It’s happened before, usually by accident. I’ve forgotten my bag, run out of a given product, or decided a particular occasion wasn’t worth the effort. But this is the first time since the start of secondary school that I’ve deliberately gone without makeup for weeks on end. In its natural state, my face looks like a veiny bleached potato: rough, blotchy, translucent skin through which every blemish and blood vessel merrily jumps out. My pores are so distinct they practically possess discrete legal identities. The amount of acne I still have in my 20s is actually profane (actually, though). My point? Frankly, this is the sort of situation they make foundation to deal with.
Notice the assumption buried in that sentence, though: that my face is a “situation” of the kind that needs fixing. It’s difficult not to see it that way myself: because I’m so pale, you can tell very easily when I’m tired (hey, bags under eyes, how’s it going?) or stressed (hey, spots, pull up a chair!). I feel part of my long-standing makeup addiction has sprung from a sense that my complexion makes me look weak. Now, many things about you make you look weak when you’re a five-foot-three vegan, but I felt it was best to at least control for the controllables.
All the cheap foundations are orange, or look orange against my waxen skin, but I accepted this as the way of things and slapped them on blithely enough. Then came eyeliner, which apparently goes on quite smoothly if you warm it up first by sticking it in your bra for a bit. I could never remember to do that and always ended up with a jagged sooty line. Next up, mascara: this was easy enough to apply, but no matter how assiduously I kept my lashes separate, they’d always clump together unbecomingly the moment I blinked.
I don’t mean to suggest that my decision to wear makeup wasn’t heavily influenced by what happens when sexism stumbles into capitalism’s apartment at three in the morning and does things both will later regret.
Last, lipstick: because my upper lip is non-existently thin, I went through a phase of painting on an extra few centimetres. Eventually, I realised that this was fooling no-one and was making me look like a sad clown. Which probably went for the whole routine, to be honest. I lacked manual dexterity, and the dermatological hiccoughs that made my skin desperately in need of makeup also made it a somewhat challenging surface to apply makeup to. Still, I just kept wearing it. And then something just gave.
It wasn’t that I got wiser to how expensive makeup is, how impossible it is to get a brand that doesn’t contain health-menacing chemicals, how my sad-clown-lady look wasn’t even an aesthetic improvement on my bleached-potato-lady look. All those facts had come to my attention well before I stopped wearing makeup. I’d just stored them in the place I put all sorts of disagreeable truths, like “A bus that takes 40 minutes to get into town will not get you into town in 20 minutes”, “Drinking now will make you feel bad tomorrow”, and so on. It was all filed under Useful Information I Will Never Act On. I think I’d just realised that I didn’t like wearing makeup and there was no-one making me do it.
That second consideration warrants a bit of unpacking. In a panoramic sense, plenty of people are making you wear makeup. Study after grim study shows that your co-workers think you’re neater and more professional with your face greased up. From modelling to sex work, many jobs require it. Advertisers line up to remind you that your face is a site of public scrutiny, an open forum where strangers like them can spit opinions at you. All of the things wrong with you (of which, by the way, there are a lot) have a dermatologically tested solution, and if you don’t avail of it then your life will be terrible and it will be all your fault.
On relinquishing makeup, then: while it’s nice to be able to rub my eyes when I’m sleepy, the whole affair has been somewhat anticlimactic.
So I don’t mean to suggest that my decision to wear makeup wasn’t heavily influenced by what happens when sexism stumbles into capitalism’s apartment at three in the morning and does things both will later regret. But in a more individualistic sense of coercion – in the sense that no-one has directly intervened in my choice – I am free not to wear makeup. Which means I can touch my face. I can rub my hands all over it when I’m tired or cold, or scratch my nose when it’s itchy. A lot of people touch their faces when they’re feeling nervous; I’m one of them, and for years, I’d had to be careful not to smudge anything. A lot of people scrunch their eyes up when they smile; I’m one of them, and for years, I’d felt a layer of dried orange liquid turn to cake around the creases.
Not being able to feel my own face was an encroaching little reminder that the face isn’t really mine. So are the adverts telling me what I should be doing about that face. So are the comments people make to me about other women’s faces. ‘It doesn’t belong to her’, was always the premise. ‘Her selfhood depends on what she slaps on every morning, and here are my thoughts on that.’ You can’t remove yourself from external attitudes like those, but enjoying the full use of your own body is a nice place to start.
Even better: I don’t have to monitor how my face is doing, whether the eye makeup has started smearing southwards, whether my orange second skin needs a top-up. There’d been something about checking and checking throughout the day to make sure I still resembled a human that had made me feel like a rickety pretend-person, liable to collapse. I look in the mirror a lot less often now.
By the way, I’m under no illusion that I’m special or brave for doing this. I know plenty of women who go mostly makeup-free. I also know a good number of women who enjoy wearing makeup and don’t carry around the baggage I associate with it. But then, it was never anyone’s contention that societal expectations worm their way uniformly into every woman’s consciousness. Internalised misogyny doesn’t manifest itself identically in everyone. It would be weird if it did: women are people, people are complicated.
Sometimes, I get into arguments with men about makeup and they throw some inchoate evolutionary biology at me – something about it being natural for women to try to look healthy to advertise our fertility. Let’s get one thing clear: if I were biologically destined to try to make myself reproductively appealing to men, perhaps the ability to be attracted to them would have been a start. Sorry, every armchair Darwinist ever, but queer women do sort of throw a rainbow-coloured spanner into the works of reproductive determinism. But that’s another gripe for another day.
On relinquishing makeup, then: while it’s nice to be able to rub my eyes when I’m sleepy, the whole affair has been somewhat anticlimactic. I don’t feel smarter, earthier or more in touch with my inner self since going plain-faced. Maybe my expectation that I should is a weird ideological transposition onto what should be the bare material act of putting coloured liquid on my face. In order for going without makeup to be a big change from wearing it, the reverse would have to be so as well. If stripping something off makes a difference to you, then painting it on must have made a similar scale of difference in the first place.
It is gross to blame women for fixating on our appearances when we’re taught to link it both to our self-esteem and to our concrete life prospects. It is also naive to think that we can always shrug off this burden the minute we feel like it. But I’ll say this much: it is nice to have discovered at least one pocket of not-caring-how-I-look.
Illustration: Naoise Dolan