What If Makeup Didn’t Have to Be a Tentpole of Womanhood?

Face wash, toner, moisturizer. Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss. I counted the items. Six. I counted them again. Was this all I brought? I was unpacking my toiletries on the bathroom counter of my friend’s apartment, where I’d be staying for the weekend, and I was, for the first time, grasping the extent to which my relationship with makeup had changed. I looked up at myself in the mirror and let out a dorky laugh that, thank god, is forever lost to the brutal passage of time.

I used to start with a tinted moisturizer — a thin layer over my cheeks, across my chin and down my neck. Then came concealer: a dozen tiny dots covering as many scars and active spots around my jaw, forehead and nostrils. Next, with a small angled brush, I applied contouring powder just below my cheekbones, on my eyelids and on either side of my nose. After that came a pearly liquid and a cream blush, dabbed onto the apples of my cheeks, one after another like overlapping layers of oil paint. And last, a coat of black mascara applied strategically to my upper outer lashes and a glob of brown cream brushed repeatedly through my eyebrows.

This process happened every morning. It was followed by a similarly quick but exacting hair routine, which left my subtly colored and treated hair looking as low-maintenance and slept on as it wasn’t. In the end, I gazed in the mirror at a face that was thinner, more angular and more luminous than my own. A nose narrower, eyes wider and hair lankier than what I was born with. I’d stare, tilt, make faces in the mirror. Make sure I looked enough like myself, but better. Me, but “prettier.”

Some time in Spring 2017, I quit makeup cold turkey. I was dealing with unprecedented acne and would have tried anything to make it go away, like cutting dairy, which I also did. Within a month, my skin finally cleared up. I’ll never know for sure which did it, but I went back to eating dairy soon after, and I never returned to makeup.

Deciding to go bare-faced came at an interesting time for me. I’d recently read Femininity and Domination by Sandra Lee Bartky, a book published in 1990 that, while outdated in parts, framed the female pursuit of beauty in a way I couldn’t shake:

“[T]he imperative not to neglect our appearance suggests that we can neglect it, that it is within our power to make ourselves look better — not just neater and cleaner, but prettier, and more attractive. What is presupposed by this is that we don’t look good enough already, that attention to the ordinary standards of hygiene would be insufficient, that there is something wrong with us as we are. Here, the ‘intimations of inferiority‘ are clear: Not only must we continue to produce ourselves as beautiful bodies, but the bodies we have to work with are deficient to begin with.”

I thought about that line for a long time: the bodies we have to work with are deficient to begin with. Was makeup bad for the female cause? I turned this question over in my mind for months. I examined all the angles — like that many women enjoy applying it as a form of self-expression, that others cherish the ritual, that the practice is rooted in a tradition that in some ways ties us together — and I still wasn’t satisfied. After reading that book, I could no longer put on makeup without feeling that I was in some way reinforcing a system I didn’t agree to. When my acne problem presented an opportunity to pare back, I seized it.

The irony of forgoing makeup for clear skin is not lost on me, but it was a drastic change nonetheless. For the past 18 months, aside from the occasional dab of cheek color (for fun), I’ve greeted everyone I’ve seen and every space I’ve entered without makeup. Nights out, industry events, photoshoots. And somewhere along the way, my other beauty rituals dropped off, too: highlights, keratin treatments, manicures, regular shaving, self-tanner, weighing myself.

For a while, I felt less attractive. According to the famously narrow western beauty standards, I was, and am. And to voluntarily choose that as a woman felt foreign at times, or even sacrilegious. But soon, something strange happened: Because I engaged in less self-editing — my face didn’t change before my very eyes every morning and night, I couldn’t lean on numbers to evaluate my evolving body, my skin rarely transformed from hairy and pale to tan and smooth — I became a more static creature. I looked the same every single day. That was very boring. Eventually, my attention rerouted to somewhere more interesting, leaving me in a state of face and body neutrality for what felt like the first time since I was a kid.

In a 2012 study by the Renfrew Center, 44 percent of women reported feeling less attractive when they didn’t wear makeup. A 2017 study conducted by Skin Store found that the average American woman uses 16 beauty products every morning and will spend $300,000 on makeup in her lifetime. Makeup has become accepted as a tool not just for accentuating features on special occasions, but for the pursuit of everyday self-expression, self-esteem and self-respect. As we near the end of what many have called “The Year of the Woman,” the 500 billion-dollar beauty industry is thriving like it never has before.

Not everyone has bought in: Alicia Keys famously denounced makeup in 2016 and was largely celebrated for it. I’ve written before about seeing more women going bare-faced online and on runways. Some have called #nomakeup a burgeoning cultural trend. Others, like Jessica Teas for The Cut, have pointed out the class signaling that can dovetail the makeup-free movement, where expensive skincare regimens are simply doing the work instead. Still, few of these conversations have come close to interrupting the deafening roar of mainstream beauty talk.

What’s our long-game for women, and all people?

The fact remains that makeup and the pursuit of beauty is a tentpole of the modern female experience. As such, beauty rituals mean different things to different people. My experience over the past year, for example, can never stand in for anybody else’s — especially as a thin, able-bodied, cisgender white woman, for whom quitting makeup could be a private act. For others, whose bodies are unfairly treated more like public domain, self-editing may take on an entirely different shape, gravity and meaning. For some, it’s pure joy.

My only desire is to engage in more conversation about all this. To make more room in real life and online for honestly examining the nuanced roles of makeup and the beauty industrial complex in our internal lives and lived experiences, especially beyond the way they make us feel in the short-term. What relationship with ourselves and each other are we ultimately pursuing? What’s our long-game for women, and all people? I don’t have the answers, I just want to look for them.

As bell hooks wisely wrote, “One can critique modes of glamour and still appreciate glamour. It’s not a binary either/or world. That is why we have a feminist politics that works to liberate the female gaze, so we need never choose who is more committed to being beautiful. Truly, it is more essential and relevant to ask ourselves in what ways do how we live and work manifest commitment to justice and feminist politics.”

I myself am not “healed” from self-criticism. I’m still attached, in some ways — especially through fashion — to the gaze of others. But when I finally asked myself what obsessive grooming was doing for me, and whether I could stand behind my answer for the sake of other women and future daughters, I didn’t like where it took me. When I finally started to let it go, I saw, for the first time, a path to better understanding myself. And embracing my own vastness.

The emotion I felt while standing at my friend’s bathroom counter, six toiletries laid out before me, wasn’t one of domination or superiority. Nothing so territorial. I simply felt, in its full force, the weightlessness of accepting myself as I was.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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