To Wear Makeup or Not to Wear Makeup?

The question is surprisingly fraught, but the answer is simple.

Article by Haley Mlotek

Stewart Cook/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock; Mike Marsland/Wireimage/Getty Images; photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

Recently, Buzzfeed compiled examples of men on Reddit and Twitter who had shared photos of women they found beautiful, seemingly amazed by their own enlightened taste. The women, celebrities like Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, were, they believed, not wearing makeup.

“Kylie Jenner looks so much better without makeup to me idk why. Im prob just weird,” one man bravely tweeted.

In fact, these women were wearing makeup; in one particularly egregious instance, a photo had been taken from a magazine editorial featuring a natural makeup look, with products listed. The men had confused makeup that does not announce itself with makeup that does not exist. And who can blame them? “Natural beauty” has become less about lack of effort than about successfully hiding effort altogether.

After a punishing night, when I use a fine-pointed brush to apply Clé de Peau Beauté concealer to my red-rimmed lower lashline, I am trying to fake wakefulness; I cannot fault a man who would, taking my illusion at face value, rush to celebrate his own wokefulness.

In light of this, it was no surprise when singer Alicia Keys (who recently launched her own skin care routine, Keys Soulcare) declared she would abstain from makeup a few years ago. In an essay about her decision for the online magazine Lenny, she wrote of realising that she had written “a lot of songs about masks filled with metaphors about hiding.” After years of feeling like she needed to wear makeup to perform, both as a singer and as a woman in the world, it struck her that this preparing for the public eye was only magnifying the effect of its scrutiny.

The #nomakeup movement soon took off, with other celebrities and women’s magazines jumping on the bandwagon. (“Mila Without Makeup” boasted a Glamour cover.)

At first glance, Alicia Keys, Mila Kunis or Gwyneth Paltrow — women whose visages we’ve come to know intimately in their makeup-wearing form — look a bit naked and exposed without it, as though a veil has been lifted, revealing something private and raw. But to examine them more closely is simply to get reacquainted with the features of the human face: its shapes and curvatures; gradations of light and color; freckles; eyelashes.

It would be easy to deem a makeup-less Alicia Keys “honest,” or “real,” or even radical, but that would be missing the point. More than anything, she looks exceptionally relaxed and open, completely at ease in her own skin. She is radiant with serenity, like a person on vacation who really knows how to let go. The message she broadcasts is that comfort is the root of confidence, and not the other way around. This is true whether a person is wearing makeup or not.

Of course, Keys’s kind of comfort requires its own sort of discipline. On the beauty website Into the Gloss, her makeup artist described the many rituals and products that go into her new look: acupuncture, exercise, a healthy diet. Facials, lip treatments, sprays and oils.

I began to wear a full face of makeup in middle school, as a gesture of defeat, attempting to obscure hormonal breakouts, asymmetrical features, eyebrows that were too bushy and lips that were too big. As I got older, I spent less time searching for pigmented powders to cover my face, and more time searching for concoctions to strengthen or improve it. I didn’t so much want to look better as I wanted to be better. I bought serums with the consistency of liquefied amber, thick white creams expelled from pump bottles with such force that they seemed impatient to get to work, masks made from insect secretions. The irony, naturally, is that clean, clear skin is the ideal base for makeup.