That is the question
My brother and his wife shared an exercise with my wife and me about personal style. You come up with three words to define your style (plus a bonus word if you want). Each time you shop, and each time you cobble together an outfit from your closet, you keep your three words in mind, asking if that piece or that outfit aligns with those three words. You can apply this to more than just clothes - I apply it to my writing, business decisions, etc. My take is that the three words should be a mix of how you want to be seen by others and how you want to feel just for yourself. If you feel that wearing makeup fits with your own three words (btw, the answer might vary from one day to the next and that’s perfectly fine), I say go for it!
I loved this piece! I’ve been a childcare provider/home helper off and on for the last two decades. So the temptation there has always been to slub it down. Wear comfortable clothes that can get dirty and grimy, throw hair into a ponytail and make up be damned because I’ll probably be sweating. Somewhere in the last six years or so something shifted inside and I thought “can’t you STILL be comfortable Natasha without rolling in each day looking like it’s Pajama week at Jr high”. Yes. Yes I can. These days I look for t shirt dresses or skorts that still wash easily when I come home with paint, yogurt or snot on my person. A simple sweep of mascara and mineral powder plus cheek stain makes me feel a little more confident and put together which sort of affects how I perform with the kids! So I definitely agree that makeup can be a fun energizing addition to the day.
Also didn’t realize I had nail polish problem until recently! But I’m realizing I LOVE nail polish I just like having a jaunty color on my hands and I’m a little anal about it being a seasonal color. ( ridiculously strict about browns and burgundy in autumn and bright tones in summer never to be switched up 🤣). I find the slow rhythm of home manicure kind of relaxing while listening to a podcast or a fave playlist. Then it’s nice to catch glimpses of color on my hands all week. So that’s basically my relationship to beauty products right now!
I used to go through those cycles. Now, in my mid-sixties, the experience is less intense.
I go through the exact same cycles, together with a lot of the same overthinking. You write, "I certainly cannot claim to have some inborn aesthetic guiding my every beauty decision towards a vision of myself that is most truly me." In the interests of going easy on ourselves, and just enjoying the damn makeup, I want to throw out there that maybe we do have certain inborn aesthetic preferences, for example for clear skin, as a marker of health. Same goes for straight teeth or the "ideal" waist-hip ratio; a lot of it goes back to evolution. That doesn't take trends into account, obviously, but it's a thought that helps me sometimes. Love the idea that it's not our individual responsibility to unlearn every damn thing.
This is deeply relatable! I have found that putting on makeup - concealer, bright blush, eye-liner if I need to kick some ass that day, and lipstick everyday (it is my weapon in facing reality) - makes me feel, good. It makes me feel competent and capable and ready for whatever the day throws at me. This was a skill I adopted when going through the most harrowing depressive episode of my life in my early twenties. And, even though now I am feeling much better, I still do this. Makeup and beauty and clothing can be a difficult and problematic thing for women. But so is just about everything. We are so regularly shamed for wearing makeup, or not wearing makeup, caring too much about our appearance, not caring enough, removing body hair, letting it grow. I'm just exhausted. There is no right way to be for women cause it seems the standard messaging tells us the right way to be is to be a man. So fuck it. Wear the makeup if it makes you happy. Wear a lot, or a little. Be natural or flamboyant. Just do whatever the fuck brings you joy. Cause that's the best kind of female revolution, reclaiming joy in the experience of being a woman - whatever that may look like for you!
An excellent article Rae, thank you! I have been a make up lover my whole life but somewhere in my 30’s (ya, it took me awhile to get it) I realized I was using it and my glasses as a mask. I have worked through that hang up and now wander my small town, where I know virtually every person, either with or without make up.
My community is a rural, gorgeous tourist town and about this time of year we get women descending on the town who look VERY different than what we are used to seeing. I was just commenting on it to my 21 year old son who also notices it. It is interesting to see the dichotomy of many expensive enhancements and a ton of make up to a more natural appearance. It’s as if females are actually two totally different species sometimes they seem so different!
I am a hair dying, occasional waxing, often make up wearing woman. I recognize the heavy cultural influence in all of this but try to stay in my lane of using it simply to feel good about myself. It seems to me that perhaps the ‘women of summer’ who come to my town are searching for something they think will arrive when they dramatically change their appearance?
I love the quote you gave from Iris Kim about enhancements being a colonial weapon or a tool for personal empowerment. Like so many choices it’s about intention and what you’re ultimately looking for. Clarity and discernment, but that seems to be missing from many beauty decisions.
I find now in my early 60s that less is more when it comes to makeup but if I’m going out and will be around people I definitely use my concealer and base and even eyeshadow cause ultimately that makes me feel better about how I look. I really do the beauty thing for me not anyone else. I hope that doesn’t sound weird but to your point of the commercialization of beauty I couldn’t agree more we are surrounded and inbred into a culture of what can I sell you today. Not only by the ads but the influencers and really just about anyone else who is trying to get your attention. It does help though if you do take the time to look your best while doing it! Great read Rae!
Thank you so much for sharing this. I really relate to this entire post—the struggle of wanting to express myself but also knowing that my self-expression is being influenced by those around me (especially on social media). Lately, I've found myself wearing things (and makeup) just because they fit into certain aesthetics and convey a certain image, but I'm trying to be more conscious of this. It's still a struggle because it makes me feel good to look nice, but I'm just trying to make sure I'm wearing what I like and want and not because I feel like I have to uphold a certain aesthetic/image.
Thanks for sharing this Rae - I can definitely relate to the cycle you describe, and to (over)thinking this question! I am a big fan of that Jia Tolentino essay too. My relationship with make-up (and associated areas like fashion) has fluctuated a lot over the years but I've found a lot of pleasure in claiming that aspect of my self-expression lately, and in embracing the power it can give me. Catherine Hernandez's essay 'Femme as in Fuck You' in the anthology Becoming Dangerous really helped me put language to some of the complicated joy of makeup - I'd really recommend it if it's not already on your radar!
You lay out a lot of my own struggles, its good we can talk about this stuff. My similar realization came about shaving my legs. I began shaving while an exchange student at 16, because of direct feedback that hairy legs were unacceptable. By university, exposure to feminist cultural critique convinced me that I was buying into patriarchal baloney. So I didn’t shave my legs but often felt wildly self-conscious about them. It sucked a lot of fun out of my social life. I thought other women’s hairy legs were fine, just not my own. It wasn’t till my late 20 that I had my aha and decided it wasn’t worth the energy to keep fighting on this issue. I remove my leg hair or leave it to luxuriate as the whim, the season and the event seemed to require. I’d land on the side of noncompliant a lot of the time. Since wearing compression stockings, I trim it to a number 3 so I don’t get either razor rash or the hairs caught in the mesh (both ouch). I wear makeup when I want camouflage, armor or I’m feeling playful. Or when I’ll be performing on stage or a screen so my features can be seen by the audience, it aids communication if they can see my expression. Yeah, I over-think stuff too.
I'm so glad you wrote about this this week (and your community is chatting about it too!). I'm writing a piece tomorrow about this weird relationship I have with identity and worthiness and all of it revolving around beauty and personal style and feelings and bleh... Haha.
I have a REALLY bad habit of telling myself I "don't deserve" things unless I'm feeling like I'm a productive member of society, or doing things I enjoy that feel my day AND make me feel... *worthy*.
I'm trying to shift that to just being realistic and inching into more beauty practices. But I've been up and down with it. I was never consistent with makeup or anything. I'd feel good in late middle school, high school, and a year in college enough to start wearing foundation and eyeliner on my waterline and mascara... I wanted to dye my hair and was only allowed a deep burgundy once.
I would buy makeup here and there and it ended up being a few small bags cause I got so much, but I almost always kept it simple... But now? I'm in the process of learning who I am and what DO I like? What's my style?
I can sometimes visualize myself and how "future me" would look but then I have to stop myself and say "okay... indulge in that thought of wearing eyeliner and concealer once you remember to wash your face more consistently at night...." Or new outfits and earrings and such once I've started finding and changing into loungewear that makes me feel better than I do currently.
1,000 times yes! I don’t think you’re overthinking it. I think a lot of people *under*think it. And I think going in cycles (so long as you’ve got an eye to potential influences, as you seem to) is totally healthy. I think doing to the same thing for 30, 40, 50+ years without question would be more worrisome.
I’ve had a vexing relationship with make up as well. I always felt like I was a doing it wrong or not doing enough. I hated the way products felt on my skin, but I was jealous of how my sister in law (six years younger than me) could put on a flawless face of make up with her abundance of products, many of them from K-beauty brands. So I settled into doing mascara and eyebrow pomade/pencils religiously, because that was bearable feeling. Maybe also blush. Then I started to have sensitivities to certain ingredients that are in most products, even/especially in “clean” beauty brands. Then I got sick and my face broke out. Then, the pandemic. And so I stopped wearing make up completely. Right now, with a face that has just finally healed from acne, I feel really grateful for how my skin is all on its own. And I’ve become very keen on less complicated, “natural” products, so that limits what’s available to me. (Which is great—yay for less choices!) Now, I use a little bit of Fat & the Moon’s lip and cheek stain. The dash of color is nice, but so is the ritual of it. Plus, I love the simplicity—less to do every day is worth more to me. It helps, I think, that most of the aesthetics I feel drawn to are sort of rough and tumble women, like RudyJude.
Something that I thought of whilst I was reading your essay was that folks were adorning their faces before the modern culture of consumerism and performance set in. I think that’s a healthy, human inclination, even if we don’t really understand why humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Where it gets murky is when our human love of beauty is used to turn a profit.
My mother was pretty much a tomboy (is that term still ok?) and I was as well, so early on I was pretty anti-makeup. I kinda had this idea that it wasn’t ok to be girly. Grew out of that in late high school/college as I tried to learn my own style. I’ve never been a makeup every day person. It’s always dress up for me. And sometimes I don’t even bother. Only if it feels fun for me.
Reading this made me also think about the ways makeup is used counter-culturally. Like with goth looks or drag. So I think it’s possible to use these tools simply for self expression. I wonder how this plays in with all sorts of body painting or changing that exists and has existed across cultures and history.
I seem to be one of those rare women who could care less about makeup. I've been made up in the past, but never followed through because 1) it always seemed like too much effort, and 2) I never liked how I *felt* when I had it on. (Awareness of The Gaze from a young age? Perhaps...)
The most I do, most days, is run the brush through my hair so that I don't look like Einstein's stunt double and make sure my clothes are clean and I don't smell. Years of caregiving will do that to a person, and parts of me are still recovering from that experience. Then as now, I get a huge sense of accomplishment when I manage to get my hair washed when I need to. High maintenance I am not, and never really have been.
My favorite accessory these days is my wrap, which I am wearing in my profile pic. It's got a "techno-mage in the Apocalypse" ascetic that appeals to me in this moment, and when I'm wearing my pentagram in plain view, I find The Gaze averts, which suits me just fine. I'm north of fifty now and Done with the Nonsense!
I used to wear makeup every day. This habit gradually died off and, while I did recently buy foundation/powder and mascara, these will most likely go bad before I wear them again. I do have the…privilege, I guess?…looking decent without it; not sure I’d feel that same if I had something skin-related that society told me I should hide. I’ve just gotten to the point (I’m 50) that if people don’t respect me unless I have makeup on, then I don’t respect or care to know them. My feminist heart thinks of makeup as a male-created standard and, well, eff THAT noise.
Interesting, looking at my reaction to makeup (fine) vs double eyelid surgery (hard no) and wondering why I’m okay with one and not the other. Maybe a viable marker for when it’s a problem is if you feel you can’t be seen without it. As if the un-enhanced you is deficient and this enhancement is an essential part of your identity.
But yes to external appearance enhancing mood. I spent most of my university years makeup free in men’s boxers and oversized T-shirt’s except for exam time when eyeliner, baby Ts and skorts appeared cause it made me feel like I could ace those exams.