I have makeup guilt. It’s a real thing, and it’s OK

Should I be into makeup? For years I have asked myself this question. As a feminist, as someone who appreciates things with labels like “natural” and “organic,” and as someone who seeks honesty above almost anything else, I have long wondered if I can still be myself and wear makeup if I choose.

I started wearing makeup in high school. It made me feel seen. It also became a shield to hide my insecurities. Toward the end of high school and into college, I would take a week or ten days at a time to abstain from wearing any makeup to try to teach myself to be less materialistic, less focused on appearances. But I always went back to wearing it, feeling both relieved and ashamed: relieved that I could feel safe again beneath the foundation and mascara, and ashamed that I needed those things to feel worthy of interacting with the world. Obviously, self-worth should not come from anything external. I know this. I’ve known this. As an adult, I’m much more comfortable in my own skin and much less prone to the debilitating fear that I will finally be outed as a liar and a fake if someone knows that I don’t naturally have flawless skin and darkened eyelashes.

And yet, the question still persists: would I be a better feminist if I stopped wearing makeup completely? This question is so hard to answer because there are so many responses and opinions on the topic. If I ask Google, it shows me studies that say wearing makeup is evolutionary and that women have used makeup for ages to enhance more naturally feminine characteristics; that tell me women who wear makeup in the workplace are more respected, trusted, and deserving of affection; that tell me men like pictures of women with makeup on but then for those women to wear no-makeup makeup in person; and that tell me men say they prefer women who don’t wear makeup but still choose pictures of women in no-makeup makeup as their preferred amount of makeup on a woman. Google tells me that makeup has a role and that people prefer to see it (just not too much of it).

The studies are persuasive. For a hot second I feel justified in wearing makeup (it’s historical!), and then I feel bad again because if I’m only doing it for the approval of men, then I’m just seeking external validation. The studies didn’t answer my question of being a better person for not wearing makeup. They simply reiterated the social phenomenon I’ve grown accustomed to: that people respond well to an even skin tone and accentuated eyes.

The more I’ve thought about it (and I have thought about it a lot), the more I think it’s a personal question we each have to answer for ourselves. Yes, there is an industry that benefits from our choosing to wear makeup. Yes, there are harmful chemicals in so much of the beauty products we use. Yes, being mindful in wearing makeup is just as important as being mindful in every aspect of our lives to reduce the negative impact we have on ourselves, each other, and the earth. Collective efforts to make this world a better place are always welcome. But also, yes, makeup is fun. It’s a tool that women use to play with their appearance and to express themselves as much as anything else. And there are many beauty companies that are trying to be conscientious about the environment.

I think my question, ultimately, doesn’t really have to do with makeup. I think my questions have more to do with what I think I need to feel worthy. How can I stand firm in my self-worth, regardless of appearance or circumstance? How can I make choices that do as little harm as possible without sacrificing those parts of my life that bring joy and happiness? How can I make room for a nuanced image of myself, one in which I appreciate the natural and the made-up, in which I know who I am deep down and express myself outwardly with whatever resources I choose?

Makeup can be a tool or a crutch, an act of expression or a shield to hide behind. It’s different for me every day, and every day I have to do the real work of asking myself the hard questions. I’ve come to realize that there is no one way to be a woman, just as there is no one way to be a feminist. People will always have an idea of what they think we should be or what we should look like. And no matter how much others respect us or are attracted to us, we still need to figure out how to respect ourselves. I think if we put our focus there, the rest will fall into place—makeup or no makeup.

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