Note: A version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Summer Issue of the print zine version of Katastrophic Thoughts (due out in mid July). But this should hold you over for now 🙂
In late April Amy Schumer did a perfect spoof of a One Direction ballad titled “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” which instantly became a trending hashtag on Twitter.
It was perfect and struck such a cord with viewers for several reasons (it was hilarious and infectious). But the biggest reason, I think, is that it highlighted the crazy beauty expectations and extreme hypocrisy that women deal with: the virtues of “natural” beauty are constantly preached, from Beyonce’s “I woke up like this (only if she went to sleep with perfectly arched eyebrows, hair extensions and a full face of makeup) to boy band ballads like the one Schumer spoofed, to Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign.
But all of that positive messaging rings false in the face of the constant bombardment of messages about ALL OF THE FLAWS we need to discretely hide. It seems we shouldn’t actually leave the house with the face that we wake up with, but should instead camouflage ourselves to look as if we processes flawless alien DNA. Sure, the overly “made-up” look might be falling out of fashion, but it’s been replaced with a pressure to somehow sculpt a “natural” look that involves an ever increasing amount of time, products, and of course money.
Speaking of money, the U.S. cosmetics industry brought in over $55 billion in 2014 alone – that’s not counting other “beauty and grooming products, that’s just makeup.
I had been thinking about makeup long before Schumer’s sketch. I’ve worn makeup most every day of my life since early middle school (that’s well over 20 years). Like most women, I learned about makeup from my mom. But my mother, like her mother isn’t a particularly “done up” woman, so like my mother I learned how to apply makeup in the most rudimentary way – basically a cover your zits and dark circles and try to make yourself look presentable sort of method.
And while I did receive a well-meaning intervention from a gay male friend in college that got me to start plucking my eyebrows, my approach to makeup has remained pretty basic for decades (save from the few years in college that I wore white eyeliner because I read that it would make me look more “awake” – it instead made me look like I had a white line bizarrely drawn on my eyelid).
But even though I never became interested the endless makeup advertisements and tutorials proliferate so much of “women’s” media, and even though I still bought the cheapest drugstore makeup that my mother taught me with, I still felt like I had to wear makeup nearly every single day.
Of course no one had ever explicitly told me this, and I likely wouldn’t have admitted or realized that I felt like I was required to wear makeup. But still it had become ingrained in me in a much more insidious way. Wearing makeup was like showering or putting on pants – it was simply a way of making myself presentable. But why is a boy’s and a man’s face presentable on its own but from the time I was 11 years old, my face was not?
It’s kind of embarrassing that it took me this long to ask myself that question. When I started think about this several months ago and mentioned it to my husband, he acted like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “Of course you don’t need makeup, I love the way you look without it.” Many of my friends said that their husbands and boyfriends said the same thing. Of course we are are women in long term relationships, who all meant our partners while wearing makeup, so I take it with a little grain of salt.
Still, now seemed like as good of time as any to break what I never would have thought was an addiction to my decades-long routine.
So I decided to give up wearing makeup for the month of May.
As a frame of reference, here are photos I took of myself both with and without makeup on the last day of April, as well as the makeup I apply for a normal day of work (my “evening” look usually just involves darker eyeshadow and if I’m feeling really fancy, lipstick).
(without makeup on the left and with makeup on the right)
(my typical daily makeup)
Day 1: Friday May 1st
I felt really self-conscious most of the day, like people would look at me and judge as unkempt.
Even though it only takes me about five minutes to put on makeup, I was surprised how short my morning routine felt without it, I took a longer walk the subway and enjoyed the beautiful spring morning to with the extra time.
Part way though the work day I realized I could touch my face as much as I wanted, which made me aware of how little I’ve been able to touch my face during the day for my entire adult life. It’s such a strange thing to realize. Of course, I rest my chin on my hand frequently and every adult woman has had the experience of crying your makeup into a disgusting mess. But after hours of staring at a computer screen I’ve at work, I’ve never been able to rub my eyes or put my hands over my face. It’s such a satisfying experience, you guys. Not being able to touch your own face for most of the waking hours of your life is pretty messed up.
Overall though, being at work without makeup felt unprofessional – I wouldn’t wear workout clothes to the office and having no make up felt similarly unprofessional – that’s kind of fucked up isn’t it? My face is unprofessional?
Days 2 & 3: Saturday & Sunday May 2nd and 3rd
It is much easier to go without makeup on the weekend because I frequently do. But when Mark took pictures at me at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden I purposely kept my sunglasses on to hide the dark circles that are always under my eyes no matter how much sleep I get.
On Sunday night Mark asked me how the experiment was going so far and when I told him about my insecurities he seemed surprised, and a little disappointed. When I asked him what he thought of it so far he said he loved it – it didn’t take me as long to get ready and he liked seeing my face, he commented that he liked that he could see my freckles, which are subtle and always get covered up with makeup.
When I pointed out the weird discoloration that surrounds my eyes making me look slightly unwell all the time he kind of shrugged “I never really noticed.” I’ve always been convinced this is my face’s biggest flaw.
First Full Work Week: Monday May 4th – Friday May 8th
I’m getting more used to my new morning routine which is only 5-10 minutes shorter, but since the weather has been so nice I used that time to walk to the next subway stop on the way to work, and get exercise and enjoy the weather.
It’s still on my mind when I talk to people at work that my face is bare and my flaws are out but no one has had any visible reaction – when I started this I half expected to get the “are you OK, you look tired (or sick)” (both I should say are comments I’ve received when I was wearing makeup). I had one meeting and one interview with a job candidate and while the “my face is unprofessional” feeling did come up, I was able to brush it off pretty easily.
Most of the time I forgot that there was anything different about my appearance. And while the first few days when I would catch my reflection I would be startled and a little repulsed, as the days went by I started to have my normal reaction: “eh, good enough.”
Week Two: Saturday May 9th – Friday May 15th
Not wearing makeup has become a natural part of my day and I’m finding myself forgetting that there’s anything different about the way I look…most of the time…
I forget my hang-ups and don’t leave sunglasses on for pictures, some of them still make me cringe and my eyes are quickly drawn to my flaws, but some are OK. It’s probably the same range as photos of me with makeup on.
At work I have several meetings and an interview and it does cross my mind the impression that I’m making, the thought is easy to pushed aside once I’m talking to people – no one treats me differently. It’s possible I’m given a “less professional” impression, but more likely people don’t pay as much attention to my face as I do.
But for all of that progress, old habits are hard to break: On Thursday I had a conference where I’d be meeting a lot of people followed by my first meeting with a new writing group. In short, I’d be making a lot of first impressions – with my bare and blemished face. Mark left before me in the morning and I spent an uncertain moment in the bathroom, my hand hovering over the makeup bag I hadn’t touched in 14 days.
I actually caught myself thinking “If I just wear makeup today, no one will know.” I would have never classified myself as “addicted” to makeup, but that thought sounded seriously addictive, and to my credit I realized it, was embarrassed for having thought it, and carried on with my day and making my first impressions with my real face.
Also this week, I am offered a small bag of makeup on the street, but it wasn’t a reaction to my bare face – it was a promotion. “No thanks, I don’t wear makeup,” I responded, feeling ever so slightly emboldened. But then, a moment later I thought “hmm…I wonder if there is anything good in there.” Hey – free stuff.
Week Three: Saturday May 16 – Friday May22
Most of the week and the weekend was the new normal: not thinking much about my looks and shedding more of the self-consciousness when photos were being taken. But again when I was with people who knew me who I hadn’t seen in a while (extended family in one case and a group of friends in another case) it crossed my mind to tell them why I wasn’t wearing makeup—but I didn’t because that felt too close to apologizing, in the same way that you politely say to guests “I’m sorry it’s such a mess in here.”
This week however I did make an exception to my month without makeup rule. On Monday I was asked to be in a video at work, aside from not having material prepared, I panicked because I wasn’t wearing makeup – I couldn’t have a professional video recorded of my naked face and broadcast from a major publication to the entire world. Is that even allowed?! So I put it off until the next day and broke my rule and put makeup on.
There was a noticeable difference in the way I was treated throughout my makeup day –or at least I thought so, but it very well could have a bias I was inventing. I even received a direct complement from a coworker on my make up at which point I revealed that I hadn’t been wearing makeup all month. She said she hadn’t noticed. Does this prove that makeup is unnecessary or just that a naked face just fades into the background?
Week Four: Saturday May 23 – Sunday May 31
I was on vacation most of this week (in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon), so I feel like it almost didn’t count: I would normally not think to put makeup on for something like an early morning flight or a hike, so there were some no-brainer makeup free days. On the other hand, I “broke the rules” and wore makeup twice when we got dressed up for a fancy dinner and a show for our anniversary, because makeup felt like an obvious part of getting dressed up.
Over the last month I have become more comfortable with my face, and while I don’t think I’ll quit makeup cold turkey for the rest of my life or even only reserve it for special occasions, I am moving to a place where I no longer think my face is “unprofessional” or where I’m startled or disgusted with my reflection.
So I guess that’s where I’m landing after my makeup-free month: makeup is like high heels, it’s not something I “need” and I’m not less of a woman without it, but it’s an option available when I want play dress-up (for work or leisure).
Still, these personal revelations don’t solve the bigger problem: the subconscious feeling that as women we aren’t good enough as we are. I’m not advocating that all women forgo makeup or that we move to some sort of androgynous version of appearance. No one should be made to feel shamed for wanting to get made up and dressed up (female or male) – it can be fun, and there are talented people who have made careers out of mastering it.
But I do think that more women should question it. Do you really want to wear makeup every day or do you just feel like you should or need to for vague, yet deep seated reasons? If more women were comfortable bringing their bare faces out in the world, would we no longer feel it was “unprofessional” to do so?