The other day, I walked into work and one of my coworkers greeted me by saying, “Oh my god, what happened to your face?”
As you might imagine, my hands flew to my cheeks à la Macaulay Culkin until she clarified. “It’s really red and stuff.”
Well, by that point I was blushing like crazy, so no wonder.
Here’s the thing. I wasn’t wearing makeup. Any, actually. Or maybe only mascara? I don’t know, but I do know I wasn’t wearing a lick of foundation.
Back at university, I remember a friend challenged herself not to wear makeup for a month, and I joined her. It was something about vanity and giving our faces to God, if I remember correctly, but whatever the impetus, I recall it as an odd, freeing experience. For a decade I’d felt shackled to concealers and powders, creams and cover ups.
Why? Because starting around age 9 I had terribly painful cystic acne that caused me no small amount of pain, both physical and emotional. It responded to nothing. It seemed to operate like an internal, sadistic parasite. Nothing helped. Not washes or creams or gels or those weird plastic stickers they sold for a while that you were supposed to litter your face with before bed. I tried every OTC remedy I could buy with my meager allowance — and later every harsh, caustic prescription.
No sooner would one giant, swollen “undergrounder” subside but another — or three — would appear in its place.
So I turned to makeup. My moms, seeing that my acne was wreaking havoc on my self-esteem, allowed me to start wearing makeup in grade six.
Starting then, I wouldn’t leave the house without it. Even when we finally resorted to Accutane, that insidious holy grail of bespeckled teens, I didn’t feel okay without makeup.
Fast forward back to university — that month or so was interesting and scary.
“You look tired.”
“Are you okay?”
“Didn’t get enough sleep, eh?”
“You look exhausted!”
“Are you sick?”
Almost every day I got the message that without my makeup, I looked wrong. Sickly, tired, washed-out, heaps of adjectives I didn’t feel. I quickly wearied of having to explain that no, this was just my face.
Last Sunday, I was reminded again.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
She didn’t mean to be insulting, but wow, what a rude question. I think the assumption was that there was something wrong. I’d been on a five mile hike in 20-degree weather the previous day, and it’s possible I was a bit wind-burned — but I hadn’t noticed it on myself in the mirror.
That’s my face. My real face without layers of cosmetics and goop. My face.
On last week’s Bachelor (I know, I know), one of the women was surprised by a cooking flurry of Juan Pablo at the mansion one morning before she “had her face on.” My own grandmother used to echo that same sentiment, and it always struck me as strange, like without her makeup her face-place was a gaping blank, a black hole, a white easel with no paint.
Those are the messages women are sent. By society, by men, by the media, even by each other.
The message that our unpainted faces have something wrong with them. Something to be covered up.
Today I went without makeup again. I might just continue until my face is simply my face again.
Because there is nothing wrong with my face.