When I sit down at my brightly lit desk, it’s never to do schoolwork — that space is reserved for skincare and makeup. Whoever sits on my chair is there for a good time. With upbeat music playing on my speaker and my desktop lamp set to natural lighting, I can spend hours playing with my makeup collection. In all honesty, sometimes I have more fun putting on makeup and dressing up than at the actual party or pregame itself. Something about it is therapeutic. Despite the creative freedom and spontaneity that my palettes and lipsticks promise, there is always a calming routine that I loyally follow.
Moisturizer and primer to prep the skin. While I wait for my face to absorb the moisture, I might put on grey contact lenses. I apply concealer and foundation to mask blemishes and even out my complexion, then setting powder to mattify and my face is now a blank, dimensionless canvas. I define my eyebrows, contour under my cheekbones and choose an eyeshadow palette. My brush dips into squares of peach, pink, brown and cream. Then, it’s eyeliner and mascara on my rosy eyelids. Pale golden highlighter goes onto the inner corners and lower lashline of my eyes, the bridge of my nose, the cupid’s bow of my lips and my cheekbones. Then I consider my lips: a nude or clear gloss? Dark brown or burgundy, bright red or dark wine lipstick? After a spritz of setting spray, I’m set.
I look in the mirror, and it’s a different face. Airbrushed, glimmering and flawless. With the right outfit, perfume and carefree mood, she’s the vivacious, laughing girl who isn’t afraid to be the center of attention. And in a few hours, I will pick up a makeup wipe and erase it all, unearth the face I buried and forgot under layers of pigment. My face.
I’ve wondered about my relationship with makeup. As an artist and perfectionist, I couldn’t bear seeing the kind of physical imperfections in myself that I would never draw in my daydream sketches of beautiful girls. I started wearing makeup in high school to cover my breakouts. It became something I couldn’t go without, even as I dreaded the weight of the pigment on my breakout-prone skin. On the days I didn’t have time for concealer, I hid my face with my sleeves during class and kept my eyes on the sink when I washed my hands in the bathroom. But when I came to college after a summer of quarantine and began a year of online classes, makeup became something to look forward to, a pair of glass slippers to step into for the night. The hours I spent staring unflinchingly into the mirror, learning and accepting the shape and imperfections of my face, stroking every line and curve with my brushes — those hours changed the way I think about myself, helped me make my peace with who I am. Makeup became a form of art through which I came to love and accept my flaws. I even realized that although I love my colored contacts, every time I take them off I appreciate anew my coal-dark eyes.
It doesn’t necessarily mean I think my bare face is perfect, or even that I prefer it to any made up version of my face. But I don’t have to be perfect to love myself. And now I don’t turn away from my honest reflection, because I’ve come to see my unpainted face as a canvas that is a work of art in its own right.
And a part of me wishes that I had loved myself sooner.
There is definitely an argument to be made about the harmful effects of makeup on self-esteem. With all the world seemingly an enemy to our insecurities and imperfections, and makeup blogs and artists becoming more prominent on the Internet, makeup has become increasingly ubiquitous. I’ve heard concerns about what it means for young girls to be subjected to unhealthy pressure. Makeup can be both our shield and burden, one that we sometimes bear unwillingly under the pressure of lookism and misogyny, in our efforts to please a society that both idolizes and patronizes the immaculately made up woman.
It’s also true that we had the era of plaid capris and awkward makeup that this new generation of children are skipping. I see TikToks of my generation comparing photos of their preteen selves to photos of preteens today and criticizing the cultural change, but I don’t think there’s a problem with kids confronting their insecurities at a young age. Sure, we have nostalgic memories of crooked eyeliner and cakey eyeshadow, but there are also memories of being bullied for our looks that we pushed to the back of our minds. We’ve faced pointing fingers since the day we were born; Why shouldn’t we embrace a healthy method of defending ourselves against such judgment at our own pace?
There’s a fine balance between confidence and insecurity, between pressure and empowerment. But I think the personal journey to find that boundary shouldn’t be outlined by society; it belongs to the self. These are our faces to make up and love.
HYERIM BIANCA NAM is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column ‘Moment’s Notice’ runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.