Ugly Duckling

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.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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40 Responses

  1. kristine N says:

    My husband tells me the following joke whenever I wear make up:

    Why to women wear make up and perfume?

    Because they’re ugly and they smell bad.

    It’s his way of telling me I don’t need make up to be beautiful, which is something I rather appreciate.

    My high school Spanish teacher once told our class (or rather, the boys in my class) that they should make sure to see a girl without make up before deciding to marry her. He claimed that he was startled (and from his reaction, disturbed) to find himself next to a woman he didn’t recognize the morning after his wedding. I’m sure he was exaggerating for effect, but he also didn’t seem impressed by his new wife’s looks without make up. That story was hardly the impetus behind my not using make up, but it certainly reinforced it–what better way to 1) ensure the guys I date really know what I look like, and 2) filter out the guys who think girls should be that coiffed.

    I’m impressed by women who keep their eyebrows shaped. It’s so painful I can’t convince myself to worry about more than occasionally, though it does make a big difference in how tidy ones face looks.

  2. suzann werner says:


    Hummm, when I met you, I was impressed, and jealous, that you look so pretty without makeup. Lucky you. I’m befuddled by your “gracious” makeup police officer.

  3. EM says:

    After I moved to a new part of the country where I didn’t know a soul, I decided that makeup was no longer necessary – what a relief, people still accepted me. Imagine that?, I’m still acceptable with or without makeup. Of course at my older age of 60+ I couldn’t care less what others think of me, not that I did much before – I’m comfortable in my own skin. Seeing people without gobs of makeup on is refreshing.

  4. Caroline says:

    Great post, Starfoxy. It gives me a lot to think about. I tend to put on makeup daily, but the older I’ve become, the less I’ve put on and the less time I’ve taken over it. 10 years ago I couldn’t have conceived of leaving the house without makeup. Now I do occasionally.

    The makeup front is one area I’ve chosen not to make an ideological feminist stand. (Though I admire those who do.) I’m not sure why…. maybe it’s just because I think makeup is kind of fun.

  5. TopHat says:

    I threw out my make up last December because it was all old (like from high school- yikes!) and I decided I didn’t want chemicals on my face. I may buy some mineral makeup when I save up some money, though. Going make up-free has been easy so far since I was pregnant and pregnancy and the time before I get regular periods again is the only time my face is clear. I have about 4 more months of nice face. I’m not sure what I’ll do then- maybe just hope no one sees the acne. I’m definitely not putting chemicals on my face anymore, though.

  6. Starfoxy says:

    Kristine N- I wonder if your Spanish teacher would have been happier to marry a woman who followed Helen Andeline’s advice and was careful to wake up before her husband every day so he never has to see her face without makeup. That just sounds so exhausting.

    Suzann- Thank you! I was befuddled by it too. My mom has said that I’m “pretty enough to get away with not wearing makeup.” but that bothers me for the same reasons I list here. A woman’s natural face isn’t something she should have to ‘get away’ with showing- like it is some sort of crime for her to inflict her un-made-up face on other people.

    EM- “what a relief, people still accepted me. Imagine that? I’m still acceptable with or without makeup.” I wish everyone could know this.

    Caroline- I totally agree that makeup can be lots of fun, and for that very reason I’m not inclined to engage in the lipstick wars (claiming you can’t be a good feminist and wear makeup).
    I do, however, take issue with the idea that makeup is necessary to be acceptable and will try to talk anyone and everyone out of believing that. It is for that reason that I’m a teetotaler on the make up front- I want to be that lady that someone knows that never wears makeup, but is still well groomed, well spoken, and seems confident and happy. If enough people believe that it isn’t necessary to wear makeup then the whole thing would be a little less charged and a little more “I wear makeup because I want to, not because I feel ugly without it.”

  7. Starfoxy says:

    Top Hat brings up another point- there are stricter regulations on lead in paint than lead in lipstick. The cosmetics industry is woefully under-regulated.

  8. Mary says:

    LOVE your post!!! I think I’ll start wearing a sign that says “I’m not skinny for ideological reasons!!!!” cause I get really tired of people assuming I have no energy, don’t exercise (which I usually do), overeat, or all the other stupid reasons and assumptions people make. I was spiritually “told” at 16 that there are far more important things for me to do than be obsessed with my physical appearance (especially my size) like most women. It’s never been easy, but I refuse to make my life miserable by listening to the “popular” notions about what size we should be. It does not mean that I’m unhealthy or “evil” like people love to believe. Yes, taking care of ourselves physically is important–but it doesn’t mean we should become obsessed, or judge others because they don’t fit the “ideal” we think there should be.

    So–yep–think I’m going to make me a sign!!!

  9. Dora says:

    I agree that makeup can be fun. However, I tend to use it, like caffeine, medicinally. When I used to work night shift, I drank a lot of diet coke, to stay awake. Now, that I’ve been working days for a while, I find that I’m actually pretty sensitive to caffeine. So, I’ve cut it out of my daily regimen, and generally use it only for when I’m working an extra long shift and need to stay awake.

    Similarly, I’ve taken makeup out of my daily regimen. It’s fun to experiment with, and do for nights out on the town or dates, but it’s a hassle that I can do without every day. Besides, the big problem with putting on makeup is having to take it off!

    I do think that popular culture’s amp-ed up of version of normal, everyday, acceptable beauty does a disservice to women who think that they need to go the whole nine yards every day in order to not be ugly.

  10. Deborah says:

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful post.

    I do lip gloss. That’s it. I hate how make-up feels, hate putting it on, and as fair red-head with very blond lashes, all attempts at eye makeup have been disastrous. It just doesn’t look natural, even the brown mascara I’ve tried. Every few months, I attempt a day of eyeshadow, and then wonder why I did it. And I really feel okay about it all. This is going to sound all sticky-sweet and hokey, but I think the best make-up is a genuine smile. Lights up the whole face. I wear those as often as possible.

    Okay, true confession. I have never touched my eyebrows. I wouldn’t even know where to begin? Tweezers? What shape? Do most women pluck? (Asking that honestly). . . Occasionally I wonder if I missed some secret womanhood lesson somewhere along the way.

    • Janell says:

      I don’t touch my eyebrows either and sometimes I wonder if I am the only one and if other women are looking at me like, “why doesn’t she ever tweeze/pluck/wax/etc.?” (Funny, I don’t wonder the same about men – I don’t think most of them notice or care.) Then I think, maybe I should start doing something with my eyebrows… And then I think about the upkeep and the annoyance, and how doing something with my eyebrows would not be fun in any way, and I decide it’s not worth it. I think my eyebrows are just fine, so why should I worry about it?

    • ESO says:

      I suddenly realized about half-way through college that I was the only one of my roommates who had natural eye-brows. I don’t know how I missed that, but I too have no interest in going down that road. It’s so weird to think that my eyebrows must be manipulated to be acceptable.

  11. Jana says:

    I don’t like makeup because it seems a hassle and a timesink. I’m sure I’d look better/younger/prettier with it, I just don’t bother.

    But I do like to get my eyebrows professionally waxed a few times/yr, especially right before I travel (when I know I’ll be in a lot of pictures). My eyebrows are pretty prominent, so if they are well-groomed, it makes the rest of me look more polished (or so I tell myself).

    One more thing: I think most of the men I know would look much better if they took the time to wear makeup, tweeze their brows, and wear the correct clothes for their bodytype. I don’t know why they don’t seem to realize that about themselves.

  12. Starfoxy says:

    Deborah- if you have fair hair and lashes then your eyebrows probably aren’t very prominent at all- meaning that you wouldn’t need to pluck or wax them, even if you were into beauty regimens.
    Like Jana I have very prominent eyebrows and mine grow very thickly right across my brow. I have to pluck them in order to make them into two separate eyebrows.
    If you want to know the general rules of thumb for ‘natural’ (which is to say, not styled) eyebrows: Draw an imaginary line from the edge of your nose to the inside corner of your eye, where that line hits your eyebrow is where your eyebrow should start. Another line from the corner of your nose to the outside corner of your eye is where the eyebrow should end. After that it is personal preference- I mostly just clean up the outlying hairs, and make mine a little thinner.

  13. Erin says:

    I remember having the same realizations when I heard girls a couple years older than me discussing how hideously ugly they were without makeup. I didn’t want to feel that way. I purchased my first makeup ever about a year and a half ago. Problem is, although a good friend showed me how to apply it, I’m always nervous that I’ve screwed it up somehow. So I’m actually more self-conscious with it than without. When I first bought it I wore it three or four times a month. Now, it’s probably been five or six months since I put any on.

    My mom started tweezing my eyebrows when I was in high school, but I’m horrible at seeing how it should be shaped, so now I just get them waxed, when we have money for it. Trouble there is finding someone you trust to give them a nice shape but still leave an eyebrow there.

    One experience that really bugged me: when one of the men in charge of running our BYU ensemble tour told us that we were representing the school, church, blah, blah, so us girls needed to put more effort into our appearance and wear makeup through the whole tour. Gah!

  14. CatherineWO says:

    Oh, to have eyebrows… As a fairskinned blond (now very gray), what little hair there is above my eyes is barely visable. I used to draw them on, and my mother used to have her brow hair dyed at the beauty parlor (never ever dyed her hair, just her eyebrows), but I quit wearing any makeup at all several years ago, when my chemical sensitivity worsened. Not that I ever wore a lot of makeup, but it really is so much more comfortable to go sans the goo.

    • I once had a very fair haired friend tell me (a brunet), “Oh, you get dates because you have eyebrows.” Which sounded odd to me, having never thought much about eyebrows or their powers of attraction.

      But I do see how mascara (and brow darkening) makes a bigger difference for someone fair than brunets. On the other hand, I am jealous that fair people have light colored leg hair. I suppose the grass is always greener, and the point of this post is that we need to feel comfortable in our own skin.

  15. Stephanie says:

    They didn’t wear makeup to look nice, they wore it to look normal.

    This is really true. I’ve worn a lot of make-up since the age of 12. One of my horrors was traveling on long trips in the van for different college functions. I would run in the bathroom at every stop to freshen up my make-up. (But the most fun I ever had as a teen was the week-long backpacking trip we went on with YM and YW. I was so nervous about being seen without make-up, but it didn’t even matter after the first day. How liberating! And one of the boys on the trip even had a crush on me after that. I thought that was just so weird that he could still like me after seeing me with no make-up.) After my first son was born, and I started staying home, I wouldn’t even go get the mail without my make-up on. You are dead-on that “normal” to me is made-up. It’s really kind of sad.

    (BTW, Starfoxy, I don’t remember reading that in “Fascinating Womanhood”. Was it in her “Fascinating Girl” book?)

  16. Angie says:

    All I can say from all these comments – I guess none of you had or have bad acne!!! Believe me, if you did, you’d be grateful for makeup! (speaking from experience, sad to say)

    • Stephanie says:

      Angie, that’s exactly why I wore so much make-up! The foundation I bought came in a tub with a little spatula so I could spackle my skin. That was as a teen. As I’ve gotten older and my skin has cleared up, I’ve worn lighter foundations. Recently I bought some mineral powder and am starting to really like it. It shows more imperfections, but it looks so much more natural.

      One thing I’ve realized lately is how much skin care affects the skin. As a teen, I would often fall asleep in that heavy foundation and wash my skin in the morning right before putting it back on. No wonder I had so many pimples! And recently I went to the Clinique counter for help on wrinkles, and the lady told me that I don’t have wrinkles, I just have dry skin. I had been skimping on the moisturizer because it is expensive. So now I am putting moisturizer on at night, too, and no more wrinkles! But now I am getting age spots . . . (fortunately they have a fix for that, too). Anyways, my point is that as I’ve taken better care of my skin, my need for make-up has decreased. I don’t think it would have given me perfect skin as a teen, but I do think it would have helped. (But I’ll always wear eyeliner and mascara because I have blonde eyelashes. My skin and hair all sort of blends together).

  17. Starfoxy says:

    Stephanie- I had been told that it came from Andelin, but I have never actually read either of those books myself so I’m probably wrong. That’s what I get for repeating hearsay, though that advice wouldn’t really be out of character for her.

    Angie- I liked how Dora put it- makeup should be used medicinally. The same way that someone with chronic pain takes painkillers every day is the same way that someone with severe acne or other skin problems would wear makeup everyday. And the same way that I take an asprin for a headache would be the same way that I wear makeup for special occasions.
    I think there is room to be grateful for something and see the good it can do for some while still critiquing overuse and manufactured dependence in others.

    • Stephanie says:

      It sounds like something she would say. She taught classes on how to be a “fascinating woman”. I was just wondering where she said it.

  18. zellion says:

    I definitely have gone through more and less makeup phases during my life and I think I have finally settled on a less. The item I wear most is eyeliner and that’s about it – I wear it probably 4/7 days a week. If I’m at home, not a chance.

    My husband once said to me before we were married that he enjoyed seeing me without makeup on because it seemed like a private thing almost and he liked that I was comfortable enough around him to not feel I needed to always wear makeup.

    On the other hand the summer I met him I’m pretty sure I had given up all makeup entirely so who knows! Both our moms had tattooed “permanent” makeup. Seriously! Does the word of wisdom say anything about tattoo makeup?

  19. Anne says:

    I agree with your basic post, and the acne comments, and the less-is-more idea. I went camping with ward members and many of them went and curled their eyelashes in the morning and I was horrified – we were camping! Also, Starfoxy, you mentioned “seasons” – what is that? Now I’m fascinated to find out what this is. Just because I won’t use it doesn’t mean I don’t want know what it is….

  20. Starfoxy says:

    Zellion, I’ve heard about tattooed makeup, though I never met anyone who actually had it done (or maybe I did, but never heard about it). What are the odds that both your mother’s had it done. Weird.

    Anne- Ah, yes seasons. The idea is that everyone has a color cast to their skin tone, (pink, white, yellow, etc), and that when you know what your underlying skin color is then you can pick colors that will flatter your complexion rather than make you look pale, or jaundiced or whatever. The collection of colors that look good on you is your ‘season.’

    • Anne says:

      My goodness I started reading that but it was far to complicated and ridiculous for me to follow. I’m sure it could be explained better but I’ll just stick with ignorance as bliss in this case…

  21. Lisa says:

    I don’t think makeup makes me look more beautiful and I certainly don’t feel ugly without it. That said, I think for me it’s more of a form of creative expression. I like wearing bright red lipstick sometimes with no eye makeup. And sometimes, I like wearing a smoky eye. But most of the time, out of laziness or whatever, I don’t wear makeup at all.

    I also admit to sometimes using makeup to feel better about myself. I started wearing lipstick around the same time I went through my first failed in vitro cycle. Not sure if it’s because I felt unsexy and unfeminine or, more likely, because I felt like reinventing myself.

  22. Rocky Branch 32 says:

    Sometime in my young-mother years, I considered going without make-up. But I remembered how, as a little girl, I admired the women who wore it, who looked well-groomed, not all used-up and worn-out. So, it’s make-up for me.

    Lots of you really can look nice without it. Me? With my blonde eyebrows and eyelashes? I feel the need to put the missing face parts back on. The difference between my natural face and my made-up face is so radical that I really can feel it in how people react to me. It’s not as if I hang out with shallow people, but I remember a week at girl’s camp (as an adult leader) where, as the week progressed, people seemed more and more put-off by how I looked. They probably wished they could send me into town for ice or something. “And stop at the drug store for some Maybelline while you’re at it.”

    I’m happy for all you that can go au naturel. But I’m gonna keep spending that twenty minutes on my face every morning.

  23. Becky says:

    I’m with Angie – the acne means I wear makeup nearly every day, though I would prefer to use it more for fun than medicinally. I can also say from sad experience that men DO notice the pimples.

  24. aerin says:

    I wonder if she was trying to sell you make-up. Seriously. It’s not really about the way you look (starfoxy)- more that you are/were a business prospect. I’ve (personally) received two make-up party invitations this year. I think it’s a way that some women supplement their income.

    Another interesting story – when I was growing up, some people confused the LDS church with other churches, where women couldn’t wear make-up or get their hair permed. The thought of some of the women I remember from church (this was the 80s) going without make-up in public…well – I remember lots of women wearing three (or more) different shades of eye-shadow.

    I think sometimes a woman’s worth is equated with her appearance (not who she is, her intelligence, etc.), and that really bothers me. I don’t think that wearing make-up or stylish clothes changes that – when that underlying belief is there, it is upsetting.

  25. Two of Three says:

    I’m printing this out so my daughters will read it! They teach me so much about being who they want to be without cultural baggage.

  26. sarahjane says:

    I’ve noticed that when I feel really yucky, I resent makeup or anything not essential to survival. When I’m feeling better (and feeling better about myself) I have fun doing makeup when I want to. But how much time and money so many women put into it… *sigh* seems a little bit wrong somehow… and I hate when people assume that because I’m not made-up or dressed fashionably (and usually have several kids in tow) that I must be less intelligent… I do feel like others treat me differently when I look more “presentable” and I think that is wrong, too…

  27. 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.

    That is a great insight.

  28. Stella says:

    Sometimes I wear it and sometimes I don’t. I like both ways. A lot.

  29. Mike H. says:

    I know I’m way late to this, but I’m poking around due to your wonderful fMh Modesty series.

    Sadly, some LDS members think they need to educate others in areas when they see someone is “lacking” in their mind. One of the worst I’ve heard of was when several sisters notice my Grandmother was married a few years, but never had a child, approached my Grandmother, and told her *how* to get pregnant, like she didn’t know! At least she laughed it off.

    Tophat: With some many US companies rushing to use cheaper Chinese made feedstock chemicals for all kinds of things, makeup/cosmetics are likely to get worse in containing hazardous chemicals, than better, in the near future.

  30. Starfoxy says:

    Mike- Glad to see you here! You are right that many people seem to make everyone else’s life their own business. I’m glad your grandma could laugh that off. Sometimes that’s all you can do to keep from going crazy.

  1. August 22, 2010

    […] “To the Mothers in Zion” fireside. Aerin provides a good wrap-up. Starfoxy’s piece on make-up was also […]

  2. January 13, 2012

    […] discussions about make up (I have a long illustrious history of handwringing about make-up & beauty) one idea that I’ve heard brought up more than a few times is the idea that […]

  3. January 15, 2012

    […] Starfoxy’s excellent post from the other day, in which she discusses her feminist decision to not wear makeup, made me sit […]

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