7 Things I Learned on the No Makeup Challenge

One Sunday morning in February, I woke up to the thought that I no longer wanted to hide. I just wanted to be myself. I didn't know what that meant exactly, but I knew I could begin the process by not wearing makeup for a while. By revealing myself physically, as I am—resisting the urge to cover up flaws with concealer, accentuating my features with colours, and brightening my skin tone with highlights—I could focus on getting to know myself better on a deeper level and increase self-acceptance, imperfections and all.

I wanted my inner beauty and confidence to be really solid. I wanted a break from putting energy into my appearance to focus on my self-worth. How much of it can exist beyond our looks, which we are taught at a young age to value and emphasize? It's easier said than done, but if I truly felt beautiful from the inside, I won't be victim to society's high beauty standards and the capitalist system that profits from our insecurities.

I have nothing against makeup. I just want to use it in a balanced way. Makeup should be fun, one of the pleasures of being a woman, like wearing a pretty dress. It shouldn't be something I force myself to wear because society demands that I look as attractive as possible at all times because that's all that women are good for. In short, I didn't want to be a slave to makeup anymore.

I've been wearing makeup as far back as age 11 or 12. I hate the term "putting on my face," but that's how I considered it, or at least putting forward the best face possible. It was always the natural look, never heavy: some concealer, very light powder foundation that let my real skin tone and texture shine through, pink blush to brighten the cheeks, eyebrow powder to fill in the sparse hairs, mascara to darken the thin, manually curled lashes; and tinted lip balm that I wouldn't need a mirror to apply. My public face was never complete without a little boost.

Makeup-free selfies

In high school, friends who piled on the makeup viewed me as someone who preferred the "natural look," while fresh-faced beauties with perfect skin encouraged me to put away the compact and really go makeup free.

Today, women who rarely touch makeup think my makeup free challenge is nothing. Yet I know other women who would never let anyone see them without makeup on, ever.

So I've always been in the middle, understanding each side, yet critical of both. To the smug natural girls, I wanted to say, Look at your dyed hair, your manicured nails, your carefully chosen clothes. Don't pretend you didn't invest countless time and money on your appearances. You care about the way you look. You're a slave, just like the rest of us. 

To the makeup addicts, I felt like shaking and berating them to realize they don't need makeup to be beautiful, and that they had more to offer than their looks.

The pressures are enormous, and this beauty sickness is not something we can easily opt out of. We're told beauty is our currency when the most important thing a woman should strive to be is confident. Yet, how can we be confident when we're constantly bombarded with messages that we're never enough?

The No Makeup Challenge for me was not about how I looked or if I'm better off with or without makeup. I know I generally look healthier or more pleasant with a bit of makeup/colour. That's not the point. I'm also not knocking or swearing off makeup. My goal was to be completely comfortable in my own skin. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a complete face, not a blank canvas to be painted on.

Sure, it's not a bad thing to want to look your best, but a personal trainer friend once said to me, "You know, Annie, I'm always going to have work because people will always find something they want to fix about their body." I thought, But where's the limit? When can you stop trying to fix yourself and just be happy with the way you look now?

After my No Makeup Challenge, did I achieve my goal to be truly confident? First, I'll illuminate the 7 things I learned when I stopped wearing makeup. Some of them surprised me.

1. Nobody Cares

Since my regular makeup was very natural to begin with, there probably wasn't a gaping difference in the way I looked without it, but for the first few days, I felt naked and exposed. However, nobody around me seemed to notice or care. At least, if anybody noticed, nothing was said to me. I didn't change the way I dressed or styled my hair during this time. I'd go to dinners, parties and events looking appropriate for each occasion, just without makeup.

One possible explanation, at least for people we see regularly, could be that those closest to us are used to the way we look. They've seen us at our best and worse, and the details of our appearances blur into our essence. Looks become secondary the closer we get to someone.

A few times I was tempted to ask people if they noticed anything different about me, but I decided not to because again, I wanted to shift the focus from how others saw me to how I felt about myself.

Also, I realized I already spend a lot of time in public not wearing makeup. For instance, I go to the gym at least three times a week and the people there only see me with a bit of tinted lip balm. Sometimes when I have to run errands, I'll only throw on some cream blush and lip balm. In the past couple of years, I've been wearing less makeup in general.

It's also easier for me because I don't have a job where I depend on or am constantly judged on my looks. I watched part of the Oscars this year and noticed a famous actress in her early forties had gotten face injections. It was subtle and naturally done, but I could tell that her cheeks had plumped up. While I was disappointed, I understand she probably felt the need to do it to stay relevant as an actress. Her face can literally earn her millions of dollars in lucrative beauty contracts. Whereas with me, nobody cares if my eyebrows are thinner and my cheeks a little less pink.

2. There's Nowhere to Hide

I thought about the moments when I felt most beautiful, and in those times, I was always near nature. Usually on the beach with the sun kissing me, sea salt puffing up my hair, bare feet touching the earth. When I'm feeling serene and happy, I naturally feel beautiful.

But I'm not always on vacation and I'm not always near a beach and the weather's not always sunny. I live in Toronto, a big city where winter weather consumes almost half the year. I can get stressed, upset, not get enough sleep, and occasionally get sick. I can get headaches. When I'm not feeling good, I don't think I look good. My skin is usually fine, but sometimes I get PMS breakouts. Sometimes the colour drains from my face when I'm tired. Sometimes my eyes are rimmed red from lack of sleep. That's where makeup comes in.

Without makeup, I have nothing to hide behind. If I want to look healthy and attractive, I have to actively address what is going on inside me. Do I need more sleep? Take a break? Laugh? Once I was convinced I looked horrible because I felt horrible. I was tired and my head wasn't feeling right, but I'd taken a selfie to document it. Later, when I was feeling better, I looked at my picture again and thought I looked fine. Only my expression, the look in my eyes, signified I wasn't feeling great.

The No Makeup Challenge gave me the chance to pay closer attention to what was going on inside: my thoughts, how I was feeling, what made me feel good about myself, and what didn't. I learned that when I'm tired or emotionally off balance, I generally tend to feel less attractive, which may or may not show on the face. Whenever I'm feeling low, I remember this simple trick: smile for no reason. Scientifically, smiling stimulates our brain and increases our endorphins, tricking us into being happier.

Also, I realized if I feel prettiest when I'm at peace, I should meditate and do more yoga if I don't have immediate access to nature in the city.

3. Without Makeup, Women are Cute, Not Sexy

Even bombshell lingerie models probably look cute rather than sexy without makeup on. If you want to look hot, you do a smoky eye or a red lip. But why? From a biological point of view:

Studies have shown that women’s faces are more attractive to both sexes during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. Makeup works because it exaggerates or even completely fabricates these signs of fertility and sexual availability, thus making a woman seem more appealing.

...Women near ovulation (when they’re most fertile) report that they’re more easily turned on and have more interest in sex. They also tend to have redder lips! By putting on reddening lipstick, women are accentuating a natural signal of fertility. On top of that, blood flow also increases during arousal, so those red lips are not only saying that she’s young and healthy – they’re specifically giving the illusion that she’s interested in YOU, which of course is bound to draw attention. That increased blood flow also pinkens the cheeks, so blush, too, adds to this effect.

Smoky eye makeup exaggerates bedroom eyes, the heavy-lidded, hazy, dreamy look shared during intimate moments. Is it any surprise that products with names like NARS' "Deep Throat" and "Orgasm" are bestsellers?

I didn't think about makeup in such direct relation to sex before, but now it seems obvious. No wonder many of us are disturbed when we see little girls in pageants wearing adult women's makeup. They are inadvertantly advertising their sexual availability before they're even close to puberty.

4. Wearing Makeup is a Form of Politeness

In Japan, women are expected to wear makeup to work the way men are expected to wear ties. An elegant French lady I know in her 60s told me she wears lipstick to run errands because it's more pleasurable for other people to look at her. Wearing makeup can show you're considerate of others. Putting on nice clothes, fixing your hair, and wearing makeup show that you value yourself and put in the effort to be presentable. Grooming, in general, is good manners.

5. Makeup Increases a Woman's Currency

On the other hand, if one becomes too dependent on makeup, it can be a symptom of Beauty Sickness.

As the researcher in the Ted Talk states, there's nothing wrong with beauty or wanting to look more beautiful. It's only problematic when we value that above everything else. Beauty is a power exclusive to women that we can use and exploit, which is why we go to extreme measures to get it. But, as she asks, what kind of power expires at age 30?

I see makeup's role in beauty sickness when women look at their natural faces in the mirror and think they need to cover up because they are "so ugly" without it. When a lot of the energy we put into physical appearances can be used to better ourselves in other ways, literally anything else.

I've always liked this line from a Zadie Smith novel: “Any woman who counts on her face is a fool.”

6. Makeup is a Bonding Ritual

I have a blast talking to girlfriends about makeup, beauty treatments, clothes, and the like. Before we go out, we gather at one person's house, taking our time talking, putting on makeup, doing our hair and trying on different outfits. We help each other. There's tremendous pleasure in the ritual of getting ready and trying on different styles. The option to wear makeup is one of the privileges of being a woman.

We go to the salon, the spa, and Sephora together. We bond over the search for the perfect mascara. We compliment each other on that new lipstick or eyeshadow shade. We get our nails done and update each other on our lives. Makeup and beauty rituals can be relaxing and fun.

During this challenge, I still had my skincare ritual, but some mornings I missed the time bonding with myself by putting on makeup in front of the mirror.

7. Not Wearing Makeup Can Be Liberating and Limiting at the Same Time

Sometimes though, the thought of "putting on my face" can be annoying. Even if it takes me less than five minutes, when I'm rushed, wearing makeup can feel like a drag. When I gave myself permission not to wear it, I felt liberated. Washing my face at night was easier.

The downside was the lack of variety. Not having the option of makeup was like wearing the same clothes every day. A uniform can be convenient but boring. Once in a while, I want to put on a fun lip colour, or play up my eyes. During events where I dressed up, I missed putting on makeup because it would've complemented that particular outfit and hairstyle.

So how did I do on the No Makeup Challenge? I started with 2 weeks and enjoyed it so much I extended it to 3. The first week was the most insightful, as I was hyper-aware of myself in my "new" state, but pretty soon, I got used to it. By the second weekend, I lost that initial self-consciousness. I got used to my bare face and grew more fond of it.

When I wore makeup again after the 3 weeks, it felt strange at first. I had gotten so used to the way I looked. It had been nice getting to know myself in this way and learning about my relationship to cosmetics. Now I can use makeup in a balanced way, or choose not to at all, depending on my mood.

What's your relationship with makeup and beauty rituals? Let us know in the comments below.

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