Cancer, animal cruelty, feminism: So why can't I quit using makeup?

Makeup goes against so many of my progressive values -- but also makes me feel too good about myself to stop

Published January 4, 2014 11:00PM (EST)

    (<a href=''>vita khorzhevska</a>, <a href=''>Zurijeta</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(vita khorzhevska, Zurijeta via Shutterstock/Salon)

Some people cling to their guns and religion. I cling to my age-defying night cream.

Designer Betsey Johnson once proclaimed: “If I were dying, I would be in the hospital wearing lipstick.” From what I can tell, Betsey, Dita Von Teese, Hillary Clinton, Tammy Faye Bakker, Ellen DeGeneres and the Cure's Robert Smith all wear lipstick differently, and perhaps for different reasons.

Makeup belongs to the individual. It can be an artistic statement, an act of self-expression, a desperate plea for attention, a casual routine, an attempt at preserving youth, a prop, a mask. It can be an addiction and it can be fun.

I know my beauty products are largely unnecessary. Furthermore, they’re often made from toxic or unsustainable materials like palm oil. The wrappers, jars and tubes pile up in landfills and plastify the ocean. The micro-plastic exfoliation beads in soaps and scrubs wind up in otter stomachs. Chinese laboratories scald rabbit eyes with products and kill hundreds of thousands a year in testing.

Rationally, as a feminist and environmentalist, I don’t want to participate as much as I do. Even if I make an effort to buy responsibly made products, I still buy more than I should. Why is it so hard to let go?

* * *

I first became aware of makeup in the '80s. A gigantic visage of Christie Brinkley, resplendent in cobalt-blue eye-shadow and heavy blush, hovered over the makeup section of our local Eckerd’s. As my mom shopped, I darted to the makeup section to huff Electric Youth and dream of the day when I could wear fuchsia lipstick from Wet N’Wild or have animated hair like the Uptown Girl.

This was womanhood, I thought. An array of compacts, brushes, tubes, lotions, scents. As a young girl in eastern North Carolina I worshiped hyperbolic beauty: the darker the tan, the blonder the hair, the longer the nails, the bluer the eye shadow, the more beautiful the woman.

At 12, I acquired the January 1993 issue of Seventeen, the cover of which showed Niki and Krissy Taylor and their perfect teeth, beachy hair. I pored over their beauty secrets, the number of times Krissy claimed to apply mascara. Today, the cover still stands out to me as an iconic snapshot of late (uber-Caucasian) teenage beauty, clean-cut with a whiff of sexuality.

As a preteen, I didn’t find makeup a chore. I considered it a right, and fought with my mom to buy my first Cover Girl powder compact, which I slathered over my face every 10 minutes because I thought that with each application I was enhancing my beauty, when I really looked like a desperate powdered doughnut. My friends and I stood in front of the mirrors in public school bathrooms, largely underdeveloped, dorky in Umbros and Save the Rain Forest T-shirts or something too big we got off the sale rack at the Limited, covering our acne with pressed powder.

The funny thing about makeup is that it doesn’t just influence how you look – but how you feel.

Pressed powder made me feel mature when I wasn’t. It was an early stab at emulating womanhood.

As soon as I earned my right to wear makeup, I no longer wanted it. I wanted flannel shirts, messy hair, Doc Martens. My mom begged me to put lipstick on for dances and recitals and I refused. I let her put it on only to wipe it off as soon as she turned her back. Couldn’t she see how edgy I was? How much I didn’t care?

No. She couldn’t. Because she knew I cared a lot. Too much.

* * *

The act of putting on makeup acknowledges that one will be seen, evaluated, even if just by our own eyes when we look in the mirror.

Richard Russell, a Harvard-based psychologist, notes that humans have been decorating skin for 75,000 years, resulting in a wide spectrum of practices: cosmetic, spiritual, pugnacious and artistic. Kohl-lined eyes, henna, beeswax balms, Aboriginal war paint. Historically, women bit their lips, pinched their cheeks, put dropper-fulls of belladonna in their eyes to reduce pupil size and enhance seductive powers.

Makeup is not just an issue of aesthetics; it’s also socioeconomic. The Chinese once designated social class by nail color. The Japanese geisha cultivated a highly specific made-up appearance, employing petals, wax and bird droppings. Until the '20s, pale skin was preferred to a suntan, as tanned skin indicated a life of work in the sun, until suddenly it indicated a life of leisure. Over time, women have been cautioned against using various amounts and shades of makeup, as too-red lipstick or too heavily made-up eyes might indicate loose morals or poor upbringing.

But makeup is only the gateway drug if one aspires to the height of conventional beauty. Facelifts. Liposuction. Permanent eyeliner. Skin bleaching. Corsets. Anorexia. Men and women — but mostly women — have been willing to take risks or even mutilate themselves in order to achieve a rapidly changing ideal.

But let’s face it: There’s an evolutionary advantage to vanity. Makeup and other preening techniques aid one in the struggle for attention, give one a leg up in mate selection. Anthropologically speaking, the woman who looks young, healthy and savvy is an excellent candidate for reproductive success.

* * *

Though there are an increasing number of exceptions, putting on makeup is still something the average child most likely sees her mother do every day, but not her father.

I might not recognize Marilyn Manson or Robert Smith without lipstick, Adam Lambert without guyliner. Society seems increasingly open-minded about men using makeup for dramatic flair.

But what about the average Joe who just wants to look younger or hide acne scars? A boy from my youth group was socially ostracized for years because some other boys found concealer in his overnight bag.

My daughters, who occasionally find me smearing concealer underneath my eyes, taking a curler and inky-wand to my eyelashes, might reasonably conclude that Mom cares more about what people think of her appearance than Dad does.

Perhaps our predilection to obsessing over our appearance is biological. In the essay “Price of Perfection,” Robin Marantz Henig writes, “Evolutionary biologists tell us that men are attracted to women because of the way they look, while what attracts a woman are not so much a man's looks as evidence of his wealth, status, and power. So maybe it follows that women would be more susceptible to the prevailing idea of what it means to look desirable -- they have more at stake in looking good.”

A phrase I heard from many women, but never men, in my childhood: Excuse me — I need to put on my face.

* * *

Psychology and gender roles aside, I don’t feel good about all the products in my makeup bag.

Major companies like Mary Kay, L’Occitane, L’Oreal, Pantene, Max Factor and Johnson and Johnson all test products on animals, many of them because they want to expand into China’s market, and China actually requires products to be tested on animals. So by law, ointments and creams must be smeared into rabbit eyes to test for irritation and allergies, causing blindness, sores and bleeding.

Also, our beloved makeup is chock-full of toxins, cancer-causing agents and endocrine disrupters such as methylparaben, propylparaben, retinyl palmitate, colorants, acetate. Some suspect parabens may be responsible for early puberty in girls. Phthalates, used in makeup and plastics, may be responsible for early menopause.

However, lipsticks and eye shadows seem harmless when compared with the next generation of cosmetic enhancements.

Consider Latisse, the “prescription treatment for hypotrichosis (inadequate or not enough lashes) to grow eyelashes longer, fuller, darker.” If this is a pressing condition, why are only women featured on the website? What’s with the word choice “inadequate”? Of note, Latisse can turn the colored part of your eye brown, a condition that is “likely permanent.”

Or think of Botox, whose tag line reads: “It’s not retouching, it’s Botox.” The website advertises “inspiring stories from women just like you.” So apparently injecting your forehead and crow’s feet with a toxin qualifies as inspiring? Eagles soar, trumpets blare at the sight of smooth foreheads.

Side note: Botox can kill you; the “tox” is short for toxin. It can result in difficulty “swallowing, speaking, or breathing” and “can be severe and result in loss of life.” Also possible: “loss of strength and all-over muscle weakness, double vision, blurred vision and drooping eyelids, hoarseness or change or loss of voice (dysphonia), trouble saying words clearly (dysarthria), loss of bladder control, trouble breathing, trouble swallowing.”

And we laugh at the Victorian women who swallowed tape worms to be thinner, who spread white paint riddled with arsenic across their faces.

I won’t lie. I pause on these commercials. I’m getting older. I want longer lashes and an unlined forehead, but I don’t want to be incontinent or see the world through droopy eyelids.

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline?

* * *

Makeup can also be the thing that helps a woman find her confidence. It can be an act of self-care. Vitiligo patients, burn victims, cancer patients, the pathologically shy woman, an acne sufferer: All might find a critical lift with makeup.

When my mother-in-law was dying of cancer, she was invited to do a photo shoot because of a national board she belonged to. She did not tell the photographer, who scheduled the session months in advance, that she had cancer, or that she’d lost her hair and eyebrows. She thought it was irrelevant. The makeup artist made her look beautiful that day, healthier. A veterinarian, she posed in a set of pale pink scrubs, surgery cap on, eyes bright. Later, after she’d passed away, the photographer sent us a large portrait of the best shot. It hangs in the animal clinic where my husband works; he looks at it every day.

I don’t know how she felt inside that day, but in the picture, she’s radiant.

There can be something luxurious and indulgent about makeup. Looking good feels good. Treating yourself feels good. Lipstick can function on a symbolic level for a woman of the Western world, operate against ills with a placebo effect.

Richard Russell speaks of Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, who was in the British army unit that liberated the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Gonin writes of the time:

“It was shortly after the B.R.C.S. teams arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet lips…At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.” (Gonin, 1945, final page)

* * *

I started writing this essay in my head the day I saw the Huffington Post headline “Actress Unrecognizable Without Makeup” in reference to 67-year-old Goldie Hawn (the headline has since been changed to “All Natural”). This natural-faced horror was apparently front-page news. The shame of looking like … yourself.

The grossest thing to me about our consumption — my consumption — of makeup is the unnecessary waste and environmental destruction we make in what is largely our ceaseless pursuit of youth. This need is raw for many intelligent women, and perhaps even tied to our instincts in ways we don’t acknowledge. Worse, though, is the way this impulse is manipulated and amplified by corporate advertising strategies and media. Cosmetic companies lord over a $300 billion-plus global industry. There is, and always will be, an incentive for cosmetic executives to create, change and push an ideal of beauty, or a new product.

Most days I lead a work-from-home existence. I’m covered in cat hair. I go running or muck stalls in the barn. I forget to look at myself in the mirror. All that’s good until I go to the city for a reading, and then I root around in my bag, reacquainting myself with the blush I’ve had since college. What is my day look? My night? I’m not sure. Until the lipstick comes out, they both look the same.

It’s funny, though. I don’t wear red lipstick when I’m feeling bad about myself. It’s quite the opposite. My red lipstick speaks to an A-game day, or when I’m trying to have one, a day when I think: Go ahead. Look.

Sort of like Christie Brinkley in "Vacation" – what an icon! This is Brinkley in her prime. Brinkley when she was plastered across one wall of my local Eckerds. Chevy Chase can hardly manage the wheel of his station wagon when she passes, tossing her hair, pursing her lips from the driver’s side of her Corvette. Brinkley has verve. Confidence. Great lipstick. Don’t for a second think I don’t want some of that. I do.

And so does my inner proto-human. I’ve heard of primates self-decorating in captivity, for Christ’s sake.

If I ever swear off makeup, I’ll miss it. I try to want less, consume less, and buy responsibly made products (which isn’t easy). I could warn my girls away from lipstick and concealer, but I’m not sure they’d thank me for it later. So if they want a touch of powder on their nose, a dab of Mom’s Chapstick, I give it to them. They’ve seen plenty of days when Mom is keeping it real, walking into the grocery store with dark circles underneath her eyes, a sweaty ponytail, nude lips. I’ll let them feel that little dose of magic that comes with costume. God forbid we have a sense of humor or ease about anything.

By Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of the story collection "Birds of a Lesser Paradise"

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