I’ve always had bad skin. I’ve mentioned it several times here, and though it’s not my favorite topic in the world, it’s a part of who I am and colors some of the things I talk about. There are many out there who would say that having skin problems is a minor thing in life — something that could easily be ignored or “gotten over” — but for those who have lived with cystic acne, or rosacea, or psoriasis (often on their faces, no less), it’s hard to forget how much people notice it about you. Even if, in growing out of your teenage years, the problems abate or start to become more manageable, there will always be a reflex within you of someone who is trying to cover up and minimize the problems that exist in the middle of their faces. It’s a tough thing to deal with growing up, and many of us will fight it all our lives.
One way that many young women cope with having bad skin is through the strategic application of makeup. Always striking a delicate balance between not wanting to irritate your already deeply-inflamed skin and wanting to get good coverage, a lot of us grow up learning how to make ourselves look much more presentable for our day’s activities. The difference between being bare-faced and having some good tinted moisturizer, concealer, and perhaps a dusting of bronzer is often enormous. You go from getting pitying stares from strangers, or people’s gaze lingering on a particularly egregious zit, to being able to fly relatively under the radar. And for a teenage girl who only wants to move with the crowd and not be the target of mockery, good makeup can be a godsend.
And yet, everywhere from the lyrics of One Direction songs to the judgmental commentary of bare-faced friends, the societal feelings about what it means to be a girl who changes her appearance are hard not to notice. Almost any girl who wears makeup — whether to cover up a problem, or simply for fun — has encountered, at least once, a patronizing commentary of “Why do you put that stuff on? You’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t need all that makeup,” or something of that nature. We are told that men prefer “natural” girls, that wearing makeup means we’re “fake,” or that we should just “be ourselves.” No matter how limiting it is to our own personal agency or respecting of how we want to treat our own bodies, many people still believe this commentary to be generally positive, even pro-woman.
Setting aside the deeply insulting and hurtful experience of having a woman with perfect, glowing skin tell you that your wearing of foundation somehow makes you inherently “not yourself” in some way, it’s important to note that this rhetoric extends to much more than just makeup. Everything from spending time on your hair every day to dressing in an overly “put-together” fashion can put you under the harsh gaze of both women and men who feel that if you in any way deviate from what is “natural,” they have a valid reason to criticize you and your perceived confidence. For the relatively minor crime of styling my hair before I leave the house, I have been subject to many a condescending rant from women more “natural” than I, who insist that they just “shake their hair and go” because they “love to be themselves.” And this commentary would be fine, were it not built, at least in part, on the idea that somehow a woman who wears makeup or does her hair is not “loving herself” with the same honesty.
Regardless of the reasons why someone may alter their appearance — or what means they use to do it — if they are making a choice which makes them feel better about their body, it is no one’s job to shame them for it or imply that they are not being honest with themselves. I’ve become used to wearing makeup and doing my hair. I enjoy the act of getting ready to go out into the world and primping myself in small ways. I may not be covering up the cystic acne I once was, but I feel more myself when I look more “put together.” And even if I were smearing on handfuls of self-tanner and bleaching my hair until it had the approximate look and feel of a bale of hay, it would be my choice to do so. And if I felt like myself doing it, I am just as “natural” as the girl who gets out of bed and walks to the store in her pajamas.
The truth is, “being yourself” and “being natural” are things which each person decides. None of us are walking around naked — everyone is doing something to change the way they look, at least slightly. We get haircuts, we have different clothes for different occasions, we shave, we do things every day which make us more suited to our environments and allow us to express different ideas through our appearances. There is no arbitrary line drawn in the sand over how much you’re “allowed” to alter yourself before it’s considered compensating, or dishonest, or deserving of derision. A woman who is dressed to the nines and in a full face of makeup is just as much a woman — and just as deserving of respect — as one who lives every day bare-faced and in simple garments. If you happen to feel at your personal best and most attractive when you are at your most minimally altered, good for you. But it is never anyone’s job to tell a woman concealing her blemishes, or putting on a pair of Spanx, or styling her hair, that she is somehow less real. The only thing we should be shaming, when it comes to what women do, is our weird cultural need to maintain control over other women’s bodies.