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In my final year of university, I stopped wearing makeup. It was not a political decision; it was a practical one. I simply hated taking off my makeup at the end of the day or, even worse, at the end of a night out when all I wanted to do was go to bed. I was too lazy to walk down three flights of stairs to my nearest communal sink to fulfill what my friends assured me was a relaxing “cream-tonic-eye-makeup-remover-moisturiser” bedtime routine. A simple splash on the face was a sufficiently complex bedtime routine for me (I do also brush my teeth, before you ask).
But although I chose not to wear makeup, this beauty product has continued to be a source of constant reflection for me; and thinking more critically about my relationship with makeup has not only been liberating, but also opened my eyes to an important debate.
In 2017, singer Alicia Keys declared that she would no longer be wearing makeup in an open online essay. She made the decision after realising how uncomfortable she felt being photographed without makeup: “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
In the essay, she quotes lyrics from one of her songs, “When A Girl Can’t Be Herself”:
“In the morning from the minute that I wake up / What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup / Who says I must conceal what I’m made of / Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem.”
Alicia Keys felt that covering her face with makeup had hindered her confidence.
However, many other celebrities have hailed makeup as an empowering tool that allows them to creatively express themselves.
The debate about whether wearing makeup constitutes “covering” yourself up or empowering yourself through freedom of expression goes back centuries.
In 1770, English law said that wives would be subjected to the punishments created for deceitful witches if they tricked their husbands into marriage using makeup (yikes). Now, the idea that makeup is a form of “trickery” is outdated, with many people hailing it as a tool of self-expression.
While some women, like Alicia Keys, are rejecting the pressure to wear makeup altogether, other celebrities, like Rihanna, have just created a 40-shade collection of foundations to counteract the exclusion of women of colour from the makeup industry. Rihanna’s innovations have spurred other beauty brands to redefine their understanding of the colour “nude.”
These developments have also sparked conversations about the commodification of black beauty. Kylie Cosmetics launched 30 liquid concealers with shades from fair to deep dark, but the Kardashians have come under criticism for making money off the beauty trends that excluded black women from the makeup industry in the first place. “Having Big Lips Was a Choice for Kylie Jenner — but Not for Me,” writes Teryn Payne for Glamour.
Our relationship with makeup is certainly different than it was in the 1770s, but Alicia Keys’ decision is a reminder to remain sceptical. Makeup and beauty is a $445 billion industry with a complex racist history. And while many people use makeup as a celebration of their hard-fought freedom of expression, others feel pressure to buy into the industry.
Even the current #nomakeup trend can require you, ironically, to buy more equipment than you would need for a normal makeup look. “The trickiest part of doing this makeup is not using less products, but more instead to cover blemishes and under-eye dark circles so that your complexion looks flawless,” says makeup artist Ummi Nasir in an interview with Star2 online magazine. I am wary that “no-makeup-makeup” and “no-makeup” trends could quickly become as pressuring as makeup itself: The myth of “natural beauty” is still a beauty myth.
What are the concrete lessons, you might ask, that I’ve taken away from two years of reflecting on makeup?
It is great that both Alicia Keys and Rihanna are open about their relationships with makeup in mainstream media, allowing us to see both sides of a complicated story.
Comparing two different celebrity approaches has been helpful in allowing me to reflect upon the decision that I made two years ago.
While I am still too lazy to walk down on flights of stairs to take my makeup off, and while I still don’t have a “cream-tonic-eye-makeup-remover-moisturiser” bedtime routine, I make sure not to judge those who do. When I splash water on my bare face at the end of the day, I am a little less judgmental, and a lot more thoughtful.
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