One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.
There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.
Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder: Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.
Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and eye-shadow that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.
And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.
That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.
And so I ask myself: am I a total hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social imperatives and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.
Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear jewelry and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.
But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.
I’m not trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live, the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.
But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?
I already know how I feel. So what about you?