Culture of Cosmetics

Wearing makeup (or not) is a practice in self-expression

Makeup is as old as civilization itself. Narmer’s Palette, one of the world’s most important archaeological finds (Egypt, circa 3,100 years B.C.), contains some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found, and it is carved on a palette, a ceremonial stone also used to grind cosmetics. Whether for adornment or ritual, makeup has been around for at least 6,000 years, making it just that much more embarrassing that I still have no idea how to use it.

Despite having come of age in the era of big hair and shell-pink lip gloss, the “tips and tricks” of the well-put-together remain a mystery to me. When the recent celebrity-infused “no makeup” movement first kicked off, I naively assumed this was going to be a really good thing for me. (Finally! A ready-made community supporting me to keep looking the way I already do!) Imagine my sadness when, far from being a conversation making it “equally fine” to go out barefaced, the dialogue turned instead into a shame fest on women who do wear makeup. What the heck? As my good friend Elaine Shute of Surry put it, “Feminism is supposed to be about choice, but you wouldn’t know it from visiting Ms. Magazine’s Facebook page.”

The “no makeup” arguments do tend to get pretty heated and emotional. Many women speak of feeling like makeup is a form of subjugation and judgment—a societal requirement that women conform to an arbitrary and artificial standard of beauty that is as outdated and constrictive as pantyhose. By rejecting makeup, they are reclaiming agency over their lives.

Makeup by Liz Cyr from Blush Beauty Boutique. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

For me, what I thought was a pretty straightforward and simple decision on my part quickly tapped into deep wells of insecurity and self identifications. I hadn’t even been aware that my inner me viewed “smart” and “well put together” as an either/or choice. I blame every movie of the ’80s.

The conversation is deeply emotional on the pro-makeup side as well. For many women, the culture of cosmetics is deeply rooted in early memories of their mothers and a connection to their own coming of age. “I first started wearing makeup in a clandestine way when I was about 13 or 14, sneaking it out of my mother’s makeup bag,” says Laura Cyr of Portland. “It was never anything fancy—just drugstore brands—but putting it on made me feel like an adult.”

Mixed in with all of this are questions of class and status. Makeup is expensive—and so is looking good without it. The “no makeup” movement is not, as I had assumed, the basic “scrub and go” method. It relies upon expensive cleansers, serums, moisturizers—and the befuddling “no makeup makeup”—to say nothing of anti-aging creams and special diets.

The topic is complex and nuanced. I decided that if I really want to understand it, I needed to turn to people who knew more about it than I did. Geo Soctomah Neptune is a Passamaquoddy artist who identifies as two-spirit and is also the alter-ego of Lyzz Bien, celebrated drag queen. What Geo doesn’t know about makeup isn’t worth knowing. “I don’t remember not being in my mother’s makeup,” Neptune recalls. “She was a Mary Kay consultant and it wasn’t long before I was the one showing her clients how to apply their makeup.”

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Neptune quickly mastered the basics and delighted in being able to help her friends find the right look for them. The makeup she uses for drag is entirely different from everyday makeup, and it forces one to understand shadow and contour. “Baking” and “contouring,” two makeup modalities perfected in drag and on movie sets, are now being employed by everyday folks simply preparing for their day. “YouTube has made it possible for anyone to learn professional techniques,” Neptune says. “Makeup…is more a form of self-expression. It is temporary art and you do it because you want to. I use makeup to look more like the person I am.”

Tovah Mellon of Portland is also seeking personal truth, barefaced. “I’m all for makeup if it makes people feel more comfortable with themselves,” notes Mellon.” It makes me more self-conscious…I’m thinking people can see right through me, like they know I don’t usually wear it and am trying to look different.”

Ultimately, whether a person chooses to go “full face,” “bareface,” or something in between, the choice, as with all things in life, should be a reflection of that person’s most genuine, authentic, beautiful self—and the rest of us should cheer them on.

CORRECTION: In this piece, the author mistakenly used incorrect pronouns in referring to Geo in the original version of this story. This version has been updated.

Heather D. Martin lives on the coast of Maine with her honey, two sons and assorted animals. When she’s not working with various museums, art programs and nonprofits on community building, she’s usually off causing mayhem with the above mentioned crew.

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