I have this thing. It happens on the tube, normally in the morning on my way to work. I spot a woman applying lipstick or navigating her cheekbones with smears of foundation, and I am captivated. For those few minutes, I’m completely unable to take my eyes off of her, her movements, her face. I try to be subtle but I’m sure I’m not. She can clearly feel my stare penetrating through the Touche Éclat brush running under her eyes. But I am fascinated and curious; envious.
Most women I know have a special relationship with makeup. They might not think this is the case, but it’s part of their daily routines, and thus their lives; who they are, who they choose to be. It brings comfort, familiarity, satisfaction, a jolt of energy or confidence. I’m jealous of this power that exists in a tube of mascara, this sense of self that can be found between the flakes of blusher.
‘I don’t wear make up’ has been my official party line for as long as I can remember (although I’ve started giving my unruly eyebrows a bit of gel and a comb. But other than that, it still stands true). I say ‘party line’ but it’s not something I go around telling people. The only time it’s uttered is if someone asks. Even then, there’s often a whole heap of side-eye waiting for me after the full stop. I don’t think my bare face is righteous or better or cleaner, but I know other people will decide that that’s exactly what I think. (In the past people have even congratulated me, as if I’m running a marathon every day.)
The reason for the lack of makeup in my life is relatively simple. My face and makeup are a wrong fit. From the very beginning this extra layer, whether it was mascara or blusher, felt like a cog grinding the wrong way. It wasn’t because my skin was difficult, it just didn’t feel right.
I don’t think it helped that it felt like this birth right that I couldn’t say no to, as if women don’t opt into makeup, they opt out. As I turned 13, dustings of bronzer appeared on my peers’ cheekbones, kohl wobbled along their lash lines. What started with a few of the popular girls turned into almost every girl in my year experimenting with powders and glosses and gels. It verified my belief that we were all already ‘in’, that make-up was innate and natural, and it was finally time to act upon this ‘in-ness’. Like a coming of age.
Basing my thoughts on the behaviour of my peers and my older sister, and thus believing that make-up would make me a real woman, I gave in, and bought a shimmery turquoise eyeshadow from Boots. This was my first foray into a world my friends had long conquered. When I checked out the finished result in the mirror, I looked entirely different. Bad different. My tiny Chinese eyelids were barely skin, simply slithers of glitter.
It wasn’t that I already looked so good that enhancements weren’t necessary. It wasn’t that I was shocked by makeup’s transformative effects. And of course, turquoise eye shadow can only go right a handful of times on anybody. But even after that, with mascara, powder, eyeliner – none of it was ever right. Make-up, this superpower that all of my friends had harnessed, ran empty on me, like an elaborate joke. I looked exactly how I felt: like an imposter.
Because my insides felt uncomfortable, too. They rejected the eye shadow and hand-me-down mascaras as much as my outsides. I didn’t feel like me, like it was my face or skin. I couldn’t fully understand the whole concept, either. Why would I spend so much effort on making my face look nothing like my face? Or, more to the point, why would I spend so much time on looking terrible? Couldn’t I just look as terrible as I naturally did without schlepping to town and spending all my pocket money?
I knew it wasn’t for me, the effort and the disappointment. Without really acknowledging it at the time, I opted out.
In moments of desperation to feel what most other women I know feel, I’ve given makeup various chances over the years. But every time it has felt the same. Even a slick of lipstick – as exciting as it seems at the time to have found one that doesn’t look awful – makes me feel uncomfortable an hour in.
So I stick to looking after my skin, putting things in my hair that don’t make a difference (when will I learn that salt spray is just marketing?) and keeping my eyebrows under control.
Even having accepted this choice (although sometimes I wonder if I really opted out or I was edged out by an unknown force), sometimes I envy my friends; how they can have a daytime self and a night time self, how make up makes them feel, how they can make themselves look Diane Kruger-chic. All I have is me. When I go on a night out, I have me, with a bit of extra moisturiser, and when I feel tired, I look tired.
Who knows, maybe one day makeup will make sense to me, my face, my self. Although not the turquoise eye shadow. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about makeup, it’s never the turquoise eye shadow.
(Photo: Milk Foam, available on Etsy)