Last year, during Yom Kippur services, our rabbi challenged a sanctuary-filled room of sneaker-clad congregants to abstain from physical pleasure more intensely than the previous year. She urged each of us to “up the ante.”
It was hard to hear her over the loud grumbling of my stomach, but I could swear she was looking directly into my mascara-coated eyes when she said it.
Yom Kippur, considered the holiest day of the Jewish year, is when Jews are supposed to reflect on the past year and atone for our sins. We are supposed to express humility on this day in order to spiritually cleanse and renew. We are commanded to bare all — our souls, our sins — even our blemished complexions.
For 25 hours, we are prohibited from eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, having sex, and washing or anointing our bodies with oil, perfume or makeup. By abstaining from these five pleasures of life, we set ourselves up to meaningful self-examination, to explore what we can do differently in order to do good in the world.
Growing up, my family attended a synagogue where these rules were loosely followed. By that, I mean congregants came to services clean-shaven, sweet smelling and dressed to the nines. For many women, Mom and me included, Yom Kippur was an excuse to break out the high heels, the white pearls and the red lipstick.
Now, married with children of my own, I belong to a different synagogue with more traditional values where on Yom Kippur modest dress and makeup-free faces are the norm.
Still, I’ve never gone a day without makeup. It’s a routine I learned from my mother. “Let me put my face on first,” she always said before leaving the house. When I was a teenager, Mom taught me to trim my nails, moisturize my elbows and highlight my eyes with makeup — rituals I carried with me into adulthood.
For the past 40 years, I’ve trusted Maybelline to darken, thicken, and lengthen my lashes. That familiar pink-and-green Great Lash tube has been a comforting fixture in my makeup drawer ever since I can remember. Leave the house without a swipe? I’d sooner leave the house without a bra.
The truth is, without mascara, I feel so self-conscious I don’t even want to look people in the eye. I could attend Yom Kippur services hungry and unwashed and no one would be any wiser, but one look at my eyes and it would be obvious those bags aren’t Prada.
My teenage son would say “That sounds like a you problem.” And to great extent, he’s right. How can he, never having so much as applied liner to his lids, understand what it’s like to leave the house barefaced; to leave part of his identity at home. The one and only day I ever went out without makeup, three people said, “You look tired. Are you sick?” I wanted to cry.
I grew up with the expectation that women are supposed to look presentable in public, part of which means hiding bags and blemishes with makeup. To some degree, wearing makeup is also part of our gender identity, an expected norm. Part of me resents that, while the other part loves magenta lipstick.
I’ve long considered wearing no makeup on Yom Kippur, but never had the courage to follow through. Fear and vanity held me back, as I imagined sitting amongst 500 congregants, worrying: How pale do I look? Do my pores look big? Do my eyes look small? There’s a fine line between humility and humiliation, and mascara has always been my line in the Judean sand.
Why do I care so much about expectations and what others think of me? Why do I try so hard to impress others? Why on heaven’s earth do I curl my eyelashes?
The reality is, how we present ourselves to the world affects how people relate to us. Do I wear makeup to avoid judgment from others? Perhaps. But mostly, I judge myself. To me, beauty goes beyond being tweezed, cleansed and moisturized. Makeup makes me feel polished and put together. Makeup makes me feel better about me. Makeup completes me.
But If I’m really being honest with myself, I not only judge myself, I also judge others. When I imagine sitting amongst 500 congregants, worrying about how I might look without makeup, what I fear most is that others will judge me as critically as I judge them: How pale do they look? Do their pores look big? Do their eyes look small?
It’s shameful to admit, but when I look out at the landscape of faces stretched in both directions, I find myself searching for any defect I can find to feel better about myself. It’s the same critical inner voice that often nags me with negative thoughts oriented both inward and toward others, the voice that was shaped from childhood experiences and critical opinions early in life, the ones that said I wasn’t good enough — even the ones coming from my well-intentioned parents who harped on the “freshman 15” I gained in college — extra pounds they ultimately bribed me to lose; the ones that came from living in a culture that creates impossible standards for us to live up to; the ones that tell us our teeth aren’t straight enough, our hair isn’t smooth enough, and our skin isn’t clear enough; the ones that can be silenced only when we begin to see ourselves for who we really are, rather than taking on the inner critic’s negative perspective.
I have spent my entire life trying to maintain a perfect image, always worried about what my house, my car, my clothes, my dog breed (!) says about me. I constantly fret over my appearance. Does my hair look frizzy? Do I have lipstick on my teeth? Are my panty lines showing?
Whether my image-consciousness is due to parents who overcompensated to avoid the shame and stigma of growing up with immigrant parents, or the intense Jewish cultural pressure to succeed, or my own neuroticism, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am tired of being a prisoner to my insecurities and measuring myself against my ideal. Cry me a river, I know. But I sometimes secretly fantasize about leaving it all behind and moving to the country and living on a farm and wearing old boots and ripped overalls and milking cows and working in the fields digging potatoes and not seeing another person for weeks at a time.
I don’t want to judge others the way I judge myself, but I can’t help myself. This is something I am working on. I want to be able to notice things about others without the interfering critical thoughts — to rid myself of the burden that fills me with remorse and pokes and claws at me and weighs down my conscience like a bag of drowning kittens.
We tend to judge others based on what we value and what’s important to us. After 50-plus years, it’s time I stopped judging people based on my parents' values and started viewing the world through my own lens. I’d like to stop comparing who is prettier, wittier, skinnier, wealthier. I’d like to accept people for WHO they are (myself included), not WHAT they are. On Yom Kippur, the high holy day, and every day, I’d like to be able to leave my judgment at the door.
As Yom Kippur approaches, I am reminded that the holiday is a time of continued reflection and goal setting. For the past few weeks, while seated at my vanity mirror, waving my magic mascara wand, I’ve heard my rabbi’s voice urging me to up the ante. It’s a voice that has seeped into my pores like liquid foundation and prompted me to take the plunge and scrub away my impurities.
That is why, this year, in the spirit of freshening my soul and embracing the true meaning of Yom Kippur as fully as possible, I resolve to “face” my sins of judging myself and others by turning my attention inward and wearing less makeup. I vow to go easy on the foundation, dial down the blush and eliminate the lipstick, even if I’m uncomfortable in my own un-anointed skin. I vow to keep an open mind and challenge my critical inner voice. I vow to remind myself not to equate outward appearance with inner value, to remember that imperfection is part of the human experience and something we all share, and that true self-worth can only be achieved by practicing self-compassion.
On the day of Atonement, while I sit and pray for forgiveness with un-enhanced eyes and unadorned lips, feeling naked and exposed, I will simultaneously take comfort in knowing that when I look at myself through God’s eyes, Maybelline will be nowhere in sight.