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?

  1. Ariana says:

    Fascinating post. The few times I’ve discussed makeup have been with men. They had some pretty strong opinions on whether or not women should wear makeup – or whether they should yield to the societal pressure to wear it.

    Personally, I wear makeup on a near-daily basis. I wear makeup when I go to class, out with friends, or visiting someone else’s home. At the same time, if I know I’m going to be home all day, or only running errands, I tend to be makeup free. There’s at least two days out of the week where I don’t wear makeup, and I’m very comfortable with or without. To be clear, my makeup usually consists of light face powder, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, and lip balm. I usually wear more, and apply it with more care, when I’m going out to parties or social functions.

    I think I look better with makeup, frankly. I enjoy applying it and I enjoy buying new products. However, I can credit this sense of ease and satisfaction to my background as an artist – I view my face as a blank canvas, and I like altering it on a daily basis. I can modify and enhance my features. I know how to highlight and blend and I like using different colours on my face.

    I subscribe to a lot of society’s rules, I suppose – not only do I wear makeup, but I also shave, exfoliate, and perfume myself. I bleach and colour my hair (purple! whoooo). At the same time, though, I do it for me. Makeup is a way of treating myself, expressing myself, and actually playing with the way I perceive myself. To me, it’s fun. And though I would never dream of telling someone that they should or shouldn’t wear makeup, I believe that makeup, like other forms of creative expression, should be done for your self and not for others.

  2. Phoebe says:

    Oh, I love wearing make-up! I only do so about . . . forty percent of the time? On most days when I’m doing something social/interacting with people I care about. I love bright colors (same reason I dye my hair and get tattoos) and make-up is just another manifestation of that. I don’t mind going without make-up, but I tend to feel a little washed out, then.

    • Phoebe says:

      Like, right now, I’m wearing sparkly green nail polish, and it makes me happy. You can say that this is objectifying myself–as a queer woman, and a feminist, I’m aware of these tensions. But when it comes down to it, it just makes me happy in a pretty strong way.

      • Phoebe says:

        I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday. I hope you don’t mind if I chime in one last time. I started wearing make-up regularly at around fifteen, after I went goth (then punk). Back then, my aesthetic was always a bit garish–Hedwig from Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a model. Generally, I think that being counter culture was a way for me to reclaim my appearance. Yes, it was one that I felt inherently unhappy with in some ways, but it also meant that I was making my exterior match what I felt was a bright and creative interior. In that way, it was a deliberate act.

        However, in my social group, the boys did just as much grooming physically as the girls–some wore make-up, some shaved their legs, everyone spent a great deal of time and money dyeing their hair bright colors. What I do now is just a scaled-back version of that, and so I wrestle with it seeming particularly gendered, even though I know that, in some ways, it is.

  3. This is an interesting post, and it sums up many thoughts I’ve had growing up but have never bothered to put into words. I’m actually in the “no makeup” camp as well, and my main reasons for that were similar to some of yours; I always preferred to spend my money on either books or art supplies (or chocolate and energy drinks) than on makeup (I was never particularly interested in perfume or designer clothing etc either). And I could never be bothered with the hassle of putting it on, since it wasted so much time (it took my friends more than an hour to slather themselves with foundation, lipstick and mascara).
    However, the other reason was to do with self-esteem (or lack thereof). For some reason, I always equated the wearing of makeup with “the popular girls” at school, which I was certainly not one of, and therefore didn’t see the point in trying to make myself look better, since I would still be the same socially-disabled dork underneath.
    I also have enough oil in my skin to run a McDonald’s kitchen for a month, making any attempt to wear makeup a disaster anyway lol

  4. K. B. says:

    With me, owing make-up was never quite an issue, simply because in my early teens, my relatives and family friends decided that perfumes and lipsticks and whatnot were an acceptable birthday/Christmas persent, so I quickly got an arsenal which I’m still trying to use up. That is not to say I don’t wear make-up at all, but most of the time I was too lazy to bother.

    That somehow changed after prom and the graduation pictures, where a professional photographer explained to us that make up actually helps you stand out better in pictures where there is a lot of artificial light involved (something about our lips blending in with our faces unless we wear lipgloss). Looking at my prom pictures, or yearbook pictures, I see someone who is different from me. Not necessarily better, but different. It’s a face I like to put on from time to time.

    But here’s the thing: To put that face on takes time, effort and care. It’s more work than I’d bother to do in the early morning while preparing for a lecture, not to mention that taking it off is a real pain. Even after I wash, wipe and scrub, I still find traces of powder on my skin, and it takes some time before my face feels like it usually does. That doesn’t make me hate make up, but it does discourage me from putting it on daily basis.

    Perhaps that means I’m lazy, or undecided about my social identity, or personal identity even. Perhaps it means I like putting on different “masks” to try out different personalities, or perhaps it just means I don’t like putting effort into my appearance until I deem it necessary. Even me saying ‘perhaps’ all the time suggests that I often rely on other people’s opinions, or that I let them make their own assumptions about my character instead of making a bold, definite statement: “This is ME, live with it!” Maybe it says what kind of a poor, deluded person I am for not being able to make a stand for myself.

    Maybe I just like being whatever.

  5. I think to some extent the politics of fashion is an old and to my mind out of date discussion. The feminist movement of the sixties which pointed to fashion as a self-inflicted form of bondage to the Male Hierarchy encouraged women throw off those trappings with slogans like “Burn the Bra”. Of course when women did they realised that while there may be truth in fashion’s use in objectifying women, going around braless for many(if not most women) is quite uncomfortable.

    Some things that are perceived as fashion necessities like women shaving(and yes, I know that the idea of women shaving was started by Gillette marketeers) at least of the legs(can’t vouch for any other part) I can attest to being more pleasant feeling than having hairy legs. I have in the past had to shave my legs and if I wasn’t A: Lazy and B: A victim to peer pressure myself; would probably have kept them shaved.

    But this is all really beside the point.

    Once you start talking about what is acceptable to society, feminists or anyone BUT YOURSELF, you are buying into the argument that people have a right to objectify women based on appearance. As the old punch-line says: “We have established what you are. Now all that remains is to haggle over the price.”

    The point that modern feminists should be trying to get across to society now is “I will BE and LOOK however I want. It is up to YOU to understand that this doesn’t give you the right to LABEL me.”

    I think this is what the message of “The Slut Walk” was. I admit to being troubled about the idea of Slut Walks, but have come around to the message I think it tries to make. Perhaps the same message Shakespeare was trying to make when he wrote “To thy own self be true.”

  6. Rom says:

    I probably never would have worn makeup, except that my Aunt owned a promotion/model agency and told me if I wanted work, I would have to wear a full face of makeup for each job. At first, I hated it. And then I became used to my eyes covered in khol. Now I think I look beady-eyed if I go without. Anyways, more power to you, lady! Bet you saved thousands of dollars better spent on other stuff.

  7. Rita says:

    I know I’m late posting, but this is an issue that I feel I have to add to. When I was a kid, I absolutely loved playing with makeup. I thought it was so much fun, trying on different dramatic colors… at times I even thought I wanted to be a makeup artist. Now, however, it’s very different. I only ever wear very light, subtle makeup. I also wear it every single day. This is odd because I don’t get a lot of pleasure from tending to my appearance: I hate shopping, I don’t enjoy manicures, I loathe getting my hair done, and most of the time I dress very androgynously. However, since puberty, no one has ever seen my face without makeup except close family members. And if I think about it, this is really because my mother taught me never to let anyone see me without makeup. In fact, when I was younger, she wouldn’t let me leave the house go to school if she didn’t think I was wearing enough (“Put on more blush! You look sick!” was her go-to order). I remember her joking that when I got married, I should keep makeup on my bedside table so that I could put it on first thing in the morning and my husband wouldn’t see me without it. I was a bookworm and I hated this constant niggling over my face, but my mother meant well; she thought fussing over my appearance would be a fun way for us to bond as mother and daughter, just as she had bonded with her own mother.
    Nowadays makeup is, for me, something I feel obligated to do. Not wearing it is just not an option. I suppose I feel as though my face is inadequate without makeup, just as my mother always implied. I don’t put it on to feel pretty. I put it on to cover up my flaws. And the fact that this insecurity has been so deeply instilled in me frustrates and angers me because I’m a feminist. In fact, Foz, I really applaud and envy the fact that you feel you have a right to show your face to the world just as it is.
    There’s a big difference between makeup as a social thing and makeup as a fun thing, just as there is with clothes. The sad thing about this story is, when I was younger, I really wanted to play around with louder, different, or more dramatic makeup, but I was too insecure to try because the people at my school just didn’t do that. Now, I feel as though that desire has been pretty much entirely crushed. I no longer think makeup is fun or get any enjoyment out of it. I just do it.

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