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London - There are many actions we might reasonably term “brave”. It’s brave to risk your own life to save someone else’s; it’s brave to stand up to bullies and injustice and people wielding power.
But, if you believe recent, increasingly breathless coverage in the press, one of the bravest things you can do is leave the house without any make-up on – if you’re a woman, of course.
“Famous celebrity bravely steps out without make-up!” and “Brave actress nips to the shop without war paint!” shriek weekly glossies. A brave face, it would seem, is actually just being seen as nature intended.
Not so long ago, a raft of “slebs” went make-up-free for charity – Heidi Klum, Jodie Kidd and Lulu were photographed bare-faced by fashion photographer Rankin as a fund-raiser for Children in Need. That’s right: seeing these women – most of whom, let’s face it, hit the genetic jackpot anyway – without make-up was deemed worthy of sponsorship.
The public were encouraged to follow suit. Kidd hoped the shoot would inspire women “to be brave”; Lulu wanted us to “dare to bare”; and Klum banged on about – groan – “empowerment”.
Actually, the message seemed to be: looking yourself, ladies, is as much a novelty as getting into a bath of baked beans or as demanding as running a marathon.
The natural reaction to this is surely to weep your mascara into twin raging black waterfalls. How is it newsworthy when a woman risks appearing without a full mask of make-up? The cross feminist in me starts muttering “Women are always judged by their appearance” and “This is an equality issue”.
And yet… it’s more complicated than that. Talk to most women, and it becomes clear make-up is a highly personal, high-stakes issue.
Going without make-up is not, in any real sense, brave, and yet it can feel like it. People wear make-up for all sorts of reasons – from peacocking dramatic looks for the sheer joy of it to subtle shading and lightening to look like themselves, only more so. Many of us wear make-up every single day.
There’s a reason it’s referred to as warpaint; it can also be a shield, a defence. It can make you feel more ready to go out and face the world, more confident.
And, after all, it’s nice to look nice. Even if we know full well no one should be judged on their appearance alone – God, who doesn’t want to look as pretty as they can?
This was how I always felt: I was always much happier with a lick of eyeliner, a smudge of eyeshadow. Yet, for the past year, I’ve been entirely make-up free.
It wasn’t in the name of journalistic research, a charity fund-raiser or an experiment in gender politics – I’m not about to come over all righteous. I wouldn’t have done it if I had a choice.
My eyelids were afflicted by chalazions: cysts that aren’t harmful, but are unsightly. They’ve hung around, despite several operations. I was advised to ditch the make-up to give them a better chance of clearing up, and it’s amazing how the threat of scalpel to the inside of your eyelid makes the desire to wield a mascara wand shrivel up.
But at first it really wasn’t easy. I had to ditch the contact lenses, too, and felt positively nerdy, plain-faced and bespectacled. I was convinced I looked tired all of the time (I often was tired, but previously a bit of make-up helped to perk me up).
And I suddenly found myself having to confront a reality I’d usually managed to ignore: I’m quite vain. Deprived of make-up, I realised how much I liked it.
I liked the routine, particularly when getting ready to go out. I liked the element of transformation. I liked playing with how I looked. I liked the camaraderie – screw those people who tell you it’s unhygienic to share, I liked a good rummage in a friend’s make-up bag. And I liked looking in the mirror and thinking that I looked good – or better, at least.
But it was amazing how quickly my perspective changed. I realised that other people take a lot less notice than you’d think. This should perhaps be no surprise, for if we all worried as much about how everyone else looks as we do about ourselves, we’d do nothing except sit around frowning at the shape of each other’s eyebrows.
The most salutary lesson came early on. I whinged about my make-up detox to two woman friends. The first remarked, “Oh, I hadn’t realised you weren’t wearing any”. The second – in an entirely different conversation – remarked, “Oh, but you don’t wear make-up anyway”.
Perhaps my friends were particularly unobservant, or being nice, but I think it’s more that, actually, we neither notice nor care as much as we think we do about how other people look.
However, being honest, I expect it would have been more difficult if I’d been single – the bare-faced, non-routine began almost at the same time as I got together with my boyfriend. It was agonising on early dates, but also kind of encouraging – after all, if someone still finds you attractive when you have a lumpy eye to rival Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, you know they’re keen.
I suspect I’d have been a good deal more petulant, and self-conscious, had I remained on the cruel merry-go-round of first dates.
I did try branching out – having never gone in for lipstick much, it became the one way to play, and I love it for nights out now. I flirted with extra skin lighteners, brighteners, and highlighters. But I find I mostly can’t be bothered with them, or the lipstick, day to day. Perhaps the medical excuse has allowed my natural laziness to flourish. Or perhaps I’ve just got more used to seeing myself as I actually look, flaws and all.
Not that I’m asking for a medal for this. While I’m quite pleased about caring less, I would never suggest that we should all burn our blushers. I’m looking forward to sharpening my eyeliner again if I ever get an all-clear on the eyes. But this year of make-up-less living has also made me notice what a deeply odd battleground the coverage of our faces has become.
For there is a whiff of sanctimonious smuggery around going make-up free.
As commentators pointed out with the celebrity photoshoot, it’s not so brave for models to be shot without make-up, by a fashion photographer who has great lighting.
Hosts of a US chat show, The Talk, launched their new series without so much as a squirt of foundation between them – but Sharon Osbourne later admitted she’d had her eyebrows dyed in advance.
Going bare-faced has become the ultimate humblebrag. Celebrities have taken to Twitter, posting pictures of themselves first thing in the morning or ready for bed, apparently all au naturel: Miley Cyrus, Demi Moore and even Lady Gaga have uploaded snaps. Of course, they all look radiant.
Suddenly, daring to bare is another way of showing off: “I look great even when I just woke up!”
This seems to be the new version of “Oh, but I eat loads of chocolate” – the celebrity myth that they’re naturally fabulous.
It can feel like another stick to beat us normal creatures with: not only should we look incredible, we should do it without any help, first thing in the morning, when most of us resemble a half-baked croissant – doughy, flaky, pasty or puffy.
Of course, the cosmetics industry is wise to the appeal of appearing naturally flawless – most brands offer barely-there beauty looks, even if they do involve shelling out tangible wads of cash.
Many are also attempting to move beyond the “spend money – apply make-up – look fit” rubric.
Bobbi Brown’s mission statement is: “I believe that all women are pretty without make-up – but with the right make-up (they) can be pretty powerful” – as if buying tinted moisturising balm will suddenly land you a job at the UN.
Bare Escentuals claims to have chosen brand ambassadors by personality, not looks, for its Force of Beauty campaign. “Pretty is not enough. Pretty is nice… but beauty can change the world,” says the marketing material. But if you want to be Gandhi, it helps to buy their bareMinerals starter kit, what with the products being “designed to bring out your true beauty”.
The new fresh-faced, dewy standard of “natural” beauty makes me feel as queasy as the demand that all ladies, to be truly feminine, should have cherry-red lips and dark lashes. Surely the only “should” we need is that you should do what you like: no make-up, a bit of make-up, so much make-up you’d plaster a wall if you face-planted into it… If you like it, it’s all good.
Turning the decision to go make-up free into a sponsor-worthy act of bravery, or an ideal of true beauty, are equally unnerving responses.
However, being forced to go entirely without for a while has had its benefits. I do dare to bare now – indeed, it doesn’t feel daring at all. It feels completely, well, natural.
And I can’t help thinking that would be a better base line: you’re fine as you are, but if you want to add a bit of eyeshadow, or cover up an outbreak of spots, or transform your whole face, that’s fine too. – The Independent