No makeup pics and the reinforcement of beauty ideals

I love makeup and cosmetics. I don’t wear them myself, but I love watching people put them on, and I find them utterly mesmerising and beautiful. I love seeing what people can do with them and how people use makeup to change and enhance their appearance, to make themselves look mysterious or sweet and innocent, to enrich a costume or just to have fun. Playing with makeup opens up a wide world of possibilities for people of all genders, even though it’s also a socially loaded world, with women expected to wear makeup to go out in society and men punished for expressing interest in cosmetics, while people of other genders receive varying treatments depending on how they present themselves.

I’m also fascinated by the history of cosmetics, because they’ve been in production for thousands of years. Even as people were developing pigments for making stunning paintings and other artworks, they were applying those pigments to themselves, not just on their faces but across their whole bodies. Ancient societies used makeup in ceremonies, just as we do, to play around with appearance, just as we do, and to create striking versions of themselves, just as we do. We see cosmetics depicted in ancient art, and we’ve been able to dig up remnants of cosmetic containers to learn more about what people used and how they applied it, looking at makeup across the world from the products used in Ancient China and India to Greece and Egypt and the Americas.

Makeup, in other words, is pretty darn cool. But the social load that comes with it is challenging, and I’ll be the first to admit that. Which is why the trend of the no makeup pic — an image, usually of a celebrity of some form or another, not wearing any makeup — would seem on its surface to be a good thing. To see people, usually women, wearing bare faces for the camera looks to the public like a radical act. Here’s a musician, an actress, a model, an artist, looking frankly into the camera without the benefit of eyeliner, lipstick, the myriad other things that women wear to change the way they look in public, and the things they are pressured to wear — high profile women are expected to be immaculately made up when they go outside their homes, and even the ‘no makeup look’ still involves an incredible amount of cosmetics and preparation.

On its surface, the idea is sound: No one should feel pressured to wear makeup. People should wear makeup because they want to and feel like it, not because someone is tying them to the makeup chair. People should enjoy the experience of applying makeup. Faces and bodies have natural variations and that’s okay, and we should be celebrating them. Actresses have facial wrinkles like everyone else, models have skin discoloration from sun exposure. Your appearance shouldn’t mediate your self-confidence and even your attractive idols don’t have perfect bodies.

We’re all beautiful on the inside.

And this is where I begin to trip up. Because I really, really, truly, deeply want to love the no makeup thing. I want people to recognise each other at their most vulnerable, and to understand why being a famous woman without makeup in public is an act of vulnerability. But what I get back to is this notion that we all must be beautiful to have self worth, and that the natural variations of the human body aren’t beautiful — and in all fairness, many people try to be careful in their framing, to avoid suggesting that people aren’t attractive unless they wear makeup.

But we still get back to the notions of being attractive, pretty, beautiful, hot, whatever we’re calling it this week. Even if we can make the radical social act of declaring that people don’t need to wear makeup to be pretty, we are still prioritising a beauty standard, inasmuch as we are saying that people have to be beautiful, that self-worth is rooted in beauty, that to be ugly is to be a bad thing, that people should avoid being ugly, that people don’t want to be ugly. Or that people don’t even want to be neutral, don’t want to live in their bodies as their own selves, instead pressuring themselves and each other to look pretty.

Self worth should not be based on whether society, or you, finds you attractive, inside or out. It should be based on how you feel about yourself. Beauty standards in themselves are deeply biased — you must be slender, you must be symmetrical, you must have even skin and meet a million other tiny criteria that are nearly impossible to achieve. But they also all come back to the idea that beauty equals worth in society, and they ignore the fact that some people don’t consider themselves beautiful and are okay with that, that some people may conceptualise themselves as ugly, as monsters, and that it’s part of their identity. They are no less proud of themselves, they are not unhappy in their bodies, they just don’t consider beauty to be an important part of who they are, and they might in fact resent being called beautiful or being told to embrace (tolerate what you have, kids!) their bodies.

There’s nothing wrong with being ugly. I am all for ugly pride. To be told that you must perceive yourself as pretty to be worthy, socially, is really upsetting, and I want people to feel like they belong and have worth no matter what they look like and how they feel about themselves. I for one welcome our monstrous overlords, and I’m troubled by the subtle implications of the no makeup movement, the fact that people continue to hyperfocus on beauty in these images, reinforcing, again, the belief that you have to be beautiful to matter.

Image: MUFE Pink & Black Tied Smoky Eye, kuuipo1207, Flickr