Not wearing makeup is how we mourn the dead in my religion
At 7 years old, I saw my mom not wearing makeup for the first time when she was sitting shivah. During the seven days of Jewish grieving, mourners must forgo most self-care regimens like donning perfume or lotions and even showering in hot water. Mourners also can’t shave or get a haircut for 30 days. Eschewing makeup and tearing your garments, though, is arguably the most noticeable custom. My mother, like the rest of her immediate family, strictly adhered to this tradition.
According to the Talmud (the source that Jewish laws are derived from), mourners should refrain from personal pleasures, like bathing their whole body, throughout the week. This law now extends to the use of cosmetics. After all, performing activities that spark happiness is not consistent with the spirit of mourning. Even though my family doesn’t abide by all the rules of our Torah (law of God bible), the laws of mourning are something we adhere to the way we’d adhere to breaking a glass at a wedding. For us, it’s more than a religious practice—it’s a tradition that our ancestors passed down centuries before we existed. It’s something that visibly binds mourners together in their grief.
In my Jewish culture, most women wear beauty products on a daily basis. My mom was no exception. Seeing her without mascara or a touch of lipstick helped me understand why we forego certain pleasures to honor the death of a loved one.
At the time, I remember thinking about how radiant she looked even without makeup. It made me realize that beauty can shine even when you’re bare-faced.
Not too long ago, my friend said that her mom told her not to leave the house without makeup. “You never know who you might see,” she’d say, referring to potential love interests. My mom, too, sometimes looked at me before I’d leave the house and told me to put on a pop of color. I recently discovered that her mom would tell her the same thing when she was younger. Looking like your best self in public is ingrained in the fabric of my community. So, seeing my mother, my grandmother, and her sister completely raw when someone died reflected the sadness felt in that room.
As I got older, I started to learn other ways that beauty in Judaism is a marker for big life events. For example, women can’t wear makeup or nail polish when they immerse in the mikveh (a ritual bath) right before they have sex on their wedding night or before they have sex for the first time following their period. This Torah law exists to purify yourself, which is why there can’t be a “barrier” between you and the water. Many women, including myself, are opposed to the patriarchal idea that women must maintain “purity” until their wedding night and that the mikveh determines their purity. However, many modern Jewish women are rebranding this tradition by using their time at the mikveh to reflect on their sexuality. After all, besides showering, when are you truly exposed naked in the light, sans beautifications, and at one with yourself?
I still remember my mother coming home once a month with wet hair, her usual straightened blowout tangled in a bed of ringlets on her shoulders. Some people see these restrictions as oppressive.
But I see the removal of these beautification regimens as a way to strip yourself down to your very core, to show up for the living and the dead as you are.
When someone dies, it’s like the people closest to them are exposing their vulnerabilities to the deceased for the first time. It’s as if they’re telling the deceased that they accept him and are asking if he’d accept them as they are in return. We honor the people who leave us the same way that we came into this world—bare and naked. Maybe, for us, it’s a period to reflect on a new beginning, the start of a new life without that person. Or maybe we’re expressing that we don’t need to always be the best or most “beautiful” version of ourselves.
When ultra-orthodox women are married, they wear a headscarf or wigs to symbolize their relationship status and modesty by only exposing their hair in the presence of their spouse. Derived from a highly debated passage in the Torah, this law demonstrates how beauty is so sacred that it literally was a matter of life or public scrutiny during ancient times. If a woman was accused of adultery, the Jewish priest would humiliate her by unbraiding or uncovering her hair. Although I don’t plan on covering my hair when I get married or agree with the Jewish priest’s actions, I’m awed (and appalled) at how beauty is grossly leveraged to punish women in my culture (hello, welcome to 2020).
My mother, albeit unintentionally, taught me to look at the symbolism of beauty during grief. Although I’ve thankfully never sat shivah, when I’ve grieved the loss of someone by way of a breakup, I have been reminded to allow myself time to be bare. For those who abide by religious laws like myself, cosmetics don’t just enhance our beauty—they’re how we differentiate life and death. Now, when I see someone on the street who seems to be in mourning and isn’t wearing makeup, I see more than just a bare face.