self reflection

I’m a Competent Adult, But Eye Shadow Terrifies Me

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

The only time I ever halfway managed an eye shadow “look,” I wasn’t even using eye shadow.

Two of my best friends were getting married, so I scoured YouTube for tutorials, speeding through the intros until I got to the parts where the influencer turned her normal eyes into Instagram eyes. You know the kind, with the cut crease and a cat-eye so sharp it could slice your hand off. Eventually, I found a video  where Desi Perkins smashed highlighter into the skin above her eyeballs with a wet brush, and I figured that was easy enough for me.

No one explicitly mentioned my eyes that night, but someone called me a lost Kardashian, so I think it worked. Either that or I completely screwed up. The jury is still out.

Of course, my makeup isn’t the only thing I remember from my friends’ special day; I am not that much of a monster. But the effort involved stuck with me. I own 12 different eye-shadow palettes (and an untold number of individual eye-shadow pots) and yet I never use any of them, because I do not know how.

There is something about the process of applying eye shadow that has always eluded me. When I was a little girl, I would watch my mom swipe pinks and purples over her lids with the sponge from a Lancôme giveaway quad. She never blended them. They were just there, in look-at-me colors that would have never passed as no-makeup makeup. Natural was not the goal; my mother became a career woman in the ’80s, where makeup was big and deliberate.

My own first attempts at makeup were failures, but I slowly figured it out, discovering a red lipstick I loved and teaching myself about highlighter. But eye shadow always pushed me into an uncanny valley in which my round-ish face is suddenly haggard and my resting bitch eyes have morphed into straight active murder.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to learn. But every time I make the attempt, I wind up with a mess. Single-color hacks — where you use a bronzers or a highlighter as powder — are pretty forgiving. Cut creases and cat eyes are not. Plus, it’s easier to try out a single product at Sephora before you buy it than it is to sit down in front of the Anastasia Beverly Hills kiosk and re-create an entire tutorial.

Perhaps the fact that our beauty focuses have migrated elsewhere ruined me before I ever got a chance. A 2014 study found that products for brows, not eye lids, were the fastest-growing niche in beauty, and besides, wouldn’t a strong eye distract from all that hard work we put into our skin-care game? “Lipstick is just easier,” my friend Katie told me. “It’s one step — two, with a liner — and you’re done.”

I don’t look like myself when I wear eye shadow, which I suppose is part of the point. But I don’t quite feel like myself, either. I feel like everyone knows I can’t tell a tapered brush from a fluffy brush, don’t quite know where the crease is, can’t blend a transition color into … whatever other color I’m using. On YouTube, the most popular tutorials always seem to be the ones involving seven brushes, five colors, and false lashes. It’s enough to make you feel like you need to be a professional makeup artist to achieve the final look, and most of us aren’t on that career path.

Besides, how versatile are those looks really? Ever since the rise of Glossier, eye shadow can feel almost try-hard. Whenever I do pack a pigment on, I sense that people aren’t looking me in the eye. Instead, they’re staring at the area above my lashes as if whatever I did literally a centimeter above my vision line is more important than whatever it is I’m saying.

But I still buy the palettes. There’s the Naked palette, which I got because I thought every girl was supposed to have one, and the Naked Smoky palette, which I bought because it was 50 percent off and I wondered if it would teach me (finally) how to “do” a smoky eye (it has not). I once sat rapt while Chrissy Teigen and her makeup artist explained how their multi-pan palette could be used as eye shadow right in front of me (the hazards of life as an entertainment journalist) so I bought that, too.

And yes, I still watch the YouTube videos, trying to understand how anyone can make green glitter look natural. I wonder how many times they fucked up their liquid eyeliner before they got it right. I wonder if I have the time to invest in perfect a craft I’d need to wash off later in the day. I think I’d resent myself for undoing that kind of artwork, if it was in my power. Like Michelangelo deciding one day he didn’t much care for the Sistine Chapel, so he was going to white it out and start again.

I should probably be paying a therapist to help me work through all of this guilt — about eye shadow, of all things! But instead I’m spending that money on palettes — and they are not cheap. I’m trying to find one with a taupe that goes with my skin in a way that feels like makeup but, you know, not. That, I am good at applying. And I am good at applying false lashes so that no one can really see the skin above my eyes when they’re open, anyway. I like them long and fluffy and obviously fake. Like highlighter, they do the job.

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I’m a Competent Adult, But Eye Shadow Terrifies Me