Day 1: A Make-Up Memoir

Before I launch myself into June’s “No Make-Up” challenge, I think it’s a good idea to reflect on the role make-up has played in my life so far. Putting on make-up has been part of my daily routine for almost half of my life, so going without it will be quite a change. Let’s start from the beginning…

At some point in 1999, my grandmother decided it was high time for my sister and I to have some education on lady-like behavior. My sister, a year older than me, was in junior high and I was about to start the 7th grade. We were not a particularly rowdy pair of girls, so we didn’t need etiquette training to tame us in any way. Our grandmother has always been a woman who exudes beauty and confidence, probably from the day she was born. She is strong, opinionated, and loud, and she moves through the world with a most-certain grace and elegance. As my sister and I were beginning to come of age, she saw an opportunity to pass down the lessons of etiquette that she had used all her life. We went over to grandma’s every week for a new lesson. (If you’re picturing a scene from My Fair Lady in your head right now, you’re on the right track.)

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“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”

We learned all the basics: keeping good posture, how to cross your legs, walking elegantly (a tough one for me because I had the tendency to bumble awkwardly), table manners, curling and styling your hair, and (you guessed it) applying makeup. The makeup lessons were my favorite. I had been fascinated by makeup for all of my conscious young life. When I was very young I would watch my mom sit at her vanity in the morning and long for the day when I could put on my own makeup. In fact, when I was five or six, I was constantly getting in trouble for sneaking into my mom’s makeup drawer and putting on her makeup. In the afternoons after school, I’d try out her face powders and blush and make a mess of my eyelashes with her mascara. I always got caught, though. Like an idiot, I would leave it on after my mom got home thinking she wouldn’t notice. (Seriously, who does that?)

Fast forward to 1999, and I was more than prepared for a make-up tutorial. My mom had given us her blessing that we could start wearing makeup regularly, within reason, and I was totally on board. Wearing makeup signaled growing up into womanhood, but it was also more than that. Makeup, as I understood it, was how women became beautiful. I didn’t think that women without makeup were not beautiful, but something about the process of putting on makeup was transformative – a beautiful woman could become EVEN MORE beautiful. As a chubby, awkward girl with thick glasses and next-to-zero confidence in her face and body, I was grateful to finally have a tool to make myself beautiful.

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Me in 7th grade, the beginning of my new makeup-wearing reality

From that point forward, make up was part of my daily life. As I grew out of my awkward phase, I gained more self-confidence in myself with and without makeup. After I had started high-school, I was just another teenage girl going to school, dating boys, going to football games, etc. But because I had made makeup part of my daily routine early on, I was constantly wearing it. It became as normal to me as getting dressed or taking a shower. Makeup was a simple, taken-for-granted, part of my life.

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Yes, I was in a scholarship (read: beauty) pageant. NBD, moving on…

After high school came college, where I became more and more secure in myself and my identity. I had a strong sense of who I was and what I wanted to accomplish. I also had an amazing social support system. It was during this time that I started to wear less makeup – but I never did away with it entirely. I still had a hard time going to class or to study in the library without makeup on. While it had become a less prominent feature of my daily look and daily routine, it was still very much part of how I wanted to see myself.

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This is the face of a confident soon-to-be college grad

In the past five years since graduating college, a lot has happened in my life. I moved to China for a while, moved to San Diego, started grad school, started and ended relationships, made new friends, started teaching, and generally settled nicely into adulthood. I feel more secure and positive about myself now than at any other point I can remember. My life is not without its problems, pain, dilemmas, and anxieties. But I do feel like I have grown tremendously as a person in the last five years.

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Awesome!

Well, except for one thing: I still wear make-up, uncritically and with necessity, almost every day. Now, to be fair, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wearing make-up everyday. Makeup is a useful tool for feeling beautiful and enhancing your natural beauty. However, I think the way wear makeup everyday is problematic. I wear makeup everyday simply because I wear makeup everyday. It’s a habit. Something I do uncritically without thinking about why or what it does for me. But over the past few weeks, I’ve had to think about it…

Aside from the habit, I think I wear makeup for a number of reasons. I wear it to accentuate the features I am most confident in. For example, I like my eye color and eyelashes, so I’ll wear makeup that enhances those two things. I also wear makeup as an accessory, something to match with an outfit for a complete look. But I think the most prominent reason I wear makeup, and the most problematic, is because I don’t feel like one of those girls who can get away with not wearing makeup. I feel like I have too many flaws that need to be smoothed over if I am to be considered passably pretty. I have __________ (insert perceived flaw here): too many blemishes, uneven skin tone, under-eye circles, asymmetrical eye shape, pale lips, and the list goes on and on…

I can’t entirely blame myself for feeling like I have so many flaws etched onto my face. We live in a society that is constantly telling women to buy a product “specifically targeted” for _________ (insert perceived flaw here). A society with air-brushed models and celebrities so caked in makeup they look unreal. I know this is true, and yet I somehow feel that my flaws are real. They’re not figments of my imagination fed to me by a sexist society – they are real. Or so I tell myself, anyway.

So yesterday, as I put on make-up for the last time before June, I took a couple before and after pictures to see, with a camera that doesn’t lie, just how different I look with and without makeup. I pulled back my hair so not to have any other aesthetic distractions. I took the pictures without any filters and in the natural light of my apartment. And when I viewed them both side-by-side, I was amazed at the difference. Not the difference between how I actually look with and without makeup, but the difference between how different I felt with makeup and the reality that I didn’t actually look very different at all. I always feel so different, so much prettier, with make-up on. And while makeup certainly is enhancing, it is not transformative. After makeup, my face is still my face.

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So, as I begin to go into June, where I won’t be wearing any makeup, at all, for the entire month, I’m nervous and excited all at once. I’m excited to have the change of pace in my life, disrupting a habit that may or may not be helpful for me. I’m excited to learn to appreciate the natural beauty I have without makeup, and to stop looking at my face and seeing all the flaws that I believe (and have been told to believe) are real. But I’m nervous too. I’m not sure how many negative feelings are going to come up in this process, and I’m not looking forward to feeling insecure or ugly. I’m nervous about how I might be perceived by others, especially people who have never seen me without a full face of makeup. I’m a bundle of emotions. But overall, the emotion I feel most is hopeful.

This morning, I handed over my entire makeup collection to Elisa, as per the rules discussed here. Before handing it over, Elisa suggested I take a picture of all my makeup. I laid it all out on the table, and was surprised at how little makeup I owned. But when Elisa came in the room to see (as someone who doesn’t wear makeup), her reaction was “Whoa!”  I guess everything depends on your perspective.

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So here’s looking forward to June – a month without makeup. 

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