The No-Makeup Experiment

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

Janet Frishberg
Human Parts
Published in
13 min readAug 7, 2019


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…