I've Barely Ever Worn Makeup, And No-Makeup Challenges Confuse Me

The first time I wore makeup, I was 17, in college, and being interviewed about a graduate student strike on a local television station.
Publish date:
July 28, 2014
makeup, gender, no makeup, makeup challenges

The first time I wore makeup, I was 17, in college, and being interviewed about a graduate student strike on a local television station. (Ask me sometime about how disastrously that interview went.) The makeup artist assured me that she wanted a "natural" look and that it would just take a little while, but I spent 30 minutes in the chair and felt like I had a clay mask on my face. During the interview, I moved my face as little as possible, afraid my makeup would crack.

She was right, though -- on screen, my face looked surprisingly like itself, except for the wooden expression.

Since then, I've worn makeup a handful of other times, usually for television appearances and occasionally for photo shoots. (All those photo shoots assuring you that people aren't made up are pretty much a lie: Everyone, of all genders, gets some makeup slapped on them to highlight their facial structure, bring out their eyes, and help keep them from looking washed out.) Having it put on always feels really awkward and strange, although on a lark a few months ago I bought some lip stain and mascara, which I applied all of once and then never again. (I should probably give it to my Oakland roommate instead of letting it molder in the bathroom).

I was socialized as a girl, but I mercifully escaped the tremendous social pressure that tends to go with that. That's not because I'm a special snowflake, and it's not because I'm lucky, either: It's because I was in a relatively privileged position, in terms of the conditions a little girl and later a young woman could grow up in.

I grew up raised by a single dad who taught me two important lessons in life: Revenge is a dish best served cold, and don't give a damn what other people think. I think the first was intended to temper my tendency to go all-out cutthroat on people, in the hopes that I'd forget about vengeance before I got around to it, although it hasn't worked out that way. The second was just the way he rolled, and I picked it up from him, and I never got the memo that girls are supposed to care, intensely, what other people think.

I wore ridiculous clothes to school and did all those other misfit-y things that should have made me a social outcast, but, oddly, after I escaped the hell that was middle school, I was moderately well-liked. In fact, some people kind of liked my take-no-prisoners attitude and the fact that criticisms about my appearance didn't bother me. I'd missed the stage when girls were beaten down and humiliated for how they looked, when everyone was experimenting with makeup and trying to make it look right.

This isn't to say that I completely missed harmful socialization, including a lot of internalized self-hatred. But makeup, or lack thereof, was never an issue for me. I grew up in a hippie community where makeup wasn't heavily used, even by the most popular girls. And I progressed into a career where makeup is very rarely required -- it's not like I have a personal appearance standard to meet, working from home as I do. When I wear makeup, I leave the application part to professionals getting me ready for public appearances, because I figure they know what they're doing.

Then I got more secure in my gender, and while I firmly believe that makeup is for everybodywho wants to wear it, I got a little anxious about wearing it. As a genderqueer, there's a part of me that wants to explore makeup and play around with femme skills, but there's another part of me that wants to avoid wearing it because I'm afraid of being read as a woman.

So I don't have an entirely unconflicted relationship with makeup. But, by and large, I'm indifferent to it. I know it's a thing, I know people wear it, I have tremendous admiration for people who are really adept at it or who do amazing work with it, but it hasn't played a major role in my life.

And that's why I find these no-makeup challenges so puzzling and, honestly, boring. Like, what's the big deal? I know, on an intellectual level, what the big deal is: Women are pressured to wear makeup when leaving the house, and they have been for a very long time. For people who grew up in that culture, not wearing makeup is a radical act, and even a scary one. A potentially really dangerous one, for those employed by companies who insist that women need to come to work in makeup (men, oddly, are not required to wear makeup, and can even be penalized for doing so).

Every time someone does yet another no-makeup challenge, there's a flurry of attention and everyone gets all excited about how innovative and novel it is, but this is not new. It's not new because lots of women and girls have challenged themselves to go without makeup for a month, a year, or some other period of time. And it's not new because there are plenty of women and girls who were never socialized to wear makeup and just don't read it as part of their lives -- and it's worth talking about the conditions they were raised in and the effect that's had on their lives.

Has my self-esteem been affected by the way I was raised? You bet your sweet cheeks and my fat ass it has been. The fact that no one ever told me I couldn't do anything, that I needed to be "pretty," that I needed to adhere to a certain appearance standard, matters. It had a huge impact on how I conceptualize myself and the people around me.

I loathe the congratulatory tone some people take when they assume that discrimination doesn't exist because they haven't personally experienced it -- I recognize that the pressure to wear makeup is substantial. And I'm privileged in that I don't need to undo a complicated and toxic relationship with makeup and beauty standards and social attitudes. Obviously, the fact that I'm never been discriminated against because I don't wear makeup doesn't mean no one has.

But do we seriously have to act like no-makeup challenges are this big huge novel deal, like all women and people read as women everywhere wear makeup? Could we maybe talk for a bit about the socialization that doesn't include being repeatedly told to wear makeup and to look "pretty"? In conversations about makeup, people often talk about an ideal world where women and girls wouldn't be raised with those social pressures -- but the fact is that many already are, and that's pretty great.

I'd love to see more parents taking a leaf from my dad, who, I guess, was even more of a trendsetter than I realized.