Living without makeup

U name it

Today saw a pretty huge event for me, and one I wanted to write about and share: I went to work without makeup on my face for the first time ever.

As a child, I always had a gorgeous complexion. People used to comment on my “peaches and cream” colouring, and as I got older, I was sometimes told I had “English rose” skin. I am still unsure what this means: I just always knew that my face had a tendency to look rather pink, particularly in comparison with my pale-as-the-driven, alabaster-skinned sister. Clearly the redder pigments in my particular face are working overtime: when I blush, I blush very easily and very deeply. Unlike some folk who are lucky enough to blush mostly at the neck, I colour up right on the apples of my cheeks. I also get very pink in the face during exercise, or when I cry. It takes a long time for this pinkness to fade. As a teenager, I was pestered by comments from boys who’d noted how easy it was to turn me scarlet; I was ashamed of my inevitable tomato-red face which flared up and refused to die down for at least an hour after even the most easy-going of PE lessons. I was never plagued with acne, dry skin, oily skin or any of the other (much worse, I now realise) horrors that my peers battled daily (and doubtless received just as much abuse for), but I still hated my face for its spiteful, uncontrollable proclivities.

I also have very mousy hair. Not blonde, not brown, not even somewhere interesting in-between, but a sort of ever-so-slightly transparent brown-grey. Unsurprisingly, as soon as I felt rebellious enough (aged 13), I reached for the hair dye and have been some shade of auburn, ginger or pillarbox red ever since. My eyelashes, however, were less easy to fix. They are literally transparent. If I don’t wear makeup, I look like I don’t have any. Add to the mix very thin, whispery eyebrows and my face consists of two watery, ill-defined eyes in the middle of a flushed pink face-blob.


This is how I have felt about my face — my own damn face — for the best part of the last twenty years. I don’t remember exactly when I started wearing makeup regularly, but frighteningly, I’m pretty sure it was before I began attending high school. That means that I have been ritually concealing, powdering, shading, painting and highlighting my face every single day for fifteen whole years.

I’ve never been a girly-girl. I used to attend the odd teen slumber party and would often swap makeup with my very glamorous cousin (looking back, I’m shocked that she even entertained the idea of swapping her glittery Claire’s Accessories swag for my free-with-a-cheapie-magazine lipglosses), but putting on makeup was never something I enjoyed. First of all, I was crap at it: my nails were always chipped within minutes of applying polish, I’d rub my sleepy eyes in class and turn myself into a panda. I also — signs of dormant feminism stirring in my psyche — resented having to pay for all this glittery, smelly frippery, hence the swapping with my cousin. All too often, I’d nick off with my mum’s makeup (a limited selection of very elderly Avon bits and bobs — I can count the number of times I’ve seen my mother wear makeup on one hand), meaning I never looked desperately on-trend. Finally, I did it not because it was fun to transform myself or because it made me cool or part of a girly group: I did it because I hated my face and all that it stood for. I wasn’t accentuating its best bits, I was covering it up for all I was worth. Example: for most of my high school years, I genuinely believed that the solution to my see-through eyelashes was six coats of mascara, daily. I understand this look is now referred to as “spider eyes” — I was literally clogging my eyes up with beads of black, sticky gunk every single day.

This continued well into adulthood. Relatively recently, I genuinely felt unable to leave the house until I had “put my face on.” I learned a little about moderation and realised that two coats of mascara generally look much better than ten, but only a select few privileged people ever got to see me bare-faced. I remember seeing a TV show in which a makeup artist described fair people with very faint eyelashes as looking “like a fried egg” without makeup, and I wholeheartedly, if grimly, agreed. It became my new way of thinking about my face: I look like a fried egg… except, kind of pinkish.


What changed?

I’m not totally sure, to be honest. I’m skeptical about the feminist “click” narrative, because I think that most shifts in consciousness happen gradually. This one was a combination of factors.

I began reading books about feminism. I got hooked. I started reading feminist blogs and talking to people about women’s issues and women’s rights. I started blogging about it all myself. I began to think about myself differently, and realise that much of what I’ve come to know — much of what I feel I’ve always known — about the acceptability of my body and face is totally wrong. I began to realise that the way I feel about my appearance is and has been toxic and damaging. Frightening but true: I came to the conclusion that things had to change.

I also met an amazing man who somehow managed to take all the stuff my parents, sister and friends have been saying to me for years and make me actually hear it. Things like: you’re not ugly and fat, in fact, you’re so far from ugly or fat that that’s a totally ridiculous statement. Things like: anyway, who cares if you’re a size 16 and have no discernible eyelashes? Why is that important? Things like: you’re a smart, accomplished, well-read woman and you know that all this superficial stuff is bullshit. Why are you still OK to embody it, when you curse fire and brimstone upon it all to your female students? And of course, things like: I don’t give a shit whether or not you wear makeup. I love you and think you are beautiful.

Finally, I got a high-octane, high-stress job that demands I get out of bed at 6am every morning. Suddenly the desirability ratio of 30 minutes of extra sleep versus 30 minutes to tidy my face up a bit has shifted considerably.


I started by banishing makeup on days when I knew I wasn’t going out. I got used to wandering round my house with nothing on my face, getting used to seeing my new self in mirrors. This sounds ridiculous, but it isn’t: I’d really never spent any time looking at my face without makeup since I was a child. As I got braver and more used to it, I started losing the makeup at weekends and on my days off, regardless of whether I was staying in or not. This was terrifying at first, and some days I’d buckle and end up applying eyeshadow or eyeliner halfway through the day. (Weirdly, I found initially that I had to wear some kind of eye shadow or powder, even if it was just skin-tone: after fifteen years of always wearing it, I found I didn’t like the natural feeling of my own eyelids without it. They felt sweaty and fleshy and gross, and I had to wean myself off the powder gradually to get used to the feeling.) More recently I’ve felt more confident and have managed to go days on end without makeup. I’ve realised that no one else notices. I’d expected that when I went out makeupless and met friends, they’d comment on the fact that I wasn’t made up today, or say they thought I looked washed-out or weird. No one has ever said a word. I’ve realised that although I see my un-made-up face as being totally different to my face with make up on it — to the point where, honestly, they feel like two different people — no one else gives a monkey’s. They know what my face looks like, and sometimes it has makeup on it and sometimes it doesn’t. It really is no big deal.

Going to work without makeup was the last big step. As a lecturer, I have to stand up in front of large groups of (often unruly) people and talk like I know what I’m on about. This takes confidence, and I always told myself that makeup and feeling confident went hand in hand. I also kidded myself on, avoiding this day for ages, with the idea that wearing makeup at work shows you care about being presentable, gives a good impression. Not wearing makeup at work would look careless and slovenly, I lied to myself for weeks. Today, something settled into place. I was running a little late this morning, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and thought, quote, “oh, fsck it.”

It’s now 4pm and my teaching day is over. None of my colleagues or students have commented on the fact that I have no makeup on my face; none of them have asked if I’m sick or told me I look flushed or tired. No one from HR has come down to tell me I look slatternly and am letting the side down. I’ve forgotten all about it for most of the day, and had a little double-take moment on entering the ladies a couple of times. I expected it to feel difficult, scary, a huge deal: I expected to feel really relieved at this stage in the day when I realised I’d “made it.”

But I don’t. I feel happy, and resigned. Makeup and I are done, we’re over. I’ve had this damaging, negative habit for fifteen years, and I have managed to kick it. It may sound like small beer to some, but I’m proud of myself for having overcome it all. In future, you may see me reach for the lipstick for a special or glamorous occasion… but if you just pass me in the street? Expect to have to look damn hard for any evidence of eyelashes.

Photo by h.andras_xms

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