Recently I decided to join the #nomakeupselfie movement. Not that I wear much makeup to begin with, because I was raised by a mother who would tell me I looked great in orange lipstick and a Hefty bag, so my mastery of the feminine arts is a little shaky. But anyway, I decided to give this naked-face thing a whirl. And I looked great, as long as I photographed myself backlit by a lava lamp. Any more light than that and I looked like a plastic surgeon’s “before” shot.
That’s when I decided that rather than join the no-makeup movement, I’d join the no-makeup makeup movement. I watched some YouTube tutorials and bought a ton of products with names like Nude Stix (“Go nude, but better”) and Born this Way foundation from the aptly-named “Too Faced” line, which boasts it has everything you need to “create a flawless, ‘It’s just me’ look’.” This is what I learned. Dolly Parton once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Well, there is a corollary to that remark: it takes a lot of makeup to look like you’re wearing no makeup.
It also takes great lighting. And patience. And maybe being Alicia Keys.
The singer/songwriter is the mama of the no-makeup movement, and, as she said in an article in the newsletter Lenny last year, “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 February, Keys appeared on the cover of Allure—a beauty magazine that exists to sell makeup—without makeup. Sort of. Maybe. Well, not really.
And there you have the dilemma at the heart of the no-makeup movement. No-makeup is supposed to free women to be their natural selves. Instead, it’s created a new type of anxiety: the pressure to look fabulous without any help.
There are several problems here. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The most vocal proponents of the no-makeup movement tend to be effortlessly gorgeous and, usually, the young. People like Chrissy Teigen, Adriana Lima and Zendaya (who cited her own “terrifying honesty.”) These are not exactly people whose unadorned faces would, as Mrs. Patrick Campbell might say, frighten the horses. And to see Gwen Stefani post herself in Instagram’s #wokeuplikethis thread…well, it’s as if LeBron James loudly and proudly proclaimed he was on board with the “No Lifts In Your Shoes Movement.”
Additionally, you may notice that most no-makeup celebrity selfies have expanded the definition of “no makeup” to include tattooed liner, filled-in eyebrows and either lash extensions or a prescription to Latisse.
When celebrities post photos of themselves barefaced, note that they are still carefully lit and posed. They are not posting caught-on-the-street paparazzi shots, which happen to be what most of us really look like without makeup. This year, when the photographer Pirelli decided his famous 2017 calendar would consist of great actresses barefaced—Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman and Lupita Nyong’o among them—he said it was a “cry against the tyranny of perfection and youth.” Fair enough. The photos are lush, and many of the actresses are forty and beyond. They are also shot in black and white—so much kinder to the skin—and include skillfully applied minimal makeup, not to mention perfect lighting, and, often, a wind machine. I have dreams of a wind machine following me around, making me appear perpetually gently tousled. (The operative word being “gently.” You don’t want a tempest machine.)
The overall effect: Lovely? Yes. Natural? No.
There is one person in pop culture who understands the concomitant allure and the absurdity of the no-makeup movement, and that person is Amy Schumer. Her viral video, “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” says it all. Amy, made-up and glowing, is about to head out the door when a boy band appears in her kitchen and informs her that she is just perfect the way she is: “You don’t need no lipstick/You don’t need no blush/Cuz you’ve got that inner natural glow.” Bucked up by this infusion of male approval, she joyously washes her face, to reveal…the pasty-faced, slightly blotchy, tiny-eyed person most of us are without enhancement. Her admirers quickly realize the error of their ways:
I didn’t realize that your lashes were so stubby and pale
Just a little mascara and you’ll look female
Please listen, girl, what we’re trying to say
Just get up an hour earlier
And you can make yourself much girlier
(Make yourself much girlier!)
It’s brilliant in its recognition of what most of us know already, but don’t like to admit, namely that: A) we look better with a bit of makeup; and B) the men who say we are all better au natural don’t really know what “natural” is.
Let me be clear. I don’t for a moment think we should all feel compelled to wake up in full maquillage like Nora Charles in “The Thin Man.” (Though that’s one of the things I love most about movies from the ‘40s—all those women blinking their eyes open in the morning having apparently been visited by the makeup fairy.) I was deeply irritated by the recent Helen Mirren contretemps. Mirren—who makes me happy to look at, with or without makeup—was quoted as saying it would be “wonderful” if more women embraced the no makeup look. That’s when some people got cranky. Celebrity makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury, whose clients include Kate Moss and Amal Clooney, shot back at Mirren, asking why would applaud foregoing makeup in this appearance-obsessed society? “Women need to wear makeup to get ahead in life, in their careers, in their personal lives, whatever it is,” Tilbury said.
This is not an outrageous statement: several studies over the past few years have shown cosmetics increase not just a woman’s sexual attractiveness in the eyes of viewers, but perceptions of her competency. At the same time, Tilbury misinterpreted what the supremely self-assured Mirren was calling for: not for women to renounce makeup, but for women to do as they damned pleased. (In another interview recently in AARP, the 71-year old Academy Award winner said she was very happy to have a little Photoshopping applied to her images.)
I, like so many others who know they look better with makeup than without, am just asking not to be blush-shamed. As my friend Meirav (who I have never seen without blood red lips and cat eyes) put it, “What I don’t like is women who think they’re somehow less vain, more virtuous, or a better feminist than I am because they’re not wearing makeup.”
Jane Greer, PhD, who in addition to her private practice has a radio show, Shrink Wrap, commenting on celebrity behavior, has given considerable thought to what the no-makeup movement means. “It’s clearly a push for women to feel accepted and loved for who they are and what they’re about, rather than being valued and loved for their appearance,” she says. “But then the question becomes, how to you feel about yourself? Do you appreciate and enjoy your own self-expression if you put up a nice shade of lipstick and a smoky eye? Putting on makeup is no different than wearing dungarees or sweats six days of the week, but then choosing to put on a pretty dress if on the seventh night you go out to dinner. If you use makeup to augment and accent your sense of wellbeing, and enhance your self-worth, then you’re using it in the right way.”
In other words, what matters is that your choice is dictated by you and your mood, not by others. Saying that makeup is a form of covering up other aspects of the self, as no-makeup proponents suggest, seems all wrong to me. Do we really need a social media movement to tell us what’s right for us at given time?
Feminism isn’t about being camera ready. But it is about being ready. And however you feel best facing the world is exactly how you should do it.