be careful and rigorous, not casual!”

        Love you Cathy, but I think you take for granted the latitude you have in terms of “conforming” behavior based on the fact that you’re employed for your highly technical (and rare) skills and so (for various reasons) it’s allowed, maybe even expected, that you dress and present more casually than others in an office environment.



      • Real World
        August 12, 2012 at 11:55 am

        It DOES happen. I know of a recent experience, where someone was given as a reason for their firing that their office attire was not made-up enough. This was someone who wore clean, office-attire clothes and worked in a very remote office, nowhere near the public. Real world.


  4. JSE
    August 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Data point: I don’t think it’s at all weird to see someone putting on makeup in public, but I do think it would be weird to see someone brushing their teeth or applying deodorant in public.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm

      It is weird when it’s as elaborate as what I’ve seen. I’ve also seen teeth flossing on the subway, which totally grosses me out.


      • FogOfWar
        August 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

        That is really gross. What about this one: what do you think when you go into an office bathroom and someone is brushing and flossing their teeth? I know I should be applauding their mid-day dental hygiene, but I find it a little weird and gross…


        • JSE
          August 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm

          Somebody’s audibly crapping five feet away from you and you’re grossed out that somebody else is brushing their teeth?


        • Shawn Thompson
          August 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm

          I think it’s the combination of the two that makes it awkward, haha


        • Real World
          August 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

          Teeth *need* flossing as aging sets in – even for the formerly resistant (damn). IMP, you and mathbabe are overly prissy for the new world of accepting folks’ challenging lives I thought OWW encouraged.


  5. Deborah gieringer
    August 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I’ve also marveled at this, but finally decided that putting on makeup seems for many women to be like tucking in your shirt or tying your shoes–something so habitual, so given, so BANAL, that the question of hiding the “real you” would be uninteresting, if not meaningless.


  6. Dan L
    August 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    I don’t think putting on makeup really qualifies as a violation of rule 2, because it doesn’t intrude on other people. I ride the subway all the time, and I don’t ever remember seeing the behavior you describe. I don’t doubt that it happens; most likely I don’t notice because it’s not intrusive. If I’m in my world listening to music, reading a book, etc., why should it bother me if someone is putting on makeup? I would place makeup application on the same level as eating non-smelly non-messy food–perhaps a bit “uncivilized” but not actually offensive. (However, as a practical matter, putting makeup on on a subway train seems like a bad idea just because the car moves too much.)

    To be honest, I think that this behavior bothers you because *you* are personally offended by makeup.

    However, I agree that nail polish is absolutely out of bounds because of the fumes.


  7. Yulan
    August 12, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Makeup is not conforming. It is a narrative that one tells himself or others. It is different in means but not in purpose from the choice of words, expressions, clothes, music in your head, etc. To not deliberate over any of these is very comfortable way of living, but to be able to enjoy the difference and freedom of transition can also be a lot of fun.


    • August 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Just when I’m starting to believe that some people need to wear makeup as a job requirement you come in and say it’s a statement of individuality? Now I’m completely confused! 🙂


      • Yulan
        August 14, 2012 at 10:04 am

        Maybe I am being naive, I think people put on makeup coz they want to look good(or great), as simple as that. In this day and age in such a great city, do people put in all this effort just to be like others?
        (why do I turn up as this particular interesting bug? 😀 )


        • Yulan
          August 14, 2012 at 10:18 am

          As for the actual subject of this post, I think if I step on a train and get to see people living their lives right there, chatting with friends, braiding their hair, arm wrestling, nursing babies, complaining about police, knitting, playing chess, singing karaoke, selling hotdogs, etc. it would actually be awesome! Is there a train like that in the US? 🙂


  8. Silvia Adduci
    August 14, 2012 at 8:23 am

    I love love love make up, but you couldn´t catch me dead applying it in the subway. I don´t think of it as hiding the “real me”, but as a form of art and self expression. That´s why I enjoy applying it, so I would never waste the opportunity of doing so in the comfort of my home by rushing through the process in a moving vehicle. Also, I work in a very healthy environment. If I ever felt like I “have to” wear make up to work, that would probably ruin some of the fun of it for me.


  9. August 16, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Been enjoying the comments, but all I can think is an analysis of people’s notions of disgust is probably promising material for “data science”!


  10. WM
    August 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I once was at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas playing blackjack. A guy sat at the table and proceeded to floss his teeth. He was betting $100/hand and losing. No one said anything.


  11. SG
    August 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    I might actually be the girl you spotted on the 1 train. Not kidding. I applied a full face of makeup on a downtown 1 between 72nd and 28th sometime earlier this month.I was running late to work. Relax.

    I may be 24, but I’m extremely pale, and on days when I don’t apply foundation, people ask if I’m sick or exhausted. Additionally, I have acne scars that require covering, even if they aren’t “wrinkles or age spots”. (Seriously, do you think every young woman has flawless skin?)

    Other than wanting to look awake and adult, why does it matter to you? My hands were clean, they were touching my own face, and it wasn’t causing any offensive sights, sounds, noises, or smells.

    Society pressures women to meet certain expectations in the workplace. Duh. It’s NYC. Sure, maybe it’s conformist to not present my “natural” self. But applying makeup is like wearing skirts instead of jeans to work, or for men, a button-down shirt instead of a tattered old sports jersey.

    It sucks that I’m financially independent and actually have to do these things to earn a damn paycheck. If only I had a trust fund and could dye my hair teal! Gosh, maybe I should just quit and work someplace that’ll allow me to be ~the real me~, except that’s rare as hell and we’re in a recession. No.

    One last thing – makeup is fun. I like bringing out my features by using certain colors and products. So what? It’s no different from changing one’s hairstyle. God forbid I want to feel like I look good.

    Cut the girl-on-girl hate. Internalized misogyny is grosser than any makeup subway violation.


  12. El ricci
    October 17, 2012 at 5:31 am

    seriously, i just don’t get what the big deal is about makeup. if it’s makeup that isn’t loose (like loose powder) or makeup that’s heavily scented, i don’t see the big deal. i think a lot of the other things, like people eating smelly food, are disgusting, but honestly, i really don’t care about people applying makeup. i personally hate attracting attention, but if i didn’t care as much what people thought of me, i would totally do the eyeliner/mascara/concealer thing. definitely not powders, eye shadows, or anything that could fall onto the person sitting next to me, but everything else would totally be cool. in fact, it would save me some time everyday. i know a girl who does this. she’s totally a cool chick and she isn’t low-class or anything. i think she just doesn’t give a crap what people think. plus, she gets an extra 15 minutes of sleep every day. i wish i had the guts, but for now, i’ll stick with putting it on at home. as far as anyone who flosses in a public space (excluding a public bathroom), they really should be shot.


  13. El ricci
    October 17, 2012 at 5:32 am

    *not heavily scented. oops.


  14. Robin
    December 24, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Yet we can’t put our makeup on in the bathroom at work? Really?


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