Last weekend a friend expressed shock that I knew how to do french braids, which made me think of this post I wrote about a year ago.
Several months ago at a Relief Society activity I had a curious conversation with a woman in my ward. She is an older woman who takes care of her appearance meticulously. At this activity she approached me, put her arm around my shoulder and said, “I just wanted to tell you that you are so beautiful!” I said a startled “thank you,” and she continued “No, I really mean it, you are so lovely. And you don’t even wear makeup. I think that if you wore makeup then you would look phenomenal.” To which I jokingly responded “Well, you see, makeup would just hide my beauty.” She said “Oh no, makeup will enhance your beauty!” After that the conversation came to an awkward end and we went our separate ways.
I went home confused and bothered by the exchange, but didn’t know what to make of it so I pushed it to the back of my mind and forgot about it. Months later, in some of my random musings I was thinking about makeover shows, and what a train-wreck the whole premise is. Someone decides that a friend, family member, or acquaintance is ugly, or at the very least not attractive enough, which they declare on national television in an attempt to ‘help’ said ugly duckling. Gee, thanks! I thought about how awful it would be if someone signed me up for a show like that, which isn’t implausible given my unmade-up ways and comfy clothes.
All at once it hit me, the woman from my ward wasn’t just giving me a compliment, she was trying to take me by the hand and start me on the path to learning how to be a better, more beautiful me. What she saw when she looked at me was a poor unfortunate girl, who either didn’t think she was worth the effort (IE, “I’m too ugly for makeup to do any good, so why even bother?”) or who lacked awareness of my own appearance the way that 6th graders lack awareness of how they smell.
But here’s the thing about me. My mom is a beautician, I’ve been in several stage productions, and I have a sister who was a rodeo queen (read: beauty pageant on horses). I sat through the instructional videos, I attended the seminars, and I read that books. I know how to apply makeup, I know how to walk down a runway, I know how to pose for photos, I know how to hold myself so that I look 5 pounds thinner. I know my season (winter), face shape (oval), I know how to dress to compliment my body shape. I know how to shape eyebrows, how to wax body hair, how to color my hair, how to give myself manicures and pedicures (even acrylics). I know how to do ridiculous hairdos, I know all sorts of hackneyed fashion rules and conventions. I know beauty, but I don’t play that game.
When I turned 17, I asked two of my friends to go out to breakfast with me on my birthday. Our classes started at 7 am, so we agreed to meet at 6 am. I woke up at 5, showered, got dressed, did my hair a bit and arrived at the restaurant on time. My other friend arrived shortly after me, and the second friend arrived a good 15 minutes later than both of us. We asked my late friend if she had slept in, and she said no, she got up at 3 am, but it took longer to get ready than she thought. I was flabbergasted. It took her 3 hours to get ready for school? Seriously? Not prom, not a date, not a job interview. School. I asked her why she couldn’t just skip the makeup for a day and she looked at me as if I’d asked her why she didn’t walk around naked. Her completely serious, non-melodramatic, dead pan answer was “I’m ugly without makeup.” At that point it was my turn to look at her as if she’d said she was going to walk around naked. I’d known her since we were ten, when she wasn’t allowed makeup, and I’d never once thought she was ugly.
Later, as I watched her and other girls around me I came to realize that nobody thought makeup made them “more beautiful.” They thought makeup made them look less ugly. They didn’t wear makeup to look nice, they wore it to look normal. And their opinions on makeup made sense given the way they used it. If you wear makeup every day, then that is how you normally look; you’d have to wear extra makeup to look extra nice.
That was when I stopped. I didn’t want to think of myself as being ugly without makeup, and in order to avoid that trap I decided that I couldn’t get used to seeing myself in makeup. From then on makeup was strictly for special occasions, prom, dates, graduation, photos, etc. Now I refuse to include makeup in my basic daily hygiene. I am clean, my clothes are clean and neat, my hair is combed and styled, my nails are trimmed and clean, my eyebrows neatly shaped. I have good hygiene, and take good care of myself. I like how I look.
But here’s what sticks in my craw about all of this. Makeup, and other forms of performed femininity are so pervasive and normative that it is natural for a kind hearted person to assume that I’m not doing the expected beauty regimen because I have bad self-esteem or poor hygiene. For a long time skipping the makeup was hard. I was plagued by doubt that I wasn’t pretty enough without it. I worried that people, especially boys,* would think I was ugly. I was concerned about my job and whether they would try to make me wear makeup. At this point in my life I’m perfectly alright if someone looks at my unmade-up face and thinks that I’m an angry humorless feminist. I’m fine if they think I’m ugly. But the thought of people tsk-tsking under their breath and feeling sorry for my poor self-esteem makes me angry. I can control how I look at my own face, but I can’t control what other people read into my behavior.
After realizing that the woman in my ward was trying to save me from myself I’m now paranoid about any compliment I get. People who fall all over themselves to compliment my trendy new hairdo make me squirm. It’s almost like they’re trying Pavlovian conditioning– they stroke my ego when I dip my toe in the beauty pool in hopes I’ll keep it up. I wish I could wear a sign: “I look this way for ideological reasons.” Until then, the next time someone tries to talk me into wearing makeup by insisting that it just accentuates my features I’m going to respond with, “You’re right! I bet my husband really would look better with some eyeliner too.”
*Oddly enough unless I really have a lot on my husband can’t tell if I have makeup on or not, and before I quit makeup altogether he refused to kiss me on Sundays for fear that I’d get lipstick on him.