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I recently met with a dear old friend for dinner. Over cocktails, we caught up on how much life had and hadn’t changed since the last time we’d seen each other. He commented on how different I looked, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Oh, I started taking care of my face and wearing makeup, I explained of my recent cuteness and glowing skin. "Really?" he asked, "But you don’t need it."
As I slowly pursed my lips, he quickly followed with, "Well, you’re already pretty and you’ve never really used it before, that’s all."
My friend was partially right, though he didn’t know to what extent. My version of getting ready is best described as bewildered but efficient, and until recently, minimal and proud.
My version of getting ready is best described as bewildered but efficient, and until recently, minimal and proud.
Since elementary school, I would set the alarm clock to wake me 12 minutes before I had to get out the door. When that time came, I would roll out of bed directly into my clothes and find my older sister up for an hour or more already. She'd spent that time carefully applying and accentuating a new face, shedding a fine layer of foundation behind her. It was a mysterious thing but predictable as clockwork: fall asleep, all is clean; wake up, find myself covered in a spooky tan powder, like a scene from The X-Files.
On the odd day I got up early, I'd catch a glimpse of my sister before she emerged from the restroom cocoon, when she was still a sleepy, pale girl. But most days I only saw her transformed into a fully made-up, dark-skinned woman with half-moons of purple eyeshadow, spiky lashes crowning assertively-lined eyes, magenta cheekbones, and crunchy moussed hair, with a trace of floral perfume on her neck at the border of foundation and her natural skin color. As my tomboyish outfits picked up her faint scent and cosmetic detritus, I marveled at and judged her at the same time for taking so long just to "get ready," just to look like herself.
As an adult, I introduced a swipe of eyeliner and chapstick to my morning routine, adding an average of three minutes to the regimen. Black liner followed me from my Avril Lavigne-inspired racoon days to the cat eye ones, when I would spend 30 seconds accentuating my almond-shaped eyes. I got the second one right on the first try every time. I'd wear bangs over the first, awkwardly apostrophed eye and wink my correctly-winged one at myself in the mirror on the way out the door.
I marveled at and judged her at the same time for taking so long just to "get ready," just to look like herself.
I added a semi-annual trip to the threading salon to the self care routine, as my side-bangs could only hide one messy eyebrow at a time. Clearly not grasping the concept of consistency, I would ride out the seven dollar threading sessions for a few months, never looking closely enough in the mirror to notice the difference. The final step to getting ready was to cover up all the work with glasses. My extreme nearsightedness was the perfect excuse to collect all manner of vintage eyeglasses; they were a neutral, semi-permanent intellectual accessory for my face and hid the evidence or absence of makeup. With glasses, I didn’t have to stand out either way, even if they were loud.
My interest in cosmetics and skincare remained at that level until this summer, when I experienced my first severe, stress-induced rash. It swiped angrily across my normally clear face. Improving my diet, getting more sleep, moisturizing, and consuming an alarming daily amount of water didn’t clear anything up. Not having had acne issues in my teenage years, I had no idea which products my skin needed or if it would ever heal, and I exacerbated the stress by consulting Dr. Google for possible diagnoses. For weeks, I retreated further behind my bangs and glasses, too self-conscious even for eyeliner and chapstick, looking down and away when anyone looked directly at me. I wondered if it was permanent.
I finally took my confusing combination skin to an overdue trip to the dermatologist. Within two days, the prescribed products evened out my skin. I looked at myself every chance I got, amazed at the difference the cream and pills had made in such a short amount of time. I cherished the skin I had been given back and started researching how I could take care of my face going forward.
I cherished the skin I had been given back and started researching how I could take care of my face going forward.
Talking shop with my beauty-savvy colleagues led me to experiment with Freddy Krueger-like sheet masks. I approached the unfamiliar supplies like an anthropologist encountering new artifacts in the field: opening packages upside down and dropping them, furrowing my brow while scrutinizing the Korean instructions and Ikea-esque diagrams, patting the mask gingerly on my face like a delicate creature, and then adjusting for a good 10 minutes. I tried each variety I could find for sensitive skin, including the scary-sounding "cellular placenta" version made from soybeans.
I moved from the sheet mask section in tiny, adorable, approachable Korean beauty stores to other areas, deciphering what whitening and charcoal products would do. I added colorful gel eyeliners and bright lip stains to the morning mix, not minding in the least that I now got up 30 minutes before leaving. I enjoyed the effort.
After dinner with my old friend — after we summarized other parts of our lives, happily approving of and validating each other — his comments about my appearance stayed with me. I thought about why when I got up the next morning and considered myself in the mirror. I did seem different; I looked more confident.
How did I think I should look — and what did I think I should do — to be seen as the woman I wanted to be?
That well-meaning remark made me feel strange, and I sat in that discomfort, considering things from my friend's perspective. How did I think I should look — and what did I think I should do — to be seen as the woman I wanted to be? I wanted to be doing exactly what I was doing: working and kicking ass in a male-dominated field. I knew this was a resounding screw you to patriarchy, and very womanly. I wanted to be mentoring peers and supporting other women to realize their full potential; a goal that was badass and fundamentally feminine. And I wanted to choose my own look: makeup, dresses and all. This was harder for me to grasp. Was I being taken less seriously, and if so, who was taking me less seriously? Why is something like makeup deemed unnecessary by people who choose not to wear it?
Talking to other women about their partners', friends' and children's reactions to their makeup regimens made me feel even more confused, but less alone. "My husband told my friends we’d be late because I was getting ready. I was embarrassed. Though it was true, I didn’t want him to say it," one friend said.
In the past, exes would smile and say "you look nice" with a slightly confused look, trying to figure out how I suddenly looked different emerging from the bathroom. I tried to keep the makeup time to a minimum, knowing how vain it seemed to take a long time applying my face and, like my friend, wanting everyone to think that I woke up like this. However, when I rolled in with second-day winged eyes to work or to see friends, I was sometimes greeted with "did you get enough sleep?" Other times I'd be met with a side-eyed glance. I returned both with my usual reaction to catcalling and other unsolicited judgments of my appearance: furrowed, messy eyebrows and a fiery stare.
Do these guys know what no makeup really looks like? Or is it the "no makeup" makeup look they're lusting after?
So many experiments have been done about women wearing makeup or not wearing makeup, and they have all resulted in similar unsolicited comments from co-workers, partners and friends. So many studies, repackaged throughout the years in different articles, show that women are taken more seriously at work when they are made up — but not taken seriously if they wear "too much" makeup. Drake and other softboy artists croon about their ideal women, chilling with no makeup on (because that’s when they’re the prettiest). Do these guys know what no makeup really looks like? Or is it the "no makeup" makeup look they're lusting after? Thanks to these mixed messages, women like me are taking a lot longer to figure out what we actually want to look like, free from societal standards, but receiving subtle criticism no matter what we do.
Reclaiming makeup, something that was originally made and marketed for the male gaze, is hard to unpack. In some ways, I feel empathy for my friend who tried to stick up for my former self, the me who played down my looks in attempt to not call attention to myself, my appearance, or my sexuality. But in realizing how confident my chosen look makes me, I can hold myself in my own gaze without looking away — winged eyeliner and all.