About Face: Why we change our appearance

Makeup used to be such a mystery to me. My mother never wore it, save for a single swipe of brown mascara. But in junior high and high school, I began to see the faces of my friends change. Their eyelids sparkled with blue and silver and gold. Their lips became glossy and smelled like peach, raspberry, cherry. I wished I had an older sister to teach me how to wear it.

By the time I was 14, I was fumbling through the motions of eyeliner, trying to achieve the “smoky” look, but looking more like a raccoon. My friend’s older sister, a beautiful girl named Rebecca, sat me down and said, “You’re putting that on all wrong.” I remember the way her tongue stuck out of her mouth as she gently traced the eyeliner over my waterline. My eyes went from black holes to magnetic pools of blue. I felt powerful, but I also felt blessed with female attention. I had been initiated into the secret tribe of girls, war paint and all.

Putting on makeup with other women became a sacred time. In college, my girlfriends would gather before parties. We would drink cheap pink wine, put on makeup and listen to the Spice Girls on an endless loop. It was always more fun than the actual party. Makeup, for me, became a group activity, and when I left college, I stopped wearing it nearly as often. It wasn’t as fun, somehow.

But for some women, applying makeup is the worst part of the process. Nine years ago, Christine Phillips, a web designer from Portland, decided to do away with the hassle of applying makeup by taking a rather extreme step: She got makeup tattooed directly onto her skin.

“I’m a get-up-and-go kind of girl,” she explains. “But without makeup, since I’m blonde and pale, I have no eyebrows and no color to my lips.” When a client from Chicago offered her a trade—Christine would design their website in exchange for free facial tattoos—she decided to go for it. “It made it practical, price-wise. And the woman was very talented; I saw her portfolio long before I let her touch me.”

Christine got her eyebrows colored darker, her lips filled with pale pink coloring (lined with a slightly darker pink), and blue-gray eyeliner tattooed above the waterline on her eyes. Although she still wears makeup on top of her tattoos to enhance the color, she says the change makes her feel “more alive.” She jokes, “I used to look like a ghost.”

Her tattoos are subtle, but they mark a permanent decision. Christine will never be truly bare faced again. When asked why, she admits that she feels societal pressure to look a certain way. “Men say they hate makeup, but they still like it better than a bare face,” she says. “Just look at the Kardashians. Look at our celebrities.” But when I tell her this tendency—this compulsory femininity—sometimes makes me feel angry, she says she doesn’t relate to that.

“I’m angry at the fact that I’m not a brunette, or that I’m so pale. I’m not mad at society,” she says. “I was raised wearing makeup. I had my Mary Kay lady at the age of 15. You get good makeup and put it on your skin, and that is what it is.”

At age 51, Christine has had time to come to terms with the facts of modern life. Women are expected to wear makeup, and this doesn’t bother her. But I wondered it if bothered other women, particularly younger women. And so I called up my little sister.

Bridget Kelleher is a 24-year-old feminist and activist who lives in New Hampshire. She wears winged black liquid eyeliner and black mascara almost every day. But she struggles with makeup and what it means. “This summer, I was working with teenage girls as a youth mentor at the Urban Archeology Corps Program in Lawrence, Mass. As a feminist, I wanted to portray an image of myself—I wanted to show these girls that you don’t need to change yourself. That you don’t have to wear makeup all the time, and yet I still wanted to,” she says. Some days, she would go into work without makeup, but even her students would ask her, “Are you tired? Are you sick?”

“I want to be a role model for younger women,” she says. “And the images we see in the media don’t reflect reality. But I also know that, in certain fields, you are viewed as unprofessional if you don’t wear makeup.” A year ago, Bridget worked as an intern in Boston at U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office. “There was a pressure to dress nice and wear heels,” she says. “It was unspoken, of course. But I don’t remember a single woman there who didn’t wear makeup.”

I voiced my surprise that the workplace of such a progressive politician would still inspire this feeling of pressure. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” Bridget says. “It’s a senator’s office. Are there any female senators who don’t wear makeup and heels? I can’t think of one.”

Neither could I.

It’s not just women who feel pressured to put their best (read: altered) face forward. Olivia Polselli of the Maine Laser Clinic & Spa in Portland explains that, while their business is primarily women, she often sees male clients come through the doors seeking Botox or other treatments. “Men come in for rosacea, or they come in for injectables,” she says.

However, Olivia admits that sometimes she can feel saddened by her patients’ stories. “It’s all very case-to-case, but sometimes, you’ll see a woman who comes in and she was married for 25 years. But her husband just cheated on her with someone much younger. She feels like she has no self-confidence left. She comes in and says, ‘help me.’ I hate the fact that they feel that way. But I want to help them.”

Men, she explains, often feel pressured to get Botox. “Many of our male clients say that it’s very competitive at work, and they’re competing with a younger demographic.” A younger face, she explains, can mean more money, more upward mobility.

At 36, Olivia has been getting Botox injections for several years, and while she loves the way it makes her look, she does question the impulse to change her appearance. Kind and soft-spoken, her voice dips slightly when I begin to ask her about her personal choices. It’s a hard conversation for anyone to have, but she handles it with as much honesty as I’ve ever heard. “Where does it all stem from?” she muses. “Why do we have to look younger? Why do we feel compelled to live up to these standards? I don’t know. I’d love to be at peace with myself, too, and not worry about how I look. But…”

She trails off, leaving the rest unspoken.

Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in Buxton with two dogs and one husband.

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