Putting My Face On

I did not watch the VMA’s a few months ago, but I am not immune to the clickbait gossip and recaps that flood my newsfeed the following days afterward. There were the usuals of who wore what, who’s dating who, rankings of the best performances — nothing noteworthy until I saw the response to Alicia Keys.

“Alicia Keys continues to stun with no makeup at the VMAs”

“People are criticizing Alicia Keys After She Didn’t’ wear makeup to the VMAs”

“Swizz Beatz Defends Alicia Keys After Make-up Free VMA Appearance”

Since then, there has been a stir and a flurry of articles about Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow Gabrielle Union, and others going sans makeup to major events.

This new topic of “news” rattles me in a way clickbait is not capable of doing.

I have always had a conflicted relationship with makeup. I started wearing makeup when I was 13, and 12 years later, continue to wear it on a near daily basis. “Putting my face on” is a ritual that readies me for the day.

On days when I am a strong, empowered, good feminist, makeup is self expression. With a stroke of my hand I can paint the mural of my face, give the world a glimpse into who I am at that moment — it is a fluid art. One day I may wear red lipstick because I am elegant, the next deep plum because I am edgy, and after that perhaps soft pink because I am also delicate.

But just as makeup allows me to show, it also allows me to conceal. Not only my dark circles or uneven skin, but all the less-than-pretty things about me. I may be homesick for my family 3000 miles away, I may be lonely because I haven’t fit into my new city as well as I would have hoped, I may have silent moments of panic at night wondering if I’m wasting all the opportunity that I’ve been given. But these parts of me are not simple. No one wants to see their own chaos reflected back at them. Makeup conceals the disarray. Makeup gives me some semblance of control. Make up is my armor that readies me to be seen.

Without makeup, I do not look in the mirror and despise what stares back at me — there are times I even find my bare face lovely. I rarely wear make up to the gym and will often run weekend errands without it. I feel less like an ugly duckling and more like a mouse scurrying throughout its day. The mouse and I both try to go unnoticed, even when right under your nose — life is easier for us this way. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk “If I can’t be beautiful, I wish to be invisible”. Like the mouse, it is better to go unseen than to be seen as a meek creature — I’ve spent 25 years observing how much kinder the world is to women who are pretty.

My appearance is for public consumption, a currency I exchange with the world for better treatment. If I wear makeup, I will be deemed more professional and earn more than my peers who do not. Sales associates are quicker to ask me for help, strangers more likely to hold the door for me, men more likely to smile and flirt with me, women more likely to want to be my friend. Countless women and I have run this experiment thousands of times, and time and time again the results are the same: life is kinder when you are prettier.

Beauty is a means to an end, a deal I strike with the world “If I give you a made up face, you will notice me, and once you notice me, maybe you’ll find reason to know me beyond my veneer.” Deep down, beauty is an obligation, a tax I must pay for being a woman existing in the world and asking to be seen. It is powerful, but also corrosive. It is a depreciating asset, and I cringe when I admit my fear the world will one day no longer see me. It won’t matter that I am an MIT educated engineer, or that I am secretly a hopeless romantic fluent in sarcasm, or that I am a fiercely loyal friend who will make an idiot of myself just to see someone smile. The world will not glance my way long enough to see.

I will be invisible.

The reaction to Alicia Keys further confirms my theory. The critics dissected her every flaw, while her supporters defended her because she was beautiful regardless — and to be honest I don’t know what was more unsettling. The critics are a chilling, but predictable, reminder of what happens to women not adhering to the standard definitions of beauty. Her supporters were fierce, but her beauty was their strongest argument. What if they had not still found her beautiful sans makeup? Would they have been nearly as adamant? The headlines did not talk about the fact that she is a 15 time Grammy winner or a staunch advocate for equality — these facts may have been buried in paragraph 3, but certainly were not what drew the masses in. At the end of the day, her appearance is what rendered her visible.

I know this is the part where I provide glib advice on focusing on inner beauty and come to a revelation that my appearance should not matter. Or it’s the part where I make a bold proclamation that makeup is purely empowering, and anyone who dares suggest otherwise is an ignorant member of the patriarchy. However, arriving at a final verdict does not do justice to the issue or to myself. Because some days, my relationship with makeup liberates me while others it oppresses. It is at times a healthy partnership, at others stifling codependency, and sometimes strictly transactional.

But, like all relationships that only go skin deep, they can’t compare to those with substance. To the people who only see her, Alicia’s face is up for debate. But to the people who truly love her, it is her voice that captivates. Makeup may determine how the world sees me, but it shouldn’t determine how I see myself. After all, to be truly loved, it is not enough to be seen — to be loved, I have to be known — and that part is up to me.