When I was 13, my mom dropped me off at a church in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, once a week for my Girl Scout Cadette meeting. Cadette is the Girl Scout rank for grades six through eight. Most of the members of my Junior troop had stopped before this point. To move up to Cadettes you had to be dedicated. If we were boys, Cadette-hood would be our first step on the road to becoming Eagle Scouts.
This was exciting! The Girls Scouts had been good to me. I had been a member since first grade. I never sold the most cookies or tied the strongest knots, but I loved our meetings and our trips and racking up badges until my sash sagged under their weight.
At one cold December meeting, when the little stage that shared the church basement was dressed for a nativity play, the tables for our regular meeting were pushed together to form an uneven conference table. In front of each chair was a mirror and a piece of paper with cartoon face on it. Next to our troop leader was a woman with spray-fried bangs.
“Today we’re going to learn something really important,” said our troop leader. “How to put on makeup!”
I quit soon after.
Makeup is not usually seen as optional for women. A recent UK survey of hiring managers found that two-thirds would not hire a woman who did not put on makeup for the interview. (The survey was conducted by a beauty-products firm.)
I don’t have a choice, though. I have severe atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema. On the rare occasions I do wear makeup — a wedding, when I’m having my picture taken, New Year’s Eve — I pay a price: scales on my eyelids for at least a week that I must treat twice daily with a $10-per-ounce prescription cream.
I still felt left out, already slightly behind the puberty curve. I wore a bra and deodorant even though I didn’t need them. I hadn’t gotten my period yet, and there was no reason to shave my legs. Makeup was one part of womanhood that didn’t need my body’s internal clock to forge ahead, and I could not participate. Even the Girls Scouts had marked proper makeup application as an essential life skill.
I blamed my inability to wear makeup for my lack of luck with boys. Makeup would have gotten Jeff, my soccer teammate with the floppy brown hair, to kiss me. Makeup would have gotten Rick say yes to my note asking him to the eighth grade spring dance, instead of a written reply with a very small “no.” Without makeup, I thought, I was just Jenny on the soccer team; just Jenny in my class; Jenny who was one of the boys, not wanted by them.
I started high school in much the same way. I was a tomboy, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to try life on the other side. I attended dances and proms, before each of which my mother would open her Clinique collection to me, and sort through those little green boxes that I had already secretly examined when she wasn’t home. She’d dab on some eye shadow and some blush, and say a prayer that I wouldn’t have a reaction, at least not until the dance was over. When her work was done, I’d look in the mirror and see myself transformed.
But I never had the satisfaction I expected to feel when I was temporarily part of the girl crowd. Instead, I was uneasy with the change. What if I got used to seeing this every morning? Would I start to hate my face in its natural state, and put on makeup even when no one was looking?
Then those feelings were pulled under the tide of dresses and jewelry and dates and boutonnières and photos and crushes and first love.
Growing into confidence
In college, I’d watch my sorority sisters get ready to go out, an extraordinary process that involved flat irons, eyelash curlers, and, sometimes, bras constructed out of duct tape. They’d try out makeup techniques they saw in Cosmo or Glamour that swore to make them more attractive while in bars and clubs doused in dirt, booming music, and smoke.
It started to seem absurd that I’d try to force my skin and face to accept the makeup, especially because I stopped having a problem meeting men. My confidence grew under in Florida sunshine in part, I’m sure, because of beer, but also because I was living somewhere completely new, where no one knew Jeff or Rick. There was no preconceived idea about what this Jenny, now Jen, was like.
I learned that a pair of vintage bellbottom jeans — high waisted and skin tight — worked just as well if not better than deep red lipstick. I drew more attention from guys if I gently mocked them than batting painted eyelashes their way.
When I lived for a semester at Oxford University, bringing makeup never crossed my mind, except the night of a friend’s 21st birthday party, which had an ’80s theme. Blue eye shadow would have been nice, but wasn’t necessary. I ended up making out with a military academy student, and he was the one wearing the makeup: he came to the party as Billy Idol.
I got along just fine, and with an un-inflamed face. I loved and lost love. Won jobs then quit them. I wrote articles and books, and interviewed Very Important People, all with this naked face. I proved the Girl Scouts wrong. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything. If I had been passed over for some opportunity because I cannot wear makeup without damaging my skin, I don’t know about it.
Once or twice, a well-meaning friend would drag me to a department store makeup counter, promising this new natural/organic/expensive brand would work for my skin. A woman with a shellacked face would promise to give me a natural look to hide all my flaws — flaws that I didn’t know existed, like an uneven rosiness in my cheeks or eyes too deeply set. If I wanted to look natural, I thought, I’d step out the door looking like I always do. Free of charge.
I do spend an obnoxious amount of money on shampoo and conditioner on my very long hair. I love the look of deep-red nail polish on my fingers and toes, and when I’m off to someplace where I don’t have to move around much, I break out high heels that I know will hurt me an hour later. But these are choices on my part, not a response to a demand by others.
Women shouldn’t be penalized for rejecting some or all of the things that the beauty industry, which will be worth $256 billion by 2017, tells us we must do in order to look normal.
For men, normal is tidy, which might include fresh clothes; clean-shaven isn’t even a requirement anymore. For women, normal includes glossy gray-free hair and a made-up face; shaped and sculpted eyebrows and a shaped and sculpted body; polished fingernails and toenails; clear, wrinkle-free skin; and not one hair on our underarms, legs, and mons pubis.
We should have the choice to do some, none, or all of these things without consequence, and we shouldn’t feel pressured to keep up with a beauty “normal” while putting our financial futures in peril. Because this is all so very expensive: $100 every couple of weeks for a stranger to wax my lady bits back to what I looked like at 11? No thanks. I have an unsteady income and an IRA to fill.
I’m 33 years old now, and I’m starting to show some wear. My blond hair doesn’t quite cover the gray like it used to. Three cardio workouts per week won’t get me into size-two low-rise jeans (which are thankfully out of fashion now anyway). Two drinks too many cannot be shaken off with a few Advil and coffee the next morning. I have two wrinkles between my eyebrows now, like a quotation mark set into my forehead.
Every time I look at my mother, I know where I am headed. It’s not a bad place to be. My mother is beautiful. But it’s the opposite direction from where I was when I was 23, and from where the beauty juggernaut pushes me to go. It calls for me to cover those lines in foundation makeup, or push them away by shooting toxins into my face.
I pass. I’d much rather face the world, full on and naked, the way I was meant to be.
Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She has written about running for the New York Times, Runner’s World, Running Times, and New Jersey Monthly. She writes a running column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She’ll be running her next marathon — slowly — in April 2014.
Her most recent story for The Magazine, available here at Medium, was “Good to the Last Drop,” exploring the potential connection between overconsumption of caffeine and heart-attack deaths at road-run finish lines—and the need for more research on the topic.
This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.
Banner photo by Steven Snodgrass.