Why is it so freaking hard to go without makeup? What exactly am I afraid will happen if I don’t smear on some foundation and douse my lashes in mascara before going to a bar—or even, geesh, before getting coffee in the morning? You’d think I’d be over this by now. I’m a 24-year-old woman who is married and generally happy with the way I look. So why, when I think about not wearing makeup, does a voice inside of me scream, “Noooooooooo!”
A year ago, I decided to explore this. So I challenged myself to go without makeup for a week. But I wasn’t about to do it alone—I’m not that naive—so I blasted e-mails to fellow bloggers, challenging them to do the same. The project was called No Makeup Week and the idea was to blog about our makeup free experiences, submitting photos of ourselves as we went. As news of the project spread online, so did the photos of my unpainted face. (That’s me, sans makeup, above.) And after a few days, it started to feel comfortable. I even (randomly) went on Korean television to talk about the project. At that point, I was more embarrassed about the cameraman shooting the contents of my makeup bag, with its dirty lipsticks and used up eyeshadows, than I was about him capturing my makeup-less face.
And yet one year later my gut reaction of “nooooooooo!” is still there.
This year, I decided to do No Makeup Week all by my lonesome. It wasn’t about taking a week off because makeup is somehow bad or because not wearing it is better—it was about taking a week off so I could understand my relationship to cosmetics more clearly. Because clearly, there is still something here I need to learn.
For the past four months, I have lived in New York City and I still haven’t shaken the “Sex and the City” fueled naivety of, “Who knows who you might run into!” I’ve gotten used to making myself up for these imaginary special someones. So I felt a flinch of pain just leaving the house to get orange juice at the corner bodega without any primping. Here we go, I thought.
As I plunked my OJ down on the counter, I reminded myself that there is nothing wrong with my face when it doesn’t have chemicals slathered on it! Plus, these people don’t know what I look like with makeup, so they probably didn’t even realize something was different. Cue the sigh of relief.
But then, I rounded the corner home and spotted a group of skaters out front, some guys who are crashing (squatting?) in a Brooklyn garden unit next to mine. As I approached, they greeted me, as per usual. That’s when a realization hit me. Blow number one: I don’t feel like I can be an attractive, sexy lady, without makeup. Blow number two? That I actually wanted these guys to find me hot.
This got me thinking. I started considering what it means to be sexy as a woman in our culture. How it’s often this one specific image—young, thin, and well-dressed with long hair and an air of sexual availability. (But not too available, of course—let’s keep girls confused!) And what it means to be a successful woman in our culture, which also comes with a specific image—a little bit older, though still thin and well-dressed, with long hair and an air of sexual availability. Are the two mental images that different?
My days without make-up started to pass quickly. By day three, the only thing I noticed was how little time it took me to get ready in the morning. Like riding a bike, I realized, “Hey I know how to do this!” But then I felt that stab of fear when I planned meetings with editors and fellow writers. Not only do I apparently kinda want to bonk my hackey sack playing neighbors—I feel pressure to appear conventionally attractive—even sexy—to my professional contacts as well. As though this is what is most important. And it seems I am not alone in this—according to a study online, 1 in 3 women prefer their female colleagues to wear makeup.
My favorite moment from last year’s No Makeup Week was when I first saw the gallery of photos women submitted. Scrolling through, I felt astonished by how unique everyone looked. I realized that with makeup, we were all sort of painting on the same face—the same exaggerated lips, the same big eyes, the same even skin. Everyone looked so much more interesting without these things. The gallery prompted responses like “Everyone is so beautiful!” and “Such natural beauties!” It seemed set up for responses like this, in a way, but still—it bothered me. It was the idea that we needed to be seen as beautiful to be worthy. “You are naturally beautiful” was never meant to be the project’s message.
In a restroom at a bar, about to have a drink with an editor, I looked at my bare face in the mirror had a thought: Maybe you are not beautiful. Is that okay? I realized that, yes, it is. The editor you are about to meet is not interested in what you look like, I thought. She is interested in your words, your ideas, your energy, your talent. It was so simple I had the urge to scrawl it on the bathroom mirror. (I didn’t have any eyeliner in my purse, but I did have a Sharpie.) But rather than deface the bathroom wall, I decided to repeat it to myself a few times over.
Walking back to the bar, I felt my shoulders melt a little toward my back. I watched other women walk by in their platform shoes, and noticed their makeup: the red lips and false lashes. I watched them check me out in return. I felt chic … and without makeup.
For the rest of the week, I felt calm and at peace without my usual eyeliner and blush. And yet, as soon as the seventh day was over, I started fantasizing about the looks I could experiment with—plum-colored lips and no mascara or plum lashes with nude lips.
Makeup is, at its best, a fun and powerful tool to be creative with. It’s a way to express yourself—your mood and interior life. But, when you can’t go without something, it loses its spark. It’s when you feel like you need it that you lose that power.