I was 17 and had never worn makeup. Not seriously. My friends had given me “makeovers” which usually included lots of eyeshadow and blush, but I had never worn it out any where. And I didn’t really want to. I wasn’t against the idea; I just had no desire to try it.
And then there was a boy.
Anyone who’s been a 17-year-old girl knows that there is always a boy. Mine was the class valedictorian and a close friend, but I needed to make the upgrade from friend to girlfriend. Even then makeup wasn’t my idea. My grandmother pointed out to me that I would look beautiful with just a little eye makeup. The solution filled me with enthusiasm. Makeup would make me beautiful and feminine and Mr. Valedictorian would be mine!
As you might guess, it didn’t work. I kept wearing it though. I didn’t like having to put it on, and I didn’t like not being able to touch my eyes, and I always put the eyeliner on too thick, but I kept doing it. In my mind, it was part of the human mating ritual, like a peacock’s tale is to peacocks. It was annoying and inconvenient, but if I wanted a mate, I was just going to have to suck it up and keep going.
But even then I knew I wasn’t just wearing makeup for boys. I was wearing it for job interviews, pictures, and so people in general would like me and think I was pretty. Even the most casual observer can tell that our culture values beauty in women. Not necessarily exclusively, but from movies, ads, and magazine covers we can see that how attractive a woman is, is an important part of what makes her valuable. Sometimes women are valued for other things, but their physical appearance is almost always a factor. We can see this at work in the way politicians like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are critiqued for their clothing and hairstyles when no one would think to do this to a male candidate. This puts a lot of pressure, both directly and indirectly, on real women living ordinary lives.
At college a mixture of laziness and newly discovered feminism helped me drop the habit, and when I did, I realized how much happier I was. All those years I had wondered why my face wasn’t good enough. Why did I have to cover it with powders and pencil marks to be beautiful, and now I didn’t have to do any of that. It was an important part of learning to accept myself.
Shortly after my revelation, I believed that everyone should stop wearing makeup. I was certain that they were all going through the same thing I was, and I just needed to enlighten them. A good conversation with my little sister proved me wrong. I was trying to tell her that she was beautiful and didn’t need makeup, and that instead she should accept herself. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but by the end she looked at me, her eyes glassy with tears of frustration and hurt, and said, “Makeup makes me feel beautiful.”
I had nothing to say to that. I didn’t understand it, but I wanted her to feel beautiful, and I realized that if makeup was going to help her with that, I didn’t want to stop it. Years later, I know that I also have my own beauty rituals that make me feel better about my appearance. My rituals happen to include brightly colored socks and a particular haircut, but they serve the same purpose as make-up, not to attract a mate, but to make me feel good about myself.
I think that’s the important thing we need to keep in mind: make-up, manicures, dresses, and whatever else we might use to feel pretty don’t actually make us beautiful. They are rituals, coping mechanisms that help us feel beautiful, but in reality they might highlight it or bring attention to it when we’re already beautiful. We don’t need to be beautiful; we need to feel beautiful and therefore valuable. When we start believing that it is the rituals that make us beautiful and worthy of love and respect, we run into problems like eating disorders, extreme cosmetic surgery, and crippling low self-esteem. Beauty rituals are not bad or inherently dangerous, but when taken too far, they rob us of our confidence instead of building it up.
I guess in a perfect world we wouldn’t need these rituals to feel good about ourselves, and the rate of eating disorders and suicide would probably go down as women and girls gained confidence in themselves, but until that day comes, we can keep doing what we need to do to help us believe in ourselves.
I’ll keep not wearing make up, and I won’t make my sister feel bad about her decision to.