Magic's in the Makeup

The other day, when I walked into a friend’s apartment, she remarked on how nice I looked. To which I replied, “Well, I’m ready to do pretty again.”

I don’t think I ever knew makeup existed until I was about eleven years old. I just took it for granted that all the starlets on Loveboat and Fantasy Island had big eyes and glistening lips. My mother had never worn makeup as far as I knew. Then one day I walked into my mother’s room and saw her putting on pink lipstick and blush, and blue eyeshadow, and my world changed forever. Turns out that she had gotten a makeup consultation for an imminent family portrait, and was practicing. In the portrait, she looks glamorous and beautiful in her dark blue kimono; my father looks elegant in his navy suit, my youngest brother and sister look like precocious royalty, and me and my next youngest brother look rather like the gawky, awkward and nerdy pre-teens that we were. Throughout the next year, my mother permitted me to wear a dab of lipgloss or blush on recital nights or other special occasions, lending me a bit of her glamorous image.

And then I entered junior high school. With contact lenses, a new school far away from the “geek” label I’d lived with in elementary school, and free range for self-expression, I reinvented Dora. I discovered black eyeliner and frosty eyeshadow, painted my hair with peroxide patterns, and learned to talk like a valley girl. Let’s just say that the next six years were filled with daily experimentation guided by magazines and best friend consultations. Yes, those were awkward years as well.

By the time I’d gotten to college, there was no time for daily make-up-ing. What with classes, walking to classes, institute and leadership roles, work, and physical activity, it was an unnecessary daily expenditure of time. It became a special occasion event … dances, extracurricular events, and when I was dating.

And then I got my first job … night nurse in a small PICU. And the problem with putting makeup on became that I had to spend a couple extra minutes taking it off when I got home in the morning. A couple extra minutes that I could have been sleeping.

Anyway, after a few years of un-make-up-ing, I’m finally ready to do pretty again. Not that I decry those who choose not to make these efforts. As evidenced by my checkered past, I reserve the right to switch allegiances at will. I have a strong belief in makeup. In this present stage, I might even go as far as to say that makeup is true. When it comes down to it, there are surprisingly few people who are actually physically ugly. I tend to think that almost everyone can be made more presentable with a good haircut and a little makeup. Maybe that’s why I love makeovers and Susannah and Trinny so much.

So, a little makeup at work, and a little more for social occasions. And I actually feel more confident. More personable and magnetic. More inclined to speak out. More able to get hard-headed people to compromise. Magic’s in the makeup.

Or is it? I’m not sure if it’s the actual physicality of my presentation, or the invisible feather clutched in my hand that’s making the difference. Are people responding more favorably to me just because I put my hair up and put some eyeliner and powder on? Or is it that I feel more confident because of what I’ve done? If I were a more genuinely confident person, would I be able to get the same effect without putting on the frills? And what does this mean for young girls in a world where a certain type of physical beauty is so predominantly visual in all types of media? What have been your experiences with trying, or not, to find the magic in the makeup?


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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  1. AmyB says:

    I had severe acne throughout my teens. I wouldn’t dare leave the house without my makeup because I felt so hideous. I tended to emphasize my eyes with makeup to draw attention away from the pimples.

    In college, after a second round of Accutane, my skin finally cleared up. I can still remember the first day I left my apartment without makeup. It was a proud day for me to finally go out in public with no makeup and feel like I still looked good.

  2. Caroline says:

    I have very mixed feelings about makeup. I’ve been wearing it since I was a freshman in high school. At first it was mainly to help cover up skin issues, but then I got into eyeliner and lipstick. And for the next 14 years, I wore it every day. Wouldn’t think about leaving the house with at least some lipstick on. It just made me feel more complete, more ready to face the world, more confident.

    It’s only been in the last year or two that I have dared to venture out of the house occassionally makeup free. I still feel naked when I do. I’ve just come to question whether it’s healthy to use makeup so regularly. Shouldn’t I be able to feel good about myself without it? What messages are we communicating to young girls if they see women around them constantly wearing makeup? That artificial is beautiful? Is it sexist of the world to expect a woman to paint her face everyday, when there is no expectation like that for a man?

    These are all questions I ask myself when I put on makeup. But I still do, because the bottom line is that it makes me feel better about myself and more confident. I hope in the future I can be more like you Dora, and feel comfortable taking it or leaving it, based on my current inclinations.

  3. Starfoxy says:

    I decided that make-up was just for special occasions when I found my friends (12 or 13) bemoaning how *ugly* they looked without makeup, and how they just plain would never be seen outside of their bedrooms unless they had their makeup on. These were not ugly girls, they did not have acne, or large birthmarks on their faces or any sort of noticable assymetry. I found their comlaints unsavory and dishonest and decided the best way to never feel like I was ‘naked’ without makeup on was to simply never get into a habit of wearing it.

    I do think that make-up is a sort of magic feather. It is, however, a very costly and time consuming magic feather, and I can’t help but feel that we’d all be better off without it. Especially since nearly all the advertisements for it play on our insecurities, and false notions of social power. (ie beauty = power)

    I will admit that I have a vested interest in wanting other women to give up make-up. When make-up is daily wear for women it raises the bar for what a normal woman looks like. If no one wore makeup I would be average looking, but since nearly everyone wears makeup I’m comparatively homely or plain. I could go on, but I probably shouldn’t.

  4. Seraphine says:

    I have conflicted attitudes about make-up too. I actually went years (high school and college) without wearing any makeup, and it’s only been in the last handful of years that I’ve started wearing it more and more.

    Most days I just put on some blush and undereye concealer (I’m pale and I have dark, dark circles under my eyes), but I do occasionally wear more make-up, and I’ve had experiences like Dora has had: people pay more attention to me, I get comments on how nice I look, etc. Of course I like the compliments, but I’m not sure what to think about what they say about the whole beauty-power thing.

    I think the main reason I will put on more make-up is that my significant other likes it when I do (especially when I do eye makeup). Because it doesn’t bother me to do it sometimes (as long as I’m not doing it every day), I do it to make him happy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Is it sexist of the world to expect a woman to paint her face everyday, when there is no expectation like that for a man? “

    The world doesnt expect this. Women do it in order to “one-up” the competition.

  6. Dora says:

    amyb ~ I’ve had pretty good skin for most of my life, with the exception of a one year period where I had pretty tragic acne. Makeup actually made it look worse. When I finally got my “regular” skin back, I didn’t wear makeup for ages, because it felt so good to look normal again.

    Caroline ~ I keep hoping that more and more mothers will take the initiative to talk with their daughters about the relative un/importance of looks, and ways to enhance (not mask) their natural beauty.

    Starfoxy ~ I’m a little interested in a new ABC show called “Ugly Betty.” The protagonist is a young girl, ostensibly ugly, who dreams about working in the fashion world. When I take a good look at the actress, she is not ugly, although her personal sense of fashion is rather unfortunate. My point is, the public now calls women ugly (and a number of other unsavory adjectives that are not worth mentioning) when really, they look a little plain. Plain is not ugly. Plain can generally be dressed up to pretty, if one is so inclined. But, the expectation of beauty in women is so culturally ingrained, that anyone who is not pretty is castigated as ugly.

    Seraphine ~ Interesting that you’ve only recently started wearing maekup more and more. It brought to mind an essay by Nora Ephron wherein she starts talking about wearing makeup as a way to detract the attention from her neck, which shows her age less gracefully. I wonder about my investment in makeup as the decades pass … will it grow stronger as I attempt to negate the years, or will I gracefully find a way to wear the years?

    Anonymous ~
    I disagree. The world does expect it of anyone it feels it should acknowledge

  7. Miriam says:

    At my mother and younger sister’s urging I started wearing make-up in my late teens. To my surprise I found that I thought I looked better with it on and enjoyed those moments of brief artistry in front of the mirror. Wearing it made me feel the way I felt when I “played dress-ups” as a child, fancy and fine as I clunked around in my mom’s high heels, wrapped in my grandmother’s fancy shawl. That was a nice feeling. So I wore it throughout my early twenties.

    In my mid-twenties I began to question my relationship with make-up. How much of how I looked was me and how much of it was what I was trying to appear like? How much self-consciousness was I feeding in my daily interactions by spending time each morning concerned about my face? Those were good questions for me to ask myself. I started wearing it less.

    In my thirties I decided I wanted to be one of those women who, when she is at a primitive YW girls camp, zillions of miles from civilization, can crawl out of her sleeping bag, run a brush through her hair, climb out of her tent and not have anyone think “She really looks different without her make-up on.” I wanted to appreciate and wear, every day, the face I had been given, without the extra cosmetics. I stopped wearing make-up except for those times when I wanted a “special occasion” look.

    Now I am in my fifties. I almost never wear make-up. I have lived with my increasingly wrinkly, aged face for decades and I like it. For me, the decision to live with minimal cosmetics has helped me to enjoy the face I have. Many of my friends who continue to use cosmetics at my age bemoan the fact that their faces have changed, that the time and cosmetic attention they spend on their skin and face do not produce the same results that they did when they used those cosmetics twenty years ago. I love not having to think about that.

    I’m not anti-make-up. I still have mine. And once or twice a year I dabble with it. At those times I enjoy the sense of play, of “doing dress-ups”, that it brings. But personally I have found that, on a daily basis, I am more at peace with my own self without it.

  8. jana says:

    I enjoy how lovely my friends look when they wear make-up. I can sense that they feel more confident and more special.

    AS a teen I wore quite a bit of make-up. It was after my chemo treatments when I lost all my hair and had to pencil in browns, wear eyeliner, and wear lipstick or I looked like a particularly sickly boy (w/o hair it’s pretty hard to determine someone’s sex). Now I wear make-up just a few times a year (tho sometimes I will go a year or 2 w/out any at all). I feel more awkward when I’m wearing make-up because I’m constantly nervous about a make-up malfunction–such as mascara-related raccoon eyes, lipstick on my teeth, etc. When my face is bare I have no such worries.

    That said, I am kind of picky about having well-groomed eyebrows. I regularly get my waxed. There’s something about tidy brows that makes me feel more confident. Weird, eh?

    When I was growing up I was embarrassed that my Mom didn’t wear make-up because all of my friends’ Moms wore quite a bit of it. I vowed that I would always wear make-up. That makes me laugh now. It’s just not worth the trouble…

  9. jana says:

    BTW, “Fantasty Island” sounds like my kinda place 🙂

  10. Coventry says:

    I have to wear makeup. I am getting a Masters in Vocal Performance and my primary voice teacher will not let us come to class or have lessons without lipstick. I also have to “dress up” every day for school. Every time I feel like a total fool wearing big earrings and date clothes to my 9:00am classes, I find when I get there that many people are far more overdressed than I am. Sequins, rhinestones, scarves, stilettos.

    On Saturdays I rebel by going all day with no makeup and unkempt hair. Sometimes I go to church that way too, muahaha.

  11. Tracy M says:

    I’m just as comfortable out of make-up as I am in it. Sometimes I feel very pretty made up, other times I feel very pretty au natural… It more depends on my mood than anything.

    The world DOES tend to give a little more of a nod to a woman who has artfully applied cosmetics on. I’m not sure that this political more than it is just human nature to respond to pretty colors or things flamboyant. Even in the animal kingdom, often the more attractive (noticeable) bird or beast gets the mate. It may be something hardwired inside us all.

    I do tend to get more comments about “looking tired” when I skip the make-up- but then again, I have three kids under 5, including a newborn, so MAYBE I really do look tired!!

  12. Starfoxy says:

    I reread my comment, and thought that I should clarify. I was saying could go on and on about the beauty industry lining their pockets with the insecurities of women. From my poor formatting it sounded like I could go on about how ugly I feel. I actually don’t really feel ugly, I know that I’m really rather fetching, and that any time I do feel homely it’s because I either need a nap, or have been reading beauty magazines.

  13. VirtualM says:

    This post reminds me of a time a few years ago when I was getting my hair highlighted, had forgotten my book, and my stylist handed me a magazine. After reading through it, I had this strange urge to get some green eyeshadow (I am a very pale redhead, after all, with blond eyelashes and eyebrows!) I must say I’m not one to talk about makeup, I started wearing it in the 7th grade, when I was considered one of the geekiest girls in school. It got noticed, my pale lipstick and blush, and helped me transition into someone that at least wasn’t picked on constantly. I suppose it did help me conform, in a sense, and I still wear makeup most days, although I don’t stress too much if I go without it. In fact, sometimes it’s a dramatic statement for me during the day – I love dark and bold eyeshadows and dark eyeliner. I also have what most women would consider very short hair. Having short hair gives me more confidence than the makeup, although when I put them together, I feel extremely confident. For me, the magic is more in the hair and I will drop a decent amount of money on it, but I also find magic in the makeup in that it does make me feel confident. I enjoy the ‘performance’ at this stage in my life (late 20s). This is how I’ve chosen to present myself and I feel comfortable with it.

  14. Deborah says:

    I tend to feel *less* confident with make-up on — partly because I don’t know all the “tricks” and partly because I am so fair that I invariably feel “painted.” I got a couple of professional make-overs before my wedding to “learn” how to “blend” — but even when I told the make-up artists to keep it natural, I ended up feeling like Elvira.

    I love a good lip-gloss and an occasional light eye-shadow, but more than that is out of my comfort zone!

  15. Brooke says:

    I vowed I would never wear makeup when I was a young teen. I’m not sure why I decided I liked the natural look better, but anyway, my aunt predicted that I would someday. Maybe because of her comment, or not, I never wore it–except when I was getting really dressed up–like to the prom. I always feel really uncomfortable and not quite myself when I have it on, but I guess when we go so long doing things a certain way, doing something different always feels awkward. The down sides of wearing it just always outweighed the benefits for me–those downsides being the time it takes and the mess it can possibly make, and the expense it can often prove to be (hair is the same way for me–I absolutely have to have styles that only take a minute-or-less-comb-through).

    Like Jana, I’m less likely to wear makeup because I might forget I’m wearing it and rub an itching eye or get lipstick on my white shirt. And I don’t like the thought of getting lipstick on the people I kiss all the time, either (my 3 boys: husband and 2 sons).

    That said, there was a time I wore it on most days–once when I was pregnant and got anemia. I looked very pale and it bothered me enough that I resorted to wearing some subtle blush, eyeshadow, and lipstick. My mom gave me a bunch of samples and stuff she didn’t use, so I looked the way I wanted to throughout my anemic spell–and for free!

    There is still something in me that wants to grow old gracefully, and naturally, not relying on cosmetics to help me feel better about myself. I wonder as I approach my thirties (next month!) if my vanity will get the better of me eventually.

  16. Brooke says:

    Oh, and Deborah, I’m right with you! For me, it’s all about feeling comfortable.

  17. VirtualM says:

    For me, it’s about performance. We all choose who we will perform – I learned this from a women’s studies student in a feminism & popular culture class last year. She is an extreme femme, and she discussed why she chose that as her persona. It is valid for her. For me, I’ve chosen makeup and that’s valid for me. Others choose no makeup, and that’s valid for them. I’m not an expert in performance studies – maybe someone else can fill in my huge gaps – but basically, we all perform some kind of person each day. It’s who we are and it can change based on our circumstances or our age or any number of things. Yeah, I don’t think about it as a ‘performance’ on a daily basis, but essentially it is. Not choosing makeup is also a performance. Right now in my life I’m playing ‘new mommy’ and the ‘invisible feather’ of fixing myself up when I leave the house makes me feel as though my other roles of woman, wife, etc., can also co-exist with my new role in life. I know, it might sound shallow, but the “magic feather” makes me feel more able to present myself as a multi-faceted human being as well as helping me feel more confident. I want people to notice me and not the baby alone – the performance helps me feel like an individual being. Makeup makes me happy – am I allowed to say it?

  18. Dora says:

    In Japan, or so my grandmother used to tell me, people dressed up to travel; the rationale being that the better dressed one is, the better sevice one gets with higher levels of perceived prestige. Saving face indeed. Make up as performance … that resonates with me. I find that on my days off, I tend to go au natural. However, when I’m going in to work, or dancing, or dating, or any number of other activities when I want people to have a favorable reaction to me, I am more prone to make-up. Does this make me insecure? Hmmm, I don’t think so. I tend to think of it as being attuned to getting all the advantages I can. Is that too cynical?

    As to well-groomed/maintained hair and eyebrows? I concur. It makes the daily grind of getting oneself presentable a little bit easier for those of us mortal women. Not that it has to be expensive, just that attention paid to these matters on a periodic basis makes the everyday bit easier.

    Brooke ~ I agree that there are times when the hassle of removing makeup makes me less likely to put it on.

    Virtualm ~ Yes, you are definitely allowed to say it

  19. Ali says:

    I grew up with a mother who wore makeup. Her mother, my grandmother, was a Marilyn Monroe look alike, if you can imagine Marilyn Monroe in her 50’s and 60’s. They were beautiful to me. I learned from them to make myself up. It was a useful tool as a teen to be able to contour my nose until i grew into it.
    While it’s still not my favorite feature, I am not mortified about having my father’s Italian schnozz. To this day don’t like to bring attention to my nose because i was teased about it so much. Even so, I wear less make up now than I did as a teen. I like to look fresh and natural, but naturally I am so pale and have such thin eyelashes, that even my husband teases me that I have pig eyes with out mascara. Insulting I know, but laughably true. So, if I have to go out in a hurry, it’s lip gloss and even the slightest bit of mascara and I feel confident enough about my appearance. Age spots and wrinkles be damned! They are part of me and proof that have lived, loved the out doors and experienced the joy and sorrow of life.

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  21. Kiri Close says:

    I actually hate the stuff. The last time I ‘powdered’ up with a fully finished face was when i was dancing the Night Show at our Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.

    I wish i can give a noble reason why i no longer wear the stuff: caricaturization of imprisoning femininity (not to mention giving in the tourist industry cheapening our Pacific Islander cultural practices and arts!), heightening of libidinal male gaze upon females, obsession with youthfulness with a slightly pedophile undertone, etc.

    No, my reason is because it takes up too much time to wipe off (okay, only 5 minutes). But that’s 5 minutes i could use to do other things, like come home and immediately crash on my bed.

    I do, however, love a good, thick, glittery lipgloss. So far Revlon & Victoria’s Secret are my faves.

  22. Kiri Close says:

    PS–Carmex will also do.

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