This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
I didn’t start wearing makeup until I was 30. A few months before I took a walk to the Rite-Aid down the block to buy my first tube of tarry mascara, I’d started a job as an assistant to a carpenter. I was building walls, tables, bookshelves, and decks, and when I brushed my hair, sawdust floated in the light. My carpentry wardrobe consisted of work pants with a hammer loop, retired running shoes crusted with glue, many layers of shirts, all ragged, most paint-splattered, and a sports-bra uni-boob. I felt like a boy.
I’d never thought of myself as particularly attached to my femininity. But I think that first tube of mascara was an attempt at balancing, of reasserting some feminine sense of self. This is hard to admit — that my grip on my own femininity wasn’t strong enough to hold carpenter and woman at the same time, that I needed makeup to up my girliness. Was I not girl enough already? That first purchase was complicated in unexpected ways.
In part because it worked. The first brush with L’Oréal’s Voluminous and something changed. No one else would’ve noticed anything was altered, but a bit of blackness on my eyelashes was a minor injection of mojo, a small dose of sex. The practice appealed to me, too. I have stared like a creep at women putting makeup on in the mirrors of public bathrooms. The focus of the applier and the intimacy of the act — a private practice in a public place — captivates me. There’s something calming about watching someone who knows how to use their tools. And my own growing mastery with the brushes and wands served as a welcome counterpoint to my work with nail guns and chisels.
I was experimenting at age 30 the way I never had as a kid. In middle school, all my pals had bright, colored Caboodles full of makeup, like tackle boxes for black-cherry lip gloss, cotton balls, and squares of eye shadow in various shades of blue. I was never into it — not disdainful, just unmoved, the lot of it lost against more pressing concerns: crushes on boys, playing soccer. Plus, I had no one to model the behavior after. My mother wore no makeup. There were no lipsticks to smear, age 6, standing on a stool in the bathroom mirror. No eye shadow to smudge above the lids. My mother looked forward to going gray; to dye your hair, she believed, signaled a lack of confidence, a cowardly rejection of nature. My mother wore beautiful wool sweaters she knit herself, soft flannels, sensible shoes, a simple wedding band with no protruding jewels. Her style was about comfort, ease, utility. When, as a second-grader, I begged for jeans with little sparkly bedazzlers on the pockets in the shape of hearts and stars, she wondered how I could’ve come from her. The message she conveyed to me from an early age was that beauty needed no adornment. I absorbed it, deeply, without knowing I had.
In some ways it’s a positive message to send to a girl: You don’t need this stuff to be attractive. And I’m relieved not to suffer the stress and time-consumption of having to manage my face with products every time I walk out the door. But a subtle strain of judgment exists at its base: If you need to use makeup, then you are not naturally beautiful. Red lips, blushed cheeks, lined eyes — they run the risk of making a woman look clownish, whorish, or — worst of all — like she was trying too hard. It’s of a piece with a certain kind of Puritan abstention, the same tired ideal of restraint that leads to underseasoned food, stunted emotionality, and a suspicion of pleasure in its many forms. Maybe it’s harder to be stoic with a volcano-colored mouth, with eyes widened and brightened. The makeup draws attention to our most expressive parts.
Now when I pull my eyelid taut to rim the lid with liner, I still hear a small voice inside: You are not a natural beauty; you’re succumbing to society’s narrow norms of what looks good and right. But simultaneously, I feel myself refuting that voice. Look at the light pour forth from my eyes! I don’t feel like I’m accepting some cruel truth of actual ugliness. I’m able to locate and embrace this feminine energy that’s obscured by the work I do. But it’s more than an easy means of feeling girly after a day spent with a hammer in my hand and sawdust in my hair. It’s a small act of defiance. I can leave the unembellished to the making of a table, and enhance my eyes in the evening.