Are You Tired of People Asking You if You’re Tired?

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Alexis Record

Feminist, humanist, friendly advocate.

Doctor: “Don’t challenge me, Harriet Jones, because I’m a completely new man. I could bring down your government with a single word… not a single word. Just six.”

Harriet: “Stop it.”

Doctor (whispers to another man): “Don’t you think she looks tired?”


I’ve heard this countless times in my life. “You look tired.” I’ve even said this to others. It can be communicated in different ways:

“You seem a bit run down.”

“Did you get enough sleep last night?”

“You must be exhausted.”

These are all fine things to say if you see someone yawning, or if someone is complaining about their lack of sleep. But this is not a blog post about empathy with tired people. This is a blog post about women (as rested as usual) hearing these things more often than the men around them. The issue is that these comments are rarely ever said to me after I yawn, but said all the time when I’m not wearing makeup. The only time I remember anyone commenting on my husband looking tired was when he was recovering from surgery.

Maybe you’ve said this to a female coworker or friend. I’m sure your intentions were honorable. But maybe think of how many times you’ve said something similar to a male friend or coworker. Consider that women can hear this a lot, and it often corresponds to times we’ve stepped out of arbitrary gender roles, intentionally or not, when it comes to appearance.

I learned some unspoken rule growing up that women’s faces must be blemish free with no discoloration below the eye. We must look bright and fresh and young at all times. Several lines of creams, foundations, and procedures are marketed to women to help us achieve this cultural requirement. And when we don’t “pay for the plaster,” we’re punished in insidious ways like when those in authority chide us for “not putting in the effort” or our friends imply we’re not loving ourselves enough by trying to look our best. Again, many men do not experience this.

I’ve heard makeup used as a substitute for self respect when shaming women, as in “she’s not respecting herself” when she goes without. I know those in positions of power and privilege can wield “You look tired today,” as a weapon, as if our appearance speaks to our ability. But mostly, this common refrain is uttered by those who are surprised that our faces don’t look how they expected. Commenting on how tired we are is, obviously, better than saying, “You look uglier today,” but can communicate the same.

Asking if we’re tired, when we’ve shown no indications of being tired, can be a way of reminding us that we’re not acceptable as we are, as if women must pay an appearance rent in order to take up visual space. This gendered expectation is not simply an inconvenient social pressure to get women to comply to beauty standards–oh no, it has more power than that. Our culture has told us the makeup-less face suggests things about a woman’s character, and this has resulted in an economic disadvantage for women in the work place.

Jaclyn Wong from the University of Chicago and Andrew Penner from the University of California at Irvine did a study including 14,000 participants and found that women who wore less makeup earned less money. And when I say, “earned” less money, I mean they were provided less money for services they could provide just as skillfully and efficiently without makeup. Viktoria Mileva of University of Stirling found in her study that men interviewing female employees will think those wearing makeup are more prestigious than those who wear less makeup. While women interviewers did not have the same reaction (they tended to see women in makeup as more dominant), statistically a potential employee is more likely to be interviewed by a man. So women wearing makeup are more likely to get hired.

If a woman does not get the job she interviewed for, she may wonder if she tried hard enough, which now includes wondering if she wore the right amount of makeup. Is it fair to her that applying makeup is enforced this way?

I don’t wear makeup, except on rare occasions like Halloween (or future job interviews I suppose). And the money and time I’ve saved is worth it to me. I even get more sleep now since I can sleep in longer, yet I’ve heard that I’m tired more often. Isn’t that interesting?

The push back I’ve received from not wearing makeup has been something I can easily manage due to my privileges in other areas. But what I’m learning is that some women can’t make that choice; they can’t afford it. Going without makeup could mean the difference between security and unemployment–making ends meet or thriving. In Harriet Jones’ case, gendered expectations and ageism cost her the fictional job of prime minister. In my neighbor’s case, getting told she looks too tired could cost her a promotion.

Those dark circles under the eyes we’re told to avoid are caused by being human, not necessarily by being “tired.” Allergies can cause them, rubbing causes them, sleeping stomach down is one cause, and sleeping too much is another. Legitimate, completely ordinary things cause them, and all genders can have them. The prevalence of women wearing makeup has meant we’re no longer used to seeing them on half the population. Same with leg hair. Honestly, I’m tired of being dinged in society for simply being in a human body while female.

So when someone says I look tired, my favorite response so far has been: “I’m allowed.”