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There's a scene in the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a comedy set in 1950s Manhattan, in which the titular heroine waits until her husband is asleep before sneaking out of bed to remove her makeup. The next morning she slips out again to apply a fresh coat, and then deftly slides back under the covers to pretend she just woke up like that.
It's meant to be a sendup of dated gender expectations, but... I absolutely do this. For me, new relationships are filled with nerves and butterflies and clandestine early morning trips to the bathroom to de-shine my nose and dab concealer under my eyes before the alarm goes off. I keep a stash of "essentials" in my bag to ensure I never wake up looking like an anemic Trolls doll. Most often, though, I act like Dolly Parton and just don't wash my makeup off at all. Alone, I'll spend 20 minutes slathering various oils on my face before bed, using the gentle, upward motions I once saw a French facialist demonstrate on YouTube. But a cute boy asks me to stay over, and I pass out camera-ready. I inevitably wake up with my skin looking patchy and dry, annoyed that I put a guy — who splashes water on his face and calls it a day — before my night cream. Yet here we are.
To be fair, I get less precious over time. I didn't care when my last boyfriend saw me at my worst — splotchy and sweat-drenched post-workout, puffy-eyed and snot-filled post-crying, hunched over the toilet post-street meat. There's something romantic about being your grossest self with another person and knowing they'll still be into you. But for all my eventual ease with the realities of being human, going barefaced in front of someone new feels like getting caught walking around with my skirt tucked into my laundry-day underwear.
Is this rational? No, as those who don't use makeup have been sure to tell me. But other daily wearers said they feel similarly anxious about taking it off for the first time. Shauna, 30, told me, "When I was in my 20s... I was NUTS. I definitely kept concealer, blush, and eyeliner in a secret part of my purse in case I spent the night." Gabrielle, 26, said she, too, will sacrifice her pores in the name of looking good in the wee hours. "When I am having a frisky sleepover, I straight-up never take my makeup off, which is disgusting and terrible for my skin." Liz, 28, had been dating her partner for over a year before the big reveal. Before that, "I even hid my face until I turned off the light because I was so scared."
If modern feminism has taught us anything, it's that we are all flawless goddesses empowered to make our own decisions about buying Dove soap, or something. So why, on the relationship milestone scale, can not wearing makeup feel up there with meeting the parents?
No doubt part of it stems from the airbrushed perfection of the digital world and the fact that Photoshop and filters have likely skewed our perception of what actual human faces look like. It's hard not to internalize the need for makeup when made-up has become "normal," normal has become "tired," and tired has become "you realize that coming to the office when you're sick just puts everyone else at risk, right?" Even Hillary Clinton lamented the "makeup tax" — those sleep hours women sacrifice in the name of looking the way society has deemed presentable. (Of course, I'm also privileged in this regard as a cis white woman and not subject to the same pressures those with different identities face.)
But there's more to it than cowing to oppressive expectations of femininity; I've never dated someone with particularly strong opinions about my lipstick. I don't suddenly stop wearing makeup as soon as a man has seen me in my natural state, either, because getting ready can be as much about ritual and creativity as vanity.
In the end, for me, it's a simple calculation of comfort. As I've gotten older and happier in my skin, I've started going makeup-free sooner. It still takes about a month, though, and my process is gradual — a slow stripping of products starting with those I'm not entirely sure do anything but smell sort of good, and ending with the stuff I would like to be buried in. The last things to go are brow pencil, which masks the damage of being a teenager in the over-plucked early aughts, and concealer, which obscures the fact that no matter how much sleep I get, I still look like I've been punched in the eye. Scrubbed clean, I wait for whomever I'm with to comment.
Which, of course, he never does; if I've reached the point of getting face-naked in front of someone, he's not the type to recoil at the sight of flesh-colored eyelids. Then we move on — me relieved, him oblivious that anything has changed, and both of us one step closer to that blissful stage when you can start asking your partner to inspect the weird moles on your back. Ah, romance.