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i tried to go makeup-free for a month (and it made me feel like utter crap)

CC image by  Maria Carolina Canêjo via Flickr

CC image by Maria Carolina Canêjo
via Flickr

A few months ago I decided to go sans makeup for a month in order to write an article about the experience. I had the entire piece written in my head, even before that first day of heading to work with my au naturel face on display for the world to see. In this article, I was going to rave about how good it felt to finally be outside of the airbrushed and unrealistic expectations thrust upon us by the media. I was going to brag about how much better I felt about myself now that I wasn’t hiding behind creams and powders. I was going to make a promise, to the world and myself, that I was never going to go back to hiding my true appearance behind products that promised to make me look flawless and beautiful, but which really cemented the idea that I wasn’t good enough as I already was.

The day before my little experiment was a good one, and I felt better about myself than I had in a long time. I was excited to finally step away from something that had always irked me a little bit, being someone who is the first to cry ‘appearances don’t matter’, while at the same time spending ten minutes in the morning coating my face with product. I couldn’t help but feel that the whole practice was somewhat hypocritical.

Unfortunately, however, that excited feeling subsided very quickly when I stepped into work on that first day. ‘Wow, you look tired,’ my boss remarked, and he wasn’t wrong. There were bags under my eyes that I had never noticed before; my face was drawn and pale from the chilly morning air; and the teenage-style acne, which had appeared when I stopped the birth control pill, was even more obvious than it had been before. Not that there is anything wrong with those things; it is perfectly natural to have a range of the different colours, spots, birth marks and laugh lines that are a by-product of being alive. But I still felt incredibly self-conscious about it all.

I fought the urge that entire day to put a small coating of powder on my hormonal face. I managed to resist, if only due to the immense feeling of disappointment I would have had in myself if I couldn’t go one measly work day without makeup.

‘You can’t even notice that you’re not wearing any makeup,’ my husband assured me, and he was probably right. I doubt people spend much of their time looking at my face, and even on the very few occasions they do, I’m sure they’re not analysing it long enough to tell whether I have a few blemishes, or checking if my skin tone isn’t as even as it used to be. But that didn’t stop my self-esteem from plummeting dramatically over the two weeks that I went fresh-faced out into world.

Now I’m going to stop right here and assure you that I do realise that I am sounding ridiculous. Even reading back what I have written is making me cringe, because to base one’s self-esteem around something as arbitrary as makeup is stupid at the very best. But I promised myself that no matter how embarrassing it would be to publish this in the public sphere, I was going to be completely honest about how going without makeup made me feel. And I felt like utter crap.

About a week into the experiment, I went to the movies with my husband. It was incredibly crowded, which is maybe why it suddenly became so obvious to me just how many women (and young girls) felt the need to plaster foundation all over their face before leaving the house. Out of a crowd of sixty, I could only find one other make-up less face in the sea of females. I then found myself looking at all of the men; with their natural, blemished, pockmarked and ultimately human faces on display – all without a trace of the embarrassment that I had been feeling for doing the exact same thing.

For the first time, I started to get angry. Why did I, and do I, feel this pressure to look a stock-standard way, just because I’m female? When did this expectation arise that women need to put so much money and effort into moulding themselves to this warped view of “perfection”?  Eyebrow waxes, hair dyes, lotions and cleanses, foundation and blush, perfectly smooth legs and armpits, bikini waxes, tanned legs – the list goes on, and there are far fewer items on it for those of the opposite sex.

So what happened to my makeup free experiment? I failed. Big-time. After two weeks I went right back to my old routine, and even as I type this now I have a light coating of foundation on.

But it made me realise that makeup isn’t as harmless as I used to think it was. My previous attitude had been that if it made me feel a little better about myself, then what was the harm in using it? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Because if going without it makes me feel so bad about myself, then I have must have subconsciously based my self-worth around adhering to a stringent set of rules dictating how a female should present herself. By wearing makeup, I am telling myself that how I look naturally is not good enough. Not only that, but by placing such importance on it, I am placing far too much importance on appearance in general.

Self-esteem should not come from such arbitrary things like how smooth our skin is, or how black and long our eyelashes are, but from who we are as people. If we are good people then we should feel good about ourselves, no matter what we look like. This message is one that seems to get lost amongst the myriad of advertisements and social pressures that tell us we should only feel good if we look good.

Of course, knowing all of this doesn’t take away the 26 years of conditioning I have had, but it’s a step in the right direction. I know that a lot of people
get defensive over anti-makeup articles because I myself used to be one of them. It’s a lot easier to go on the attack than to really evaluate the reasons behind why we feel the need to alter our appearances. I’m not saying that everybody needs to stop wearing makeup entirely, because I’m sure that everyone’s reasons for using it are as individual as they are. But if you find yourself unable to go sans makeup without feeling that little bit worse about yourself, then it may be time to start questioning the reasons behind your need to wear it, before beginning on what may very well be a long journey towards overcoming the misguided notions that you have accidentally soaked up during your lifetime that tell you that you’re not good enough without it.

5 thoughts on “i tried to go makeup-free for a month (and it made me feel like utter crap)

  1. Kaylia,

    This is such an excellent article. I think it’s so awesome that you can be so honest with yourself (and your readers) about what the experience was like for you.

    I experience something similar to this every time I put make up on. I stopped wearing it full time about 18 months ago, with exceptions for special, fancy occasions and job interviews. I find it pleasant to experience make up like I used to when I was younger; when make up was something that me and my friends played with, experimented with, went completely overboard with and then washed off. Something fun.

    But now that I only wear it sporadically, I get the opposite reactions. Instead of commenting on how tired I look, people tell me, breathlessly, “Oh my god, you look so different/pretty/happy!” People in shops are nicer to me. Older men are nicer to me. And I kind of resent that I have to paint my face to get people to treat me like a human being. It might sound dramatic when I put it like that, but people are genuinely kinder to me if I’m wearing make up, particularly men. It’s the weirdest thing, but the whole experience has made me realise how much emphasis we, as a society, put on appearance. I wish it wasn’t the case.

  2. Wow, such interesting experiences!

    Perhaps removing makeup for a potential article is an experiment that all feminist writers toy with – I did this a couple of years ago, although I never published a piece.

    I don’t wear a huge amount – just some dramatic eyeliner and bright lipstick. I learnt that without those things, I felt less
    ‘me’ – that I couldn’t express my personality through the way I look, which I also tend to do with what I wear. It goes to show how much my image is wrapped up in my identity.

    Secondly, I felt less ‘prepared’ for a shift at work – putting makeup on is part of the ritual of my ‘public self’, the person who I present to the world. Also, when you work in a restaurant you must have a level of detachment – so that if a customer is upset (often unreasonably) or you make a mistake, it doesn’t destroy your confidence and affect you. Having red lips and winged eyeliner was part of this process.

  3. I go without make-up most days for no reason other than I just cannot be bothered applying it in the morning! I make a bit more of an “effort” on days when I know I’ll be meeting with clients but other than that, I greet my colleagues with bags under my eyes, blemishes on my forehead (and chin…and nose…) and a smile on my face. (OK, so most mornings there’s no smile, but I do try to offer a friendly grunt in response to their ‘good mornings’…)

    Generally, though, I do feel much better about myself when I am wearing make-up.

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