About ten years ago, a friend and I went to the Clinique counter at Saks Fifth Avenue for makeovers. We thought it would be fun. On the way, I rehearsed my answer to what I imagined would be the makeup artist’s first question: “How do you describe your look?”
“Benign neglect” was going to be my answer. Cute, right? Also, true. I never wear makeup and don’t often put too much time into my appearance. I aspire to effortless elegance and settle for effortless.
The question never came and the whole experience was sort of disappointing. I got covered in goo as he talked about my uneven skin tone and unkempt eyebrows. “Don’t you pluck them?” he asked, incredulous and judgey. I love my naturally shapely eyebrows, but I was too sheepish to stand up for them. “I’m afraid of hurting them, I guess,” I mumbled.
When I looked in the mirror after he was done, I found a brighter and vaguer version of myself. I was still in there somewhere, but my inner self was having a hard time breathing under all that hypoallergenic, dermatologist-approved, never-tested-on-rabbits, very-expensive makeup. I could barely hold on long enough for my friend to take snapshot next to the makeup counter before wiping it all off in relief. I bought a $40 bottle of moisturizer as a consolation to the makeup guy and thanked him profusely as I obliterated all his hard work. My friend hated her new dramatic look, but she had the poise and tact to wait until we were in menswear to start wiping it off.
The ads promise that with a swipe of this and a smear of that, we can be our most beautiful, polished and powerful selves, but that was not my experience. I did not feel more confident. I did not feel more attractive. I did not feel better. I felt painted, unreal, hyper-self-conscious.
That was my big makeup moment. Here are a few others: In college, I wore eyeliner to parties until a friend told me she thought I “didn’t look as smart” when I was wearing it. Living in New York after college, I bought lipstick because I thought I should (I had all this extra money rattling around in my pocket looking for a new home) but I never wore it. After another friend told me that her New Year’s resolution was to wear mascara every day, I decided to do that too — much easier than my usual resolutions of not eating cheese, sending everyone I know birthday cards and being a nicer person. I tried, but just like all other resolutions, I forgot after a week or so.
Yet, I still have the mascara, and put it on every once in a while (even though you’re supposed to throw it out after a year or so). When I do, there is always a fervor in our very crowded bathroom.
“What are you doing?”
“Can I do that, Mama?”
“Why why why why?”
I tell my kids that I am putting on mascara because my eyes feel tired and I am trying to wake them up. That seemed to make sense until Seamus learned how to open it, decided his eyes were tired too and put the brown waterproof goo on his own eyes. He did a pretty good job and he rocked a very mod Russell Brand look for half the day, while I rubbed at his eyes with baby wipes for hours.
They call it the “Makeup Tax.” The average woman spends $15,000 over her lifetime on makeup. And then there is the time, about 20 minutes a day — or two weeks each year — spent smoothing and blending and smearing. All this primping and preparing is worth it, we are told. Women who invest time and energy on their appearance reap generous returns in the form of higher paying jobs and more prestigious promotions. They are prettier and people like them more. Made-up waitresses get tipped more. Cheyenne Haslett, an intern for the radio show The Takeaway, and a waitress, experimented by spending an hour and $50 at a beauty salon before heading to her Saturday evening restaurant shift. She made a little more money, felt a lot more self-confident (and self-conscious) and concluded that “Even if I didn’t think I needed it, I had bought confidence. Even if at the end of the night I was thrilled to go home and wipe it off, I would do it all over again.”
As Olga Khazan writes in The Atlantic, “Women invest time and money into doing their makeup because it impacts their relationships and their paychecks. And while both genders tend to buy haircuts, shaving cream, and moisturizer, the price of makeup is something men never have to worry about.” We can see this in the presidential race, where Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ appearance are treated so differently. It is okay for him to be rumpled and wooly, but every aspect of Clinton’s appearance is subjected to scrutiny and every time she gets a haircut, the coif gets a full-court press.
I just watched a YouTube video of a woman named Nikkie applying “full on glam” makeup to one side of her face, while her other side remains untouched “just plain me.” Her hand was expert, her use of color bold, her technique (to my untrained eye) flawless. The video is about six minutes long, though I am sure it took her longer. As I watched — in awe and admiration — I kept thinking: Her left side is lovely. All that she covered up and said she didn’t like — her small eyes, full cheeks and pink skin — was what made her unique and human (to me, anyway). At the end, both sides looked incredible, but I could only relate to her left side. Her makeup tutorials get millions of views. But this video — “The Power of Makeup” — has sparked an Internet “protest” on Instagram, where women are making up half their face and leaving the other side untouched. The photos are dramatic and the women definitely project a kick-ass, “don’t-call-me-shallow-for-loving-makeup” kind of empowerment that I admired.
Still, as the mother of two girls, I was much more moved by a Tasmanian woman’s transformation of Bratz dolls from pint-sized painted ladies to bare-faced little girl dolls. Sonia Singh upcycles the used dolls and sells them on Etsy (she had 12 when she put them online and has been completely inundated with interest). It seems like they are worth the effort and/or expense. In a video about her work, a group of girls play with the dolls, which are dressed in hand-crocheted play outfits and have been given new feet so they can wear tiny sneakers. One girl says, “They are nicer to play with. You can kind of think they’re the same age as you.” Sonia Singh hopes that doll manufacturers pay attention.
Now, as close readers of this column know, I don’t have a job, I don’t suffer from a surfeit of confidence and I have spent most of my life squarely out of the mainstream. But I do like feeling pretty and I am susceptible to the magazine covers, television ads and the pixelated perfection of our consumer-driven society. I do wonder if this or that product is the magic elixir to make me feel (or at least look) like I slept more than four hours last night and was closer to 30 than 40. But, in the end, I choose to spend my allotted beauty regimen time (i.e. the two minutes I have the bathroom to myself in the morning) doing something practical and healthy like flossing my teeth and putting on a moisturizer with sunscreen.
As I do, I remind myself that beauty is like happiness — fleeting and abundant, precious and free, subjective and uncaptured, and best appreciated while focused on something more important. They can’t tax that.
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