“There will be time, there will be time,To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” ~ T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
The well-intended gesture of the make-up free selfie and the sequential outrage it inspired speaks to the power those powders, liquids and colors wield in our cultural imagination. From memes to job interview guides, from red-carpet roundups to organic recipes, all offer advice on how to craft the perfect look to reach the goals of the job seeking woman, the lovelorn woman, the performing woman and every woman in between. For many women, make-up symbolizes the strong arm of consumerism or patriarchy forcing our faces into narrow, toxic molds. For other women, it is a casual ritual, a morning routine. For some, it is a pleasure, a chance to practice a colorful art on the canvas of the skin.
I’m honestly bullshitting the previous paragraph because my sense of make-up is muddled. As a critical thinking feminist, I certainly recognize the validity of those conceptualizations. However, I’ve never worn make-up.
As a result, over the years it has evolved in my mind into this transformative feminine craft into which I was never initiated. As a job-seeker and a local performer, I’ve found myself increasingly thinking, “That would be a useful skill.” As a dweller in digital-visual space that abounds with tutorials and how-tos, I have wondered if I could teach myself the craft. I confess, I have watched popular Youtube channels and made lists of the recommended products.
Yet fear held me back from carrying the list to the store.
For years my identity as grounded in physical appearances has been rooted in a make-up free face. Not wearing make-up fits comfortably with what I value in people: authenticity. It fits with my value of beauty: I’ll take a beautiful mind any day. It fits with my politics: suspicious of consumerism. Though I love and admire both my friends who wear make-up and those who do not, there is a nagging personal stigma. There is a faint fear I will betray those values if I change “camps.”
However, when a friend invited me for a make-up session and photo-shoot I found a new perspective on make-up as a tool for recreating the self.
“‘And the whole line,’ said Father Dorien slowly, ‘is to be translated ‘Thou braidest my hair with Thine own hands’ … And that is supposed to be the Langlish translation of ‘Thou anointest my head with oil?’” ~ Suzette Hadden Elgin, “Native Tongue II: The Judas Rose”
I have a beautiful friend who lives art. Her house is a work of art. The stories she tells about her eccentric mother are a work of art. The way she shape-shifts through clothes, wigs, and cosmetics is a work of art. We connected through a loose-knit “tribe” of friends who alternating meet to spin hoola hoops, play “Dungeons and Dragons,” and barbeque. This spring, she proposed a photo shoot. She enlisted a friend to craft satyr horns from wood and wire. She inspired us girls to haul duffle bags of flowers, feathers, beads, and fabric to my patio to craft elaborate tribal headdresses. She let me borrow a wig. On the day of the photo shoot, she sat half a dozen people down at a mirror on a picnic table on Memorial Day and transformed each one of us into magical creatures.
She gave me a gift: a chance to step outside my daily skin, not by transcending the skin, but by embracing it.
The tendency to pass judgment on others for what they wear (or do not wear) on their faces speaks to deeply rooted cultural fears and assumptions. On one hand, women are pressured to play cultural roles that serve them up as objects of visual pleasure. Make-up can be read as implicit in the commodification of women. A pretty face may impress an employer, but by agreeing to play a game of appearances, are we not buying into a system that values people’s appearances over their character?
On the other hand, choosing not to wear make-up does not free anyone from our cultural obsession with beauty. Thus my artist-friend has been criticized and mocked for her “cake-face” under the assumption that any woman who wears make-up is either vain or insecure. Furthermore, criticism of make-up is just another form of body-policing, another attempt to pin people down and limit their possibilities by undermining the subversive potential of cosmetic transformations.
After all, anyone who has the ability to play multiple roles becomes more difficult to contain and label, thereby becoming a threat to those who prefer a neatly ordered world of stable selves and stable roles.
As a woman of the mind, I had reveled in the freedom of re-crafting the self in digital spaces and imaginative play. I had experienced moments where I have felt myself beautiful for the words I speak or the way my body channels a melody in dance. However, I had never before looked in the mirror and seen a made-up face, just different enough from my own, to allow me to momentarily become another self, a different creature.
Cultural critics have celebrated the internet as a space where individuals can expand their identities unencumbered by their physical appearances. They have equally condemned how individuals curate their most flattering photos and life events to craft digital personas.
Thus we are caught in a cultural tug-of-war that celebrates the appearance of beauty and success, but criticizes any hint that the individual is actively working toward those goals. We crave perfection but condemn people for pursuing perfection — especially when the tools of the pursuit are the tools of the make-up kit. Yet, we all wear many faces and many roles. We craft them through our gestures, our language, our costumes, and our works.
Over time, we fall not only into patterns of self-identification, but into habitual modes through which we construct those patterns. By shifting modes, we expand our range beyond the range achievable through any one method. I can write myself into a thousand characters but they share a common genesis in words on the page.
When I let go of my insecurities and my prejudices against the made-up face, I was delighted to find a new tool with which tinker with my identity. Rather than judging the faces that we meet by cultural double-standards, let us celebrate each gesture and pigment as unique self expression, as a window into the self continually unfolding in multi-color forms.
The lines of lipstick are irrelevant. We are all made up…like a story is made up in a flight of imagination. Let us all wear as many faces as it delights us to wear and continually seek out new tools with which to imagine ourselves.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Author’s Own