The ‘Beautiful Game’: Why We Can’t Underestimate the Role of Beauty in Women’s Football

The ‘Beautiful Game’: Why We Can’t Underestimate the Role of Beauty in Women’s Football

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has officially kicked off, and to celebrate VERSUS and GLAMOUR UK have joined forces to bring fans a football series that explores the rise (and rise) of the women's game through features focusing on activism, fashion and beauty.

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August 3rd 2023

Last summer, Sarina Wiegman and the Lionesses ended England’s 56-years of hurt when they won the UEFA European Women’s Championship. A moment that sent shivers down the spines of fans up and down the country. The likes of Chloe Kelly, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo became household names overnight, with their historic win inspiring millions of girls (and boys) to pick up a pair of football boots. But what these heroines also did was remind the world: you can have eyelash extensions, acrylics and wear makeup whilst being an elite athlete.

In 1921, the English Football Association announced that football was an “unsuitable” game for women to play as it could be harmful to female participants, and so the federation banned women from playing the sport - in any structured, vaguely organised capacity - until 1971. During those fifty years, the ideal of womanhood and what a woman ‘should’ look and act like, was centred around an archaic definition of femininity.

The FA’s ban contributed to the idea that playing football - getting sweaty and muddy, performing crunching slide tackles and participating in what is often a physical sport - was a man’s activity. In other words, football was not an appropriate environment for those of a delicate disposition i.e. women.

Thankfully, nowadays people aren’t only more accepting of girls and women playing football, but are wanting – more than ever before – to watch it. A 2022 post-EUROs study found that 40% of the general public were now more interested in watching women’s football following the Lionesses’ performances last summer than previously. And although the stigma surrounding women playing football has shifted, in recent years, people seem to be more concerned about how players look whilst kicking a ball and doing their job, than anything else.

During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Nigeria international Francisca Ordega engaged in an online debate after fans criticised her for wearing makeup and hair extensions during a 3-0 defeat. Fans didn’t just question her beauty choices but even suggested they could have contributed to her team’s loss. “The hair Ordega carries wouldn’t allow her to move freely. It tells on her game.” wrote one Twitter user, @shigobouncing.

Questions like, “why is she wearing a full face of makeup?” and “are her eyelashes false?” were also directed at two-time World Cup winner Alex Morgan as well as World Cup runner-up and the Netherlands international, Shanice van de Sanden. And although there are ‘fans’ who seem to be more preoccupied with judging players for what they look like rather than their skill, there are some who are directly challenging these outdated perceptions of beauty in sport, and proving that women can score a worldie whilst also looking like one; Alisha Lehmann being one of those people.

The Aston Villa and Switzerland international has accumulated an Instagram following of 13.7 million thanks to her skills as a footballer as well as her online presence as a lover of makeup, beauty, and fashion.

Speaking to The Times earlier this year, Lehmann said: “When I was younger, a lot of people told me, “oh, you can’t wear make-up. You can’t wear your lashes when you play.” And at one point I thought, “why not?” It’s normal, and it doesn’t hurt anyone if I do it.”

Not only is it absolutely no one’s business if a woman wants to apply makeup – on or off the pitch – but research has actually shown that feeling confident in your appearance can help athletes to perform better. This is what is actually known as the ‘Lipstick Effect’. The 2017 study by Harvard Medical School found that women who wore makeup, consequently boosted their self-esteem. And in terms of wearing makeup on the pitch, Holly Beedon, an integrative psychotherapist and clinical lead at Living Well, explains that makeup can help people to “get in the right headspace”, too.

“Makeup can be a way to feel more confident and ‘put-together’. Studies have shown that when people feel confident in their appearance it can lead to a boost in self-confidence overall,” explained Beedon.

Self-confidence plays a huge part in football, particularly when stepping up to the penalty spot, in front of a packed out stadium on some of the world’s biggest sporting stages. So if applying makeup is the difference between coping with pressure or not, surely these world class athletes should be able to apply something like lipstick if they feel like it? Something Brazilian icon Marta knows a thing or two about.

At the 2019 World Cup, Marta stepped up to the spot and sent the crowd into a frenzy when she secured victory over Italy to qualify for the knockout stages, breaking the record for the most World Cup goals scored in history (men’s or women’s). A feat she achieved whilst wearing her favourite makeup staple: lipstick.

“I always wear lipstick. Not that colour (red), but today I said, “I’m going to dare.” I tried it and I think it was good,” Marta said in a post-match interview. “The colour is of blood, because we had to leave blood on the pitch. Now I’m going to use it in every game.”

Since the 2019 tournament, the conversation around beauty in women’s football has started to blossom. The announcement of New York-based beauty brand, Il Makiage, as Arsenal Women’s new partner has opened up the conversation around women being both feminine and “fierce, bold, and unapologetic”.

Investing time in physical appearance and simply enjoying beauty products and practices is a small habit that can positively impact a player’s overall mindset.

“Feeling attractive and presentable may enhance [a player’s] sense of self-worth, leading to increased motivation, assertiveness, and a willingness to take risks on the field,” explains Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist at Private Therapy Clinic.

Of the last 16 who have qualified for the knockout stages of this summer’s World Cup, several players have championed beauty. From Kadidiatou Diani’s blue and silver braids and Ella Toone’s eyelash extensions to Cheyna Matthews’ flawless contouring (and brows…and general aura, to be honest). These players are once again flipping the script on what athleticism in women’s sport looks like.

For too long women have been told they can be strong, but not too strong. Or they can wear makeup but only if it looks natural. Players like David Beckham, Djibril Cissé and Jack Grealish have been routinely praised for pushing fashion boundaries and experimenting with hairstyles in the men’s game – albeit some were met with criticism along the way – but women are still expected to meet and uphold highly unreasonable beauty standards. Enough is enough. These are some of the best players the game has ever known, and if wearing lipstick or foundation for 90 minutes means they continue to break records, new ground and rigid societal norms…then everyone should wear makeup. The world would be a better place for it.