Stop calling women brave for not wearing makeup

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Earlier this month, Glamour unveiled the cover for its August issue, and with it a glimpse at what cover model Mila Kunis looks like without a shred of makeup. “Mila Without Makeup!” the back cover proclaims, with a quote from Kunis declaring that “This makes life easy.” But does it?


Kunis isn’t the first female celebrity to publicly eschew cosmetics. Back in May, Lenny Letter published an essay from musician Alicia Keys about her decision to go makeup-free for a photo shoot, an experience she described as “the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt.” But even Keys isn’t a pioneer: In her piece she gives a nod to all the women who’ve posted makeup-free photos on Instagram and elsewhere under the banner of #nomakeup, a hashtag that helped popularize the latest barefaced movement.

The copy accompanying Glamour’s cover isn’t particularly anti-makeup: Both the editors and Kunis herself take a “different strokes for different folks” approach to wearing makeup (a sound editorial decision given the number of cosmetic companies footing Glamour’s bills). But the online movement that gave rise to the Kunis cover isn’t always so measured–as suggested by Keys’ piece, the decision to eschew makeup is often portrayed as a moral one. Women who reject makeup are showing the world their “real” selves, embracing “natural” beauty—as opposed to the presumably fake and phony kind embodied by those who shop at Sephora.


And while offering women freedom from makeup is an admirable goal, the truth is the #nomakeup revolution does not send the message that women don’t need to be pretty—it simply endorses the notion that we don’t need makeup to be pretty. Our culture clearly still values looking attractive—Keys feels “honestly beautiful,” not like her looks don’t matter—which may explain why the loudest advocates for #nomakeup always seem to be women for whom makeup is more a minor enhancement than a total game changer.

Before I go any further, I should be upfront about something: I am exactly the kind of woman you’d expect to be a #nomakeup fan. Makeup has never been a part of my regular routine; when I do wear it, it’s usually to feel dressed up and fancy, and even then I mostly limit myself to eyeliner and lipstick. Virtually all the selfies I’ve posted online—in over a decade of putting my image on the internet—have technically been #nomakeup ones.

Yet my willingness to “dare” to go barefaced doesn’t feel like bravery, or give me some smug sense of superiority over my friends for whom makeup is a daily ritual. Because I’m deeply aware that my comfort with my natural face is as much about luck as it is about confidence. I was fortunate enough to be born with clear skin. I have long dark eyelashes, high cheekbones, and for some bizarre reason my eyelids are a few shades darker than the rest of my skin. And as a 33-year-old woman with no kids, I’m young enough not to worry about fine lines and dark spots, and stress-free and well-rested enough to still look fresh and dewy and bright-eyed without putting in much work. (I know, I know.)

But that experience is hardly universal. When I put out a request for the experiences of women for whom makeup didn’t feel “optional,” the stories came flooding in. Some were the kinds of tales I’d expected: women with bad acne or facial scarring who use foundation to make their skin look smooth and clear, or those whose pale or barely there eyelashes leave them looking sleepy or inattentive if they don’t use mascara. Mallory, 29, a Detroit-based consultant and student whose strawberry blonde eyelashes and dark eye circles leave her looking exhausted no matter how much sleep she gets, offered a sentiment shared by many of these women, saying, “I'd definitely rock no makeup if I didn't think people would constantly ask me if I was okay… Or tired. Or sick.”


Others offered up experiences that I hadn’t even considered: Erin Chaney, a makeup artist in New York City, told me about dark-skinned women whose acne scars leave them with dark melanin deposits or pale spots (“They [feel like they] have two choices: makeup, or hydroquinone to bleach all of their skin”). She told me about women with trichotillomania, an obsessive compulsive disorder characterized by the compulsion to tear out one’s own hair, who obscure their illness with strip lashes and eyebrow pencils. And she recounted her own experience with tear troughs, which create a dark shadow under her eyes that can be dealt with two ways: injections of filler or makeup.


Iowa-based writer Jenna, 30, told me about how a recent diagnosis of vitiligo had dramatically changed her makeup routine. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a more occasional makeup user; now she employs a special, highly pigmented foundation to even out her skin tone. “I don’t always want people to know [about my vitiligo],” she says, “because it’s a lot to explain, and then they want to tell you about their autoimmune thing … and then you have to assure them, ‘Oh, I’m fine with it, it’s okay!’ And I just don’t always feel like explaining it to people." For Jenna, makeup isn’t merely about vanity or “looking good,” it’s a way to retain some control over how, and when, she opens up to people about her autoimmune disorder.

And those were just the experiences of cisgender women. For trans women, the issue of makeup can be even more complicated: “[#Nomakeup] is a phenomenon I can't take part in since I need makeup for survival,” says New York-based playwright Ashley, 32. Making the decision to transition doesn’t magically grant women access to the thousands of dollars needed for electrolysis or laser hair removal; though Ashley shaves every day, she still has visible stubble and uses a combination of orange color, concealer, and heavy foundation to give the impression of a smooth, hairless face. “If I don't cover up the hair growth I open myself up to verbal and potential physical violence,” she says. While anti-trans violence and prejudice is slowly being addressed on a society-wide level, makeup affords Ashley the ability to safely move through the world in her daily life.


Women who feel like makeup impacts their ability to succeed aren’t just being vain or superficial. Earlier this year, a study suggested that women who wear makeup benefit professionally, a finding that was surprising to approximately zero women. As Kendra, a data scientist at a New York City-based management consulting firm, notes, “I work with executives. [Makeup] winds up being a required business thing.” Kendra is 30 years old and can pass for younger, which isn’t really an asset at the office. Makeup makes it easier to age up and get taken seriously—“because otherwise you [risk being perceived as] a 25ish looking kid telling some dude controlling billions of dollars what he should be doing.”

This contradictory attitude—that women should eschew makeup and be natural, but also be rewarded and taken more seriously for conforming to a specific beauty standard—is something makeup artists like Corinne Simpson, based in Alberta, are intimately aware of. As Simpson says, “Society as a whole still expects women to be 'pretty' and 'feminine'… It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario…. We are routinely mocked for having less-than-perfect skin and appearances but the only way to achieve 'perfection' is through makeup application which we are then derided for using.”


All of which brings me back to my original point: “No makeup” campaigns aren’t actually about dismantling the outsized significance we appoint to women’s appearances. If anything, they seem to be about giving conventionally attractive women the freedom to be lazy (which, don’t get me wrong, I am all for), while shaming those whose relationship to makeup is a little bit more complicated. For many women, makeup is a way to level the playing field, taking their looks out of the equation so that their personalities, abilities, and intelligence will be allowed to shine through. As Jenna explained to me, “I don’t want anybody looking at me and saying, ‘What’s that thing on her forehead?’ I want them to be listening to my ideas."

Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.

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