Tracey Spicer as she appears on our television screens. Photo: James Brickwood
"You're looking tired. Are you feeling sick?" This is what I've been asked after turning up to corporate meetings with frizzy hair on my head, several strays poking from my chin, and no make-up. People have looked at me strangely. One colleague has even burst out laughing, "Woah, that's crazy hair!"
I've felt exposed. But I battle on, without my armour, because I want this to be the new norm. After 30 years in television I'd become what I despised: a painted doll who spent an hour a day and close to $200 a week putting on a mask.
The routine involved straightening serum, blow-dry, hairspray, moisturiser, eye cream, primer, foundation, powder, concealer, blusher, eyeliner, eye shadow, brow brush, lash curler, mascara, lip liner, lip stick, lip gloss, and body bronzer. I squeezed swollen feet into vertiginous heels, causing bunions and osteoarthritis; plucked large hairs out of their follicles, chanting "beauty is pain; beauty is pain".
Spicer as she looks without make-up. Photo: James Brickwood
Then, exactly one year ago, I began deconstructing the beauty myth. It was prompted by a question from my seven-year-old daughter, as she watched my elaborate ritual. "Mum, why do women put on make-up and men don't?" she asked.
"Darling, society has unrealistic expectations about the way women look," I replied. "It's not fair. But I'm going to do everything I can, in my own small way, to change that. Always remember: you're beautiful just the way you are."
This led to me wiping off my make-up, spraying water on my hair, and kicking off my heels on stage at TEDxSouthBankWomen. It felt liberating, empowering and real. The speech went viral, attracting more than 800,000 hits.
I've been weaning myself off extreme grooming ever since. Each month, I reduce my regime: spray tans, hair treatments and serums are gone; blow-dries and dye jobs are halved; make-up is back to a bare minimum. As for all that expensive skincare full of nasty chemicals? What a waste. Nowadays, it's a simple cleanser and moisturiser.
Last month, I stopped shaving my armpits. One girlfriend was horrified: "Don't you feel sweaty? Doesn't it smell?" Well, yes and no. It does feel different. But I feel sexier, strangely. The legs are next, at which point I can truly call myself a hairy-legged feminist.
Then, there's the biggie: to stop dyeing my hair. Sadly, I don't have the confidence to tackle that one yet. And I'm still trying to work out whether I could keep my job as a TV news anchor without wearing the "uniform".
But I couldn't be happier, because I've bought myself an extra hour a day: more time to play with the kids, ride the paddle board and strum the guitar.
Oh, and work. I'm definitely more productive. The best thing? I feel like the real me, instead of a painted doll.
ABC TV reporter Philippa McDonald articulated this beautifully as I walked into a Women in Media meeting, past a picture of me in my war paint. With a warm hug, she said, "I like this Tracey better than that Tracey."
I wasn't always a beauty addict. My sister and I were brought up on a diet of motor racing instead of make-up; it was all about dipsticks, not lipsticks. As a teenager, I read Dickens, not Dolly. So I was shocked when one of my bosses - at a radio station, believe it or not - told me to put on some make-up so I'd "look more professional".
Over the next 20 years my confidence was slowly eroded by letters from viewers and comments from superiors. My face and body were in a state of continual "renovation".
"You're porking up a bit," one boss said, months after I'd given birth. "I suggest you get rid of the scarecrow hair," from one viewer, after a live cross at the scene of a murder-suicide. "We need to do something about the crow's-feet," suggested one producer.
No wonder we end up hiding behind a mask, fronting television's image factory. This was brought into sharp focus during my first TV appearance about the TEDx talk, entitled The Lady Stripped Bare. In the Studio 10 make-up room, an artist danced around me for an hour as I swatted away her brushes. "Oh, at least let me put some false eyelashes on you!" she said, exasperated.
Heavy make-up and helmet hair is part of a presenter's uniform. But it's not just TV: extreme grooming is becoming baseline. In 2013-14, beauty industry revenue in Australia is expected to grow by 2.9 per cent to $3.6 billion. In Britain, the beauty market has grown by 120 per cent in the past three years.
We're living in a "highly gendered society when it comes to expectations about female dressing and grooming," says Catharine Lumby, professor of media at Macquarie University. "The real question is when does grooming become a grim chore rather than a pleasurable ritual?"
I would say, at work. Research by the University of Technology, Sydney, and Daegu University in South Korea, reveals that radical plastic surgery procedures among Korean women are "standard practice" before corporate job interviews. This trend of "lookism" is pervading Australian workplaces, too.
"I absolutely agree there is an increased focus on women's appearance and grooming in workplaces as compared to men," says Liz Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.
Grooming is a cost of doing business borne by women, not men. According to one survey, women spend about 3276 hours primping and preening over a lifetime, while men devote only 1092 hours to their looks. But despite the time and money grooming costs, it does seem to increase earning power.
British sociologist Catherine Hakim says women who invest in the right make-up, clothes and hairstyle are raising their "erotic capital" in the workplace. In her book, Honey Money: Why Attractiveness Is the Key to Success, she cites studies showing bias in babies, who prefer to look at attractive faces. "People who don't make efforts to look well and groomed are ignored," Hakim told British media. "It's nothing to do with fairness – it's the real world and most of the behaviour is unconscious. Looks matter."
Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh calls this link between looks and success "pulchronomics", in his book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. The economist points to compelling evidence "well-turned out people" earn significantly more than their "homely" colleagues.
"Assuming today's mean wages, a handsome worker in America might on average make US$230,000 more in salary over a lifetime than a very plain one," he posits.
This "appearance penalty" is greater for women. A study by Boston University in 2011 finds people perceive women to be more "likeable, trustworthy and competent when they're wearing make-up". Our self-esteem is linked inextricably with our appearance. As self-confessed beauty junkie Jess Turner, from jessicatoatee.blogspot.com, says, "I feel like the best version of myself when I'm groomed."
So how do we exude confidence without over-grooming? For me, it's a three-step process: deconstruct, reconstruct, SHEconstruct. In other words, gradually cut back until you feel comfortable with the real you.
Now, when a colleague tells me I look sick or tired, I do one of three things. One is to smile. After all, a study conducted by the department of psychology at the University of Bern in Switzerland found that "a happy facial expression could even compensate for relative unattractiveness". Or I say, "Well, you're no oil painting yourself!" Or I simply ask, "How is that relevant to the work I'm doing?"
MONEY SAVED PER MONTH
$280 by halving the number of dyes and blow-dries, and cutting out all serums and treatments.
$60 by buying only the bare minimum, such as a light foundation, one lipstick and mascara.
$125 by reducing my regime to a simple cleanser and moisturiser.
$35 by banning painful and expensive waxing. Let the follicles run free!
$200 by eschewing the latest (painful) high heels.
Hair and make-up by Allison Boyle.