I’m sure you’ve heard about Alicia Keys attending the 2016 VMAs with no make up. For some, it was a fantastic moment of female liberation and a middle finger to the pressures of being “sexy”. For others, it was offensive to see a woman so “unpresentable”. Some even said she looked like a mess and offered her makeup advice. But why is it such a big deal to start with? Men show up to fancy award shows barefaced and no one bats an eye. Of course, men have to deal with their own discrimination should they choose to wear makeup that society has deemed “female”. But as a female, this really struck a chord with me because it mirrored my own relationship with makeup.
Starting at about 11 years old, I started getting pimples here and there. That, with the extreme awkwardness of adolescence, started my affair with makeup. By the time I was in my teens, I was breaking out enough to never leave the house without at least concealer and foundation on. Complexion issues aside, all the other girls were wearing it, and the boys seemed to like when they did. Plus, the teen years are those terrible in-between time when wearing cosmetics was another attempt to propel ourselves towards adulthood. For an adolescent female, there was definitely pressure.
By the time I was out of my teens, makeup was just part of the routine. I felt that I needed it to look professional and like an adult. Each morning, I would dutifully cover up my flaws and zits and redness with pastes and powers. Then, I would outline my eyes with liner and smother my lashes with mascara. A dab of lipstick, or a brush of blush, or some sticky lipgloss, and my face was complete.
Without makeup, I felt, naked. Almost as if my face in it’s natural state was offensive to the outside world. How dare I leave my pimple out there for the world to see?! We’ve all received comments on the way we pluck our eyebrows, or the “right” color lipstick we should be wearing, or how we would look so pretty if we just wore mascara. Putting on cosmetics felt like a female’s responsibility to be acceptable. After all, we were made to be admired, desired, and ogled, weren’t we?
Around the time I was married, I tried to be careful about how much makeup I wore so that my skin was as clear as possible when I walked down the aisle. Makeup is one of those contradictory products that cause what they cover. When we went on our honeymoon, I spent most of it lounging on the beach…totally barefaced. And it was liberating and incredible and very scary to be that exposed. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years later that I finally gave up on makeup. Between bedrest during pregnancy and those overwhelming first months as a mom, makeup wasn’t high on my list of priorities. And after awhile, I didn’t even notice when I left the house with nothing on my face. And it was the best thing to happen to my face.
Makeup has a long and colorful (pun intended) history. Egyptians and Persians wore kohl around their eyes. For the Egyptians, it was a sign of being connected to the Gods. For the Persians, it was about becoming a married woman. The Japanese wore lipstick and white foundation to appear delicate and feminine. Europeans used it for both beauty and social status. After all, a pale face meant the female did no outdoor, lower-class work. Cosmetic use continued in many cultures to accentuate features like the eyes, complexion, and lips. All to appear wealthy, or sensual, or feminine, or just because it was trendy. Often, makeup was made of toxic substances like lead, arsenic, and belladonna. But, as they say, beauty is pain. And the men? The idea that cosmetics are just for girls is somewhat of a new idea. Egyptian men wore kohl and it was common for aristocratic European men to wear makeup well into the 1800’s. But thanks to 70’s counterculture, men wearing makeup isn’t terribly unheard of. Although cosmetics fell out of fashion briefly at the turn of the 20th century, it has again become an increasingly significant factor in fashion and appearance.
Today, with social media in every part of our lives, the way we look has gained increasing importance. Sexy selfies are met with likes and approval and plenty of comments of adoration. If we post pictures that do not meet society’s views of beauty, we are attacked, bullied, shamed, and called ugly. Such was the case with Alicia Keys. With our lives becoming more public and more scrutinized, being honest with the world can seem harder than ever.
This isn’t a statement against makeup. Cosmetics are a wonderful way to express yourself, no matter what your gender. It’s also an enviable skill; there are some seriously talented professional and youtube makeup artists out there. But this is a statement against fear. I wore makeup because I was afraid of what the world would think of me as I was, flaws and all. For me, I am free without makeup. I don’t worry about streaks or runny mascara or clumpy eyeshadow. I no longer have to worry if the entire world is staring at a zit or some redness on my pale skin. I present myself to the world, with no mask on. It no longer matters if someone finds me unattractive and it no longer matters if I adhere to today’s idea of feminine. What matters is that I am honest with the world about who I am. After all, even if we spend a few fleeting moments focused on another person, we are all just wrapped up in fear about the world’s perception of ourselves. In going makeup free, I shift the focus from other’s perception on my appearance to my own.
Do I wear makeup, ever? Yes, I do. I like to play around with purple eyeliner or some pink lipstick, but it’s pretty rare. And that’s ok, too. Because what I think of myself is much more important than the person writing comments.