Why I have a complicated relationship with makeup

Should I wear red? Is that too sexy for work? Maybe bright pink? A little boy on the street pointed out my bright pink lips to his mother the other day — so I guess not the pink. I’ll just wear something neutral, some makeup that makes it look like I’m not wearing any makeup at all. And that’s how people will expect that I look when I roll out of bed: Fresh-faced and dewy. Hint: I do not. I look tired. Really tired. Really really tired.

Every morning I wake up — and I’m pretty boring, if we’re going to be blunt about it. I think very little of my morning routine. It never changes. I usually shower (though I do always have dry shampoo at the ready), I get dressed, put on my makeup, and go to work.

I wear lipstick almost every day. It makes me feel dressed up in my very non-corporate sneakers and jeans and comfy sweaters. It makes me feel like an “independent woman.”

I feel strong. I feel ready to take on the world.


In a show of defiance, to mostly myself because that is regularly who I answer to, I chose not to wear lipstick for the first five weeks of my last job. Then one day, I put it on.

My boss commented on it. I seemed “happier somehow.”

My nails are not always painted, though I feel more put together when they are. They’re like tiny little easter eggs on the edges of my fingers — usually with glitter on them, but I digress. A man came up to my friend and me on the street late one night and asked for some dating advice. We very graciously said “fine,” even though not every girl is ready to hand out dating advice to strangers on a fun, drunken night out with their friends. My friend had an interview that morning and had gotten her nails done the day before. I’m a writer, so my nails last almost as long as my cup of coffee after I paint them. My keyboard is quick to dismantle any manicure I get.

The man started his question:

“The girl my friend wants to date doesn’t ever paint her nails. They just never look nice. That means she probably doesn’t take care of herself, right? She’s probably not worth dating.

I began to answer, but he cut me off.

“No, no, I want to talk to the girl who has her nails done.”


My eyes are my best feature. I know that about myself. A van of girls on the way to a camping trip in 8th grade once told me that, so I do my best to play them up with makeup whenever I can. One of my superhero skills is being really good at a liquid liner — and I always wear a little bit of mascara to make my lashes really pop.

My best friend just confessed to me that her boyfriend has never seen her without makeup. She doesn’t take it off before she goes to bed.

The amount of times that I have chosen to leave my home without makeup in the last few months could be counted on one hand.

Every time I dare to do so, I get asked if I’m “feeling sick” or told that I “look tired.”


I put on lipstick to feel strong, I do my nails to feel put together, I wear mascara to feel beautiful. But I’m starting to question those choices.

I’m wondering, do I use these gels and paint and mush in a can for me or for men to appreciate? Am I using makeup to create strength? Or is that strength an illusion that I apply?

I don’t pretend to know the answers. I know that many women, including myself, use their lipstick and their mascara and their long nails to invoke their femininity, knowing their femininity as a source of strength.

I also know that when I go out, I check my lipstick, blot it, and keep the tube in my bag, just in case I kiss someone too deeply, or eat a burger, or, God help us, drink something without a straw.

Then I can apply another layer and feel strong and whole again.

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