I started experimenting with cosmetics sometime in 2009. Previous to that, I didn’t even know how to apply mascara. And only five years previous to that, I’d never plucked my eyebrows.
Because I grew up being told that I didn’t “need” makeup, and since I’m an incredibly lazy person by nature I embraced this news with open arms. Even back then, though, the very phrase gave me pause. What kind of human being “needs” makeup? How did the transition to feeling fine barefaced to feeling naked without makeup take place? Wasn’t it unhealthy for women to feel self-conscious to the point of terror at the very idea of being seen without cosmetics?
And I learned in time that there are levels and reasons and it’s complicated. Many of my friends with pale hair say that mascara is essentially “necessary” to keep them from looking entirely eyelash-free. My friends who have been playing with makeup since they were wee consider it an expression of their creativity, in the same way that I see personal style and dressing as an expression of mine. And I still found plenty of women who wore nothing but Chap Stick and felt lovely as spring flowers. And, having experienced the gamut, I still went barefaced myself every day.
Then I started shaping and filling my brows. Then I learned that a swipe of lip gloss helped me look less cadaverous in photos. Then I met Sonja – my gorgeous, makeup-loving soul sister – and she started sending me goodies. Eyeshadow primer, concealer, fancy glosses, and even mascara. I literally needed lessons in how to apply the stuff, but once I began tinkering, I saw how fun it could be. I started using my Saturday morning dawdle-time to hone my makeup routine. And it was fun enough, but I still couldn’t fathom doing it every day.
Then a few months ago, something shifted. I think it was around the time that I learned a dark, heavy eyeliner looked bizarre on me but a lighter one looked perfect. Oh, and that my eyes looked larger if I lined my lower lids very subtly. Because those two discoveries? They shifted my makeup application from “passable” to “compliment-worthy.” And I LIKE compliments. Friends, coworkers, and a certain husband started heaping on the makeup praise, and suddenly I felt more motivated to make my routine a daily one.
So I did. I started wearing makeup every day after swearing for my entire life that I’d never do any such thing. And it didn’t take more than a week of daily wear for me to feel naked without makeup. A week, people. Suddenly, my naked face seemed pale, wan, undefined, less-than. I tried to tell myself that I just liked how the cosmetics enhanced my natural features, but it wasn’t the makeup wearing that affected me. It was the not-wearing. It was when I woke in the morning and saw my ghostly, soft, makeup-free face that I felt a stab of dissatisfaction. That face will look worlds better once we get some blush on those cheekbones, won’t it?
Then my face got mad at me. My right eyelid got dry and a bit swollen. A robust crop of zits appeared. Something awful happened to my right eye that made it look like I’d contracted conjunctivitis, and I spent three days dousing it with eye drops. And since eye drops and eye makeup don’t play nicely together, I was barefaced again. And the spell was broken.
For a while anyways. My desire to apply crept back in slowly over the months and years, and now I find myself doing brow pencil, undereye concealer, mascara, and blush every day. And it’s not much and I still don’t know how to contour or do a proper smoky eye. But I have become less comfortable leaving the house totally barefaced. And the older I get, the less comfortable I find myself with that option.
Makeup, like anything that enhances and highlights your physical attributes, can feel like an addiction. At a certain point, you feel dependent on it. Your baseline for looking “good enough to leave the house” moves, and you may feel a bit trapped. I know I do. I resent my mascara and the whopping 45 seconds it takes to apply. And there’s no doubt in my mind that my own feelings are driven and supported by socially driven beauty norms. But the bottom line is that I want to feel good about how I look. I want all women to feel good about how we look. No one “needs” makeup. Not a single one of us will cause observers’ faces to melt off if we head to work sans foundation and eye shadow. But so long as we remember that – so long as we know in our bones that makeup makes us look and feel better, but that there is NOTHING about us that literally requires its application for presentability – it is merely another tool we use to alter our appearance and boost our confidence. Like clothes. Like shoes. Like hair color, beautifully designed eye glasses, shapewear.
I do understand that makeup has become a symbol of oppression and manipulation, and when I hear about women who refuse to let their families or spouses see them without it, I do cringe. But I also know that makeup can help women with acne and rosacea feel less self-conscious. It can help women facing stressful days full of conflict feel strong and confident. It can be an important self-care ritual and a rewarding medium for self-expression. It is not something that can be universally dismissed as a tool for controlling and shaming women because many women take tremendous joy in wearing it.
I’m not thrilled that I now feel compelled to wear makeup every day. But I’m more aware than ever that makeup is a complex force in our sartorial lives. And that steps I take to make me feel better about how I look are steps that I must examine, understand, and ultimately own.
Image courtesy BenefitCosmetics.com.
**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.