The No-Makeup Experiment

What quitting makeup taught me about femininity, people pleasing, and beauty

Photo: Altan Can/EyeEm/Getty Images

InIn my seventh-grade school photo, I’m wearing lipstick that’s almost brown, a la ’90s-era Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, and Kate Moss. My friend Arielle, a grade above me, had shared it with me the morning before our photos were taken.

When my mother finally received the picture, she must have been upset, despite her outwardly understated reaction. I hadn’t asked permission, or told her what I’d done, and it was the first school photo where I was wearing noticeable makeup. I don’t remember if she told me outright that it looked ugly (this seems out of character) or if she just took a sharp breath and asked what I’d been thinking in a way that made clear my mistake. Or maybe, upon seeing the photo, even without my mother’s reaction, it simply became obvious to me that the look was not working. Regardless, the end result was the same: no more lipstick, not for me. Luckily, gloss came into popularity and stayed in my purse, and the question of lipstick became a non-issue for the next decade.

As a young girl I’d longed for (but was not allowed to have) Barbies, until my aunt and uncle went rogue and gifted me one in a way my parents couldn’t prevent. That first Barbie was a gateway drug; I became obsessed, in all the ways young girls often do. Dress-up, sex, elaborate family systems, all of it played out with my Barbie dolls. My love for Barbies, I understood, was very normal, and normal was bad, but also, sometimes I liked normal.

As a preteen, I was allowed to paint my nails, but always with the knowledge that my father would not appreciate my doing so. When he saw me, I knew he would tell me that they didn’t look good, or that the color was distracting. Years after I first asked to do so, I was finally allowed to “permanently mutilate” my body by piercing my ears. In photos from the day I got them done, I’m smiling and shy, and I look like a child. I am a child in those photos, younger than 13. But in my concept of myself at the time, I did not feel like a child.

ItIt is perhaps the most predictable bit of personal character development that I became entranced by beauty magazines as a teenager, dreaming of moving to New York and working for Allure, or interning for Kevyn Aucoin. This fixation on normative beauty ideals and ritual was a form of rebellion; I was surrounded by tech, living in the Bay Area in the ’90s and early 2000s.

Here is one way of hating women while claiming that you want to empower them: to hate and distrust what is coded as feminine.

Girl power was in the air, along with the lingering remains of second-wave feminism, or perhaps a backlash to the third wave. Here is one way of hating women while claiming that you want to empower them: to hate and distrust what is coded as feminine, to say women cannot be empowered if they are wearing makeup or heels, if they love pink or played with dolls instead of learning JavaScript.

Once I started wearing makeup I didn’t want to stop — it became a low-key obsession. Wearing it, I believed, made me more innocuous at a new high school where I started the first day knowing no one. Knowing how to apply it was a form of currency. My old friends, who now went to other schools, would invite me over before dances to do their makeup, a procession line of girls sitting before me, waiting for a smokey eye and an over-plucked eyebrow. This continued through college at Berkeley, where I went from the dorms to a sorority (the joys of sharing makeup and clothes with dozens of other women). Even during an overnight charity walk, I was wearing foundation, concealer, mascara, and a light brushing of eyeliner in the morning when the sun broke. This routine continued unabated and unexamined until, finally, I entered my last year of college. Through my political organizing work, I found myself surrounded by various sorts of hippies. My course schedule was full of electives, including classes on women’s studies and urban farming.

As a self-directed assignment in a class called “Female Sexuality,” I decided to stop wearing eye makeup for a week. (I still couldn’t get on board with the idea of not wearing concealer.) I wanted to get used to my face without some of my usual additions. My experiment was part of the section of the syllabus titled “Body Image & Portrayals of Women,” which directed us to “look at how women view themselves and each other; what shapes our self-image and how this affects our lives.” We discussed the parts of our bodies we hated, the parts we loved, and the experimentations some women in the class had done with their gender presentations.

I began looking more closely at the faces of my classmates around me, in particular those who didn’t wear makeup and in many cases, I noticed with some surprise, I found them beautiful without it. In a matter of weeks, I began realizing how ludicrous it was that I didn’t like my own face without products added to it, when I could so clearly see the beauty in others’. Before my no-makeup experiment, I especially did not like my eyes without mascara, the way they looked when I woke up in the morning, my short lashes bare in the mirror. Swimming was an anxious venture for this reason; same with showering with a partner, both activities I loved aside from those worries. I was convinced as soon as the mascara washed off that I was ugly, and that this was a terrible thing to be. Foundation and concealer, I couldn’t yet bring myself to quit; since around middle school, I’d been picking at my face in a way that made it feel impossible to not cover the marks. Not wearing concealer would have felt like not brushing my teeth, just basic hygiene.

But I didn’t wear mascara for a week and the world didn’t end. Not wearing it even, sort of, kind of, started to feel okay.

TThe no-makeup experiment, meant to only last a week, continued into my midtwenties. Not always, not required, but as a default, to see if and when I could avoid wearing it. Of course, as I kept going, as I kept choosing to eschew makeup in favor of bare lashes and skin, and as I encountered internal challenges and insecurities, thoughts would bubble up about how silly it was to worry so much about aesthetics. In these times, I’d think to myself. But I stuck with my project — silly though it may have seemed — until, eventually, I found that I liked my face just the way it was when I woke up. It helped that, after a few years, I began dating someone who also seemed to like my face just the way it was in the mornings.

It helped more than I’d like to admit.

In 2013, when I was 25, I went from working at a small nonprofit where I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans, but could, every once in a while, be the most stylish business-casual wearer there, to working at a startup with 250 employees, most of them also in their twenties. I studied the way my new coworkers dressed; at first, there seemed to be so much room to express one’s personal style. Some people wore slide-on Adidas sandals and sweatpants or leggings to work, but there were also people who moonlighted as models for their friends’ direct-to-consumer clothing companies, who clearly delighted in clothes as art, as expression. There was no shortage of beauty in the office.

It was there that I explained to my newly found work-wife that I couldn’t pull off a bold lip, which was now back in style. “It’s because of how big my lips are,” I told her. How Jewish looking, I didn’t say. Though she was one of the few non-white women on my team, and later we’d have many conversations about racism and sexism, our friendship was new and my understanding of internalized anti-Semitism in particular was nascent. She, with her own bold lip and giant smile, told me that I was being ridiculous. That I looked good. I liked the way she looked. I believed her.

When my grandma died the year before, I’d inherited two of her lipsticks: a glossy red by Nars called “Manhunt,” and a bright pink that didn’t suit my skin. My grandmother was a woman who did not mind attention, who solicited it with her clothes and jewelry. My grandma’s aesthetic choices are one of the first things my family and friends always remark on and remember to this day — her loud glasses, in particular. She left an impression; I don’t believe she often felt beautiful as an older person but she wanted to feel a different kind of good.

I began wearing my grandmother’s red lipstick. I wore it because I liked it, and because my work-wife had given me permission and I trusted her. What I felt when I wore it became more important than what people might say, or think.

There’s a story I read once about Amy Poehler that’s stuck with me, like a catchy song lyric. A male comedian told her he didn’t like a bit she was doing. Amy stared at him for a moment. Then she said: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

A few years into that job, I literally ran into a woman I’ve known for a long time, almost colliding with her on a street corner. “It’s good to see your face!” she told me. “It’s so much more dynamic in person.” She told me she’d seen the photos I’d posted over the past few months and thought I looked beautiful in them, but she liked my face — and the way it moved — in real life better. Until she said this, I hadn’t realized the extent to which, even with little or no makeup on in my photos, I’d curated my online appearance to be frozen in a perpetual state of “more attractive” than I thought my face was in real life. If I wasn’t smiling in photos, I was serious, controlling — through the angle of the phone — how big my nose looked, how much space my forehead took up.

I’d thought it was about the makeup, but without the makeup, the underlying goal stayed the same: to be acceptable, to be liked.

In theory, I was pro-wrinkles and grey hair; in practice, the only wrinkles I allowed were the ones at the corners of my eyes if I was smiling. Though I had learned to embrace my bare eyelashes, or wear a bold lip, I was still unwilling to document myself, in a way that felt permanent, if I didn’t think I looked attractive.

I’d thought it was about the makeup, but without the makeup, the underlying goal stayed the same: to be acceptable, to be liked.

InIn college one morning, the man I lost my virginity to told me my hair looked better down and I shouldn’t wear it up. It took me years to wear it in a ponytail or bun again outside of the gym. I thought then that the problem was my face, perhaps my chin. Around my 30th birthday, at a Spanish restaurant, a man I love told me my winged eyeliner looked “really weird.” Without saying outright it was ugly, he told me it was by comparing it to facial piercings — which I knew he found ugly. Progress: Instead of believing him, I wanted to leave the restaurant or yell at him, or cry. “You don’t get to talk to me that way,” I did not say. I could have left; we hadn’t even ordered tapas yet. But I froze and my anger did not come quickly to the surface, not in a way that let it out of my mouth. “It looks really weird,” he said and I didn’t say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Instead, I took a selfie in the bathroom after crying for a few minutes and wrote a caption about my complicated feelings. 120 of my friends liked it.

It’s not just about wearing the lipstick, the winged liner. It’s about allowing yourself to be photographed in the lipstick. It’s about choosing to photograph yourself in the lipstick and not only photograph yourself but share it with people. Allowing them perhaps to think: She’d look prettier without that lipstick. (I’ve now heard from countless men that they find lipstick unappealing or intimidating. Though I know their opinions don’t really matter.) Or maybe they think: I’d like her face more if she did this with it. It means knowing “this” might not be what you want to do that day, and therefore doing what you want regardless of their imagined internal protestations, their aesthetic judgments.

Maybe the question I’m asking with the selfies where I think I look beautiful is: Can I look this way and still be seen as smart? Can I look this way and still be seen as trustworthy?

II started wearing lipstick at that startup job. I wore it because I liked it and I wanted to. But, an admission: As the organization grew and I gained more responsibility, I tried not to wear it on important days. If I’d be the only woman speaking in meetings, if I’d be facilitating a decision, or meeting with an engineer who had many years more experience than me, who I’d need to trust me later on, I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was a woman. I didn’t want to risk being distracting when I had presentations to give to new teams or projects to pitch that needed my utmost competency.

No one told me not to wear lipstick, and I’m not even convinced it was the most effective way for me to be. I was still enforcing a dress code on my no-longer teenage body, sending myself home for too tight or short of a skirt, or a bra strap showing. On some mornings I’d change clothes four or five times at home, trying to find the intersection of where I felt comfortable and like myself but where I wouldn’t get too much attention. Eventually, I’d get on the bus, running later than I’d intended and my jaw tight, but at least appropriately dressed. I knew, intellectually, that I didn’t have to do this, that what I wore was my choice and wouldn’t change how smart or competent I actually am, but I had also seen firsthand how what someone wears can change how she’s seen and heard.

I always loved meetings with this one senior woman I worked with who I admired for her honesty, sense of humor, and intelligence. As I did to peers in my college classes, I studied her, wondering if she spent as much time thinking about her appearance as I did mine. Her face was almost always free of makeup, even with the occasional pimple. A pimple, at work! It seemed so freeing, to not care about it, the way I imagined she didn’t. I was always so grateful for the sight of it, small and pink, against her skin.

Now, when a former co-worker posts Instagram stories where he gets dressed in drag, I revel in watching the intricacies of the process, in how beautiful the complete look is. Occasionally, he also shows the dismantling process and I watch that too. I can’t get enough, the stories a form of permission to embrace hyperfemininity — and to have that expression be celebrated.

It can feel quietly revolutionary to stop wearing makeup after a decade of feeling you have to in order to be seen as an acceptable human being.

Now, I adore visiting friends who take a long time to get ready, wandering around an apartment in Santa Monica or a house in Oakland, trying on different outfits, adjusting the colors on our faces, doing a top bun and then undoing it, choosing these earrings or those, and is the bracelet too much? Getting ready is often my favorite part of the night. My friends and I greet each other on the street, fix each other quickly, brushing away stray eyelashes, tucking in errant tags, trying to make each other look as flawless as possible before we enter the party or restaurant.

This form of love is one I never want to live without.

In a certain light, my no-makeup experiment was silly but, then again, it can feel quietly revolutionary to stop wearing makeup after a decade of feeling you have to in order to be seen as an acceptable human being. To be seen as normal, in a world where people are certainly not yet free to wear whatever they want, forced instead to walk a narrow tightrope of aesthetic acceptability, most of it antiquated and gendered and racialized, meant to control our bodies. Though many of my peers and I think of ourselves as among the most free and empowered, we also work jobs with dress codes that mandate explicitly or implicitly that our feet hurt each day, our joints stressed by an unnatural angle. Rejecting these arbitrary standards of beauty and conformity in favor of simply leaving the house after showering and dressing, no extra steps required, is a wild act, in that sense. How much mind space we are leased back. How much time gained.

And yet, it can also feel quietly revolutionary to allow yourself to do what makes you feel beautiful or sexy after decades of being told that sexy, beautiful women are less intelligent, less trustworthy, are selling out the cause of feminism.

I’m still learning — to walk outside my home feeling myself, inviting attention, taking a risk in a world where, at any moment, a man might shout at me or grab me, reminding me that, to them, I’m not fully human, reminding me of my vulnerability. I’m still learning — to be barefaced on a video call where some might see me as less professional, or to be made up when others might immediately assume I’m less intelligent. I’m still learning — I might always be learning — not to cater to the imaginations of those who have not yet done the needed work of dismantling the ways sexism lives inside their minds.

Trying to write true things and eat lots of vegetables.

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