A version of this piece originally appeared on Daily Life, and I’m republishing here with some of the original parts. My editor wisely slimmed it down, because I am long-winded and the internet is a faced-paced place. But the awesome thing about a personal blog is that you can keep everything you like about your writing.
The New York Times had a little debate about makeup recently. Essentially, the question posed went like this: “Is makeup good or bad for women’s self-esteem? Because it seems like it’s probably really important that women wear it all the time.” It’s not the first time this question has been raised in the mainstream media. Attempting to argue that women shouldn’t feel pressure to wear makeup, Thomas Matlack made the case that his wife is stunning without it. Because she’s just stunning. Slate thought this was a counterproductive and slightly obnoxious point, and I agree. Emphasizing that some women look “naturally gorgeous” without makeup isn’t exactly reassuring. Actually, it just feels like more pressure.
The idea of pure, natural beauty has this whiff of cruel competitiveness about it. Some women have “it”, others need makeup. And then we have this dichotomy, where some women “need” the help that makeup gives their faces, and some women, blessed by a God who is on the Victoria’s Secret mailing list, don’t.
If there’s such a dichotomy, then I know which side I fall on. I mean, I get the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, too (because no matter where you hide, it will find you). I am not a “natural beauty.” By which I mean, I would never be asked to play the love interest in a music video about a girl who doesn’t need makeup because she’s so beautiful. I mean, when I wake up in the morning, my face is puffy and weird and my eyes look squinty and confused, and my skin is sometimes cleverly unpredictable, like we’re playing some ongoing game called “Guess where the giant mutant pimple will turn up next?”
(I don’t think they’d want to play…source)
But I don’t wear makeup.
Not because of some defiant decision I made about embracing my inner earth goddess or accepting the hard, bare truth or something. Not because I’m making a political statement about equality and oppressive beauty standards. I just never learned how to do it.
I’m twenty-six now, and honestly, it seems a bit too late. Going out with a stylish friend the other night, she exclaimed, “I HAVE to do your makeup!” And she did, laughing. “Stop moving! Look up! You’re twitching!”
“I feel like I’m being tortured!”
“It’s just eyeliner!”
(oh my god, please be careful!! source)
There are so many components, so many little wands and sticks, and I can imagine very vividly most of them ending up getting stuck in my eyeball.
“How do you not know how to do this yourself?” she finally asked, as I shrank away, blinking hard, my eyes watering defensively.
I want to blame my mom. She never wore makeup when I was growing up. I had an aunt who did, and she bought me a makeup kit when I was ten or so. My mom took it away. “You don’t need this,” she said. “It’s silly.”
But it was more than that: wearing makeup never made me weird because I was already totally different than the majority of my peers. I was homeschooled up until college, and while I had plenty of friends my own age, I almost never hung out in a group of girls. I’d socialize in big mixed groups or hang out with one or two other girls at a time. So there was a lot about being a girl that I didn’t learn the way most girls learn it. Makeup was one of those things. It didn’t even occur to me to make an effort.
In grad school, I fell in love with a gentle, charming man who invited me to an intimidatingly fancy work event, a black-tie gala of the sort that I’d only thought existed on Gossip Girl. Frantic, I bought a little black dress at Zara, which was, for my grad student budget and non-existent knowledge of fashion, about as glamorous and high-end as one could hope to get, and I went to a hair salon to have my hair and makeup done. I didn’t trust myself to do it. When the stylist was finished, a man getting his hair cut across from me said, “Now THAT is better.” But when I looked in the mirror, I saw a creature with painted-on features, attempting to transform into a living Barbie, but the Jewish version. With my Ashkenazic nose, round, owl-y eyes, and pale skin, I was like the Barbra Streisand doll. “Going to Synagogue Barbie,” my box might say. I’d be carrying a miniature Torah in my frozen plastic hands.
(miniature Torot are SO cute…source)
“What a beautiful girl!” the HR manager gushed to my date at the party, as I teetered nervously beside him on my new, tall heels, praying I wouldn’t suddenly fall. Success! I smiled, hoping I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth.
In women’s magazines, makeup fills whole glossy pages—ads, tips, trends, colors, advice on how to look just like this celebrity or this other celebrity who has been so impressively creative about her eyeshadow. Some women feel pressure to wear makeup. Some women work in environments where it feels obligatory. One perfectly coiffed, lovely friend told me that when she showed up at her Wall Street job without full eye makeup one day, her coworkers asked her if she was sick. Because, they said, she looked ill. A lot of my friends wear more makeup every day than I wore to the fancy work party. And they look good in it.
(so intimidating! source)
I live in the same fast-paced New York world as my friends (although, granted, I don’t work on Wall Street), and yet, I just don’t feel inclined to get involved, makeup wise. But I don’t think this means that I have triumphed where they have failed, or that they have mastered an essential art while I have lagged tragically behind. I’m frustrated by the accounts I read by women who feel that they have to wear makeup. In a more reasonable world, no one would have to feel dependent on cosmetics. In a better world, we would be able to do what makes us feel happy and attractive, without it meaning much more than “different people make different decisions.” Faceful of artistically applied makeup? Faint lip gloss? Nothing at all? As far as decisions go, makeup should be a pretty small one, in my opinion. It probably shouldn’t occupy much mental space or provoke many conversations in the New York Times.
I am uncomfortable wearing makeup, so I don’t wear it. It’s very simple. Putting or not putting makeup on my face has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the habits I’ve learned over the years. But when I think about it, as I did upon reading the NYT debate, I find myself feeling lucky for my unusual upbringing, because ultimately, and now as a professional body image and beauty writer, I like having to face my own vulnerable, unimproved face. I think I’ve had to actively attempt to accept its imperfections in part because I know I won’t bother trying to disguise or distract from them.
About a year after the swanky party, when I married the same gentle, charming man, I hired a very cool makeup artist, who was a friend of a friend, for the wedding. Beforehand, she experimented with different looks and I squinted at myself in the mirror and tried to love it. Instead, I felt that same sinking disappointment I’d felt in the salon. Makeup didn’t have some magical ability to make me suddenly gorgeous in a way I’d never been before. It just exaggerated me. To my own eyes, it made me look like I was trying very hard to look beautiful, but not quite succeeding. Still, I was going to be wearing this colossal white gown that could stand up on its own and had bigger boobs than I did, and I figured I couldn’t stand under the chuppah with my hair freshly curled, in my new mother-in-law’s necklace, with my face as naked as an early-morning, sweat-suited jogger’s.
Or could I?
At the last moment, as the makeup artist hovered over me in the cramped dressing room below my wedding venue, I panicked. I felt like I was playing a role.
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“I don’t want the makeup. I’m sorry!”
She smiled, amused. We compromised on some lip gloss and a tiny touch of mascara. And then everyone trickled out of the room, and I was alone for a moment, just before I had to make my massively-gowned way up the narrow stairs into the main room, where the music was already playing, and the chuppah awaited, and my handsome groom was standing in his new tuxedo, bare-faced himself. I gave myself a very serious, appraising look and was relieved to find that Going to Synagogue Barbie was nowhere to be found. A perfect bride with a perfect face was nowhere to be seen. Instead, here was a woman who had been a little homeschooled girl running around in the woods pretending to be a warrior princess with a spear she made out of a stick, who had never learned how to be properly sexy or care about cosmetics.
Writing in defense of makeup in the New York Times, Scott Barnes says: A woman applying makeup is sort of like a man donning armor to prepare himself for battle. Makeup gives you confidence. It helps you exude the best possible version of yourself.
The thing is, I don’t really want any armor. And strangely, I’m not even sure I want the best possible version of myself. Standing in the dressing room just before I got married, I realized that I wanted the version of myself I knew best. I just wanted to look like me.
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Do you wear makeup? Why or why not?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look shaggy-haired.
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