I am not a morning person in general, but if there’s one part of my daily get-up-and-out-the-door dance that I particularly begrudge, it’s the time spent putting on makeup. It’s not that my makeup routine is very lengthy—15 minutes, tops—or complicated, but still, it vexes me. I hate losing those precious minutes, and I hate that the main reason I bother to do it on a daily basis is because of poor self-esteem. Why do I feel like the world will recoil with disgust if it sees my bare face? The glib response to that is, of course, the patriarchy, but that doesn’t really explain how as a self-aware grown-up who makes her own choices, I still feel this gut obligation to wear it. All I know is that some days makeup feels like a trap, and I’m not sure how to even begin getting out of it.
I like makeup well enough when I’m using it to prepare for a night out or a special event. Then, it feels like a private luxury; putting in the effort to draw my eyeliner on just so and apply fake lashes to maximum effect is a little ritual, like a spell I’m casting on the evening ahead. Even on an ordinary day, wearing a bright lip is a good way to turn my mood around. It’s the feeling that I need to apply it whenever I go out in public that bothers me. Why can’t I accept my face without a layer of products that evens out my skintone and fills out my eyebrows? But every time I try to scale back, I feel like I somehow look wrong without makeup, a feeling that’s probably compounded by the fact that just about the only times I’m not wearing makeup are when something genuinely is wrong—times when I’m too sick or sad or tired to leave the house.
Many of the women I know have an ambivalent relationship with makeup. Is it feminist? Is it not feminist? Is it a neutral thing we all project our own stuff onto? I suspect that the answer is both personal and cultural, one that fluctuates depending on the time, place and mores—all of which might be a convenient way of dodging the question altogether. What’s certain is that makeup is often considered a necessary part of a woman’s professional appearance, which contributes to a “grooming gap” that, as Mindy Isser points out, means that not only are women earning less than men but they’re paying more for the privilege of doing so. Speaking of men, A 2017 survey said that a majority of them think women use makeup to “trick” people into thinking they’re attractive, but then again they also don’t really seem to know what a bare-faced woman actually looks like. Meanwhile, the social boundaries for what kind of makeup is appropriate are rigid—too little is not good enough, but too much or too obviously applied is also bad. The ideal seems to be headed towards an increasing sameness, what Jia Tolentino refers to as the “Instagram Face.” The news isn’t all grim, of course. Some people have harnessed makeup as a way of disrupting expectations for women; Erika Thorkelson recently wrote about finding joyful resistance in lipstick. I’d love to be able to do the same, but the problem is: How do I get there?
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I started wearing makeup as a teen, in part to cover up the severe acne that developed when I was 12. By the middle of seventh grade, my face had gone from something that I never thought about to being a source of deep shame and humiliation—my classmates made fun of me constantly, and my teacher more or less went along with it. My parents let me start wearing makeup when I was in high school, and I jumped at the chance to hide my lumpy, erupting skin under a coating of matte beige. As a kid, I’d associated makeup with things like ballet recitals and school plays, exotic moments when a bit of eyeshadow and lipstick felt like the height of sophistication. But by the time I was allowed to have and use my own makeup, all the joy had been sucked out of it. It became just a way to get through the day with slightly less teasing than usual.
My acne has since mostly cleared up, but I’ve continued to find reasons to wear makeup ever since. I wore it when I worked in customer service because I was told it looked more professional. I wore it when I had my C-section because I wanted to look good in those first pictures with my baby. I wore it when I was a stay-at-home mom because I bought into that tired old narrative of women who “let themselves go” after they have kids. I wanted to be a fun mom, a mom who made everything look effortless, so I kept applying and re-applying a bright red lip while I lugged my kid to playgroups and song circles.
Now I aspire to be one of those people who have reclaimed makeup for themselves, who find it empowering instead of a tool for conformity. I know that others are able to lean into its artistry, or use it as a way of subverting rigid beauty standards, but I’m not sure how to get there. Maybe I still want too much from it; I want that cherished Hollywood trope, the makeover, a whole new me in every sense. I look at all my little jars and tubes and still pray for transformation, as if the right combination will finally let me access my higher, prettier, realer self. If I want to fully appreciate what makeup can do, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to learn to like, or at least trust, the canvas. But in order to do that, I suspect I would have to live in a world that allows women to look like themselves.