On Makeup and Authenticity

Last week, I photographed my friends Sara and Tatiana going through their makeup routines, and documented each step.

Tatiana (left) and Sara (right) with the piles of makeup from their daily routines.

I’m not going to even pretend that I understood the intricacies of what they were doing. All that I knew was that, by the time they were done, they’d used a host of products (19 for Sara), each with a very specific function. .

The three of us have been friends since our freshman year of high school, yet I’d never witnessed this ritual of theirs. They came to school every day with poreless skin and well-defined cheekbones, but I never gave it much of a thought.

I know absolutely nothing about makeup outside the realm of mascara and lipstick. I attribute (credit?) most of this to my parents. My mom wears no makeup apart from moss-colored eyeliner to accentuate her green eyes. My dad never allowed me to wear it when I was growing up, not even nail polish. He did the Typical Dad Thing, telling me that I didn’t need it and that I was beautiful just the way I was. But makeup was also foreign to him; none of his sisters or the women in his village in El Salvador wore it. In his eyes, makeup was used by American women to fix things about their faces that they didn’t like, to make themselves more beautiful. 

(me, barefaced on the left, barefaced + lipstick on the right)

As I’ve grown up, though, I recognize that makeup and beauty have a complicated relationship. Most of my friends say that they wear makeup for themselves, not the male gaze. Most men don’t understand the time and mental energy that’s spent in picking the Perfect Lipstick for your skin tone or shaping your brows or disguising dark circles. Makeup can be subversive. It’s a way to claim agency over your appearance and self-conception. One of my favorite bloggers, Arabelle Sicardi, has weaponized her use of makeup as a way to deal with body dysphoria and chronic illness. For her, “beauty is terror,” far from including men (or heteronormativity or white people) into the equation. 

When I stay at my aunt’s house in Chicago, I marvel at her collection of palettes and tubes and jars. My dad likes to tell the story of when my aunt visited him and my mom in San Francisco, and she took an hour in the morning to get dressed, do her hair and put on makeup. My dad was perplexed by this; my mom’s morning routine is very low-maintenance, compared to her sister. When she finally emerged from the bathroom, she smiled and asked, “Wasn’t it worth it?” He always laughs at this part, saying that he quipped back, “Not really.”

I always cringe at this story. I hate how my dad, typical of most men, posits wearing makeup as some sort of moral failing, and how going bare-faced somehow makes you a better person. I hate the tendency of men to say that women look best "natural;" usually, that still requires subtle contouring and full-face foundation. I won’t harp on the “women face lots of societal pressure to look perfect at all times” point, to avoid sounding like a cliché-spouting broken record. But honestly, who died and made men leading authorities on What Women Should and Should Not Be Doing? Who cares if men think that women look best "natural," if pandering to the male gaze isn't what women care about?

I don’t wear makeup because I don’t care enough. I don’t prioritize it in my daily routine or in my budget. On the special occasions I wear mascara, I have to force myself to care enough to remove it at the end of the day. I’m so used to seeing myself bare-faced, dark circles and red spots and everything, that I don’t want to get used to artificially perfect pores and defined cheekbones and blemish-free skin. It’s not a feminist statement. 

Beauty, for me, is tied up with being at ease with one’s self. It’s about feeling at home in your body. Wearing makeup or not is only part of that equation. And for me, it really doesn’t factor in at all.