Wearing makeup to see your ex

The other day I was chatting with a female athlete who rarely wears makeup. I don’t recommend asking this question unless you have a really, really good relationship with said athlete, but since I did, I went for it:

“Do you ever wear makeup?”

“Rarely,” she replied. “For special occasions I guess, or if I’m seeing my ex.” That last part she said half-jokingly, but also quite seriously. She wants her ex-boyfriend–a figure in her life that elicits vulnerability–to see that she’s doing well.

“You know,” I said, “for a college athlete who holds down a 4.0 in a difficult major, who has won academic and athletic awards, and is up for a prestigious internship, I think you’re doing really well for yourself.” Amazingly, this didn’t occur to her. She would still need makeup to prove to her ex-boyfriend that she’s doing well.

Anyways, my experience with makeup is limited, so take my opinion for what it’s worth, but I’m reminded of this passage from Elizabeth Willard Thames’s Meet The Frugalwoods in her chapter, “Less Makeup, More Confidence”:

“Starting my freshman year of high school, I never went anywhere without makeup, because I harbored a deep-seated belief that something was wrong with the way I looked naturally. I thought my hair was either too oily or two dry or too full or too thin, and my skin was plagued with incidents, like old chicken pox scars, that I wanted to plaster over. At fourteen, I foresaw a lifetime of defects I’d have to fight against. It started with my acne and I figured that, soon enough, I’d need to combat wrinkles and gray hair. In my early twenties, I had an earnest conversation with my friend Alisha about whether we should start using antiwrinkle cream under our eyes as a prophylactic. I’m not sure where this self-loathing originated–whether from beauty industry ads targeting every part of my body and that seemed to prey on, and even create, insecurities in women, or the popular girls at school who had this body-morphing all figured out with their detailed makeup regimens and magazine-worthy hair, or my own adolescent insecurities.


I was prying the last of my eye shadow out with a toothpick one morning when the absurdity of what I was doing dawned on me: Why wasn’t I solving the root of this problem? Why didn’t I just stop wearing makeup? The simple answer is that I thought I didn’t look good without makeup. My self-worth was intertwined with my appearance. I was ashamed of my dependence on this stuff and of how difficult it was for me to even consider living without it.


Acknowledging the presence of my addiction cemented my resolve to stop. I figured I’d take the same approach I do at the beach where I inch into cold waves one rung of my body at a time so that when the water laps at my shoulders, I’m fully acclimated and don’t even realize I’m submerged. I’d eliminate one piece of makeup per week. First, I stopped painting my nails every Sunday afternoon. I felt like a peasant and spent the next Monday at work waiting for someone to comment on my bare, pedestrian nails. No one noticed. Next up, I didn’t wear blush. Then, I eliminated powder. The following week, concealer was gone. It took me an entire month to phase everything out. Last to go was supposed to be mascara, but I couldn’t do it. It stayed on as my security blanket against a naked, revealed face. But the concealer, the blush, the powder, the eye shadow, the eyeliner, the nail polish, and the lipstick? All gone. I thought I looked anemic and a touch Amish. I’d become more accustomed to my fake, made-up face than my actual, natural face. I’d embodied the prescribed societal standards of beauty to such an extent that I saw my makeup-less face as a failure. At the same time, I was invigorated the first day I went to work without makeup. I felt like I’d accomplished something, like I’d vanquished an old foe that’d dogged me for years, hanging over my shoulder whispering, “You’re not good enough” in my ear. I’d thrown off this tormentor and it made me feel powerful. If I could do this, what else could I achieve? This wasn’t the achievement of my old life, of my persistent, unhappy drive for external accolades; this was an achievement just for me. No one else would notice or care, but I would know. I would care. I would feel better.

Not wearing makeup didn’t change my relationships. I was no more or less liked and I was no more or less successful. All those years I’d wasted so much time stressing out over what people thought about my ability to apply eyeliner, when in reality they didn’t even notice. My feminist interior monologue, which’d been running since I was five years old and told my parents I didn’t want to go to church unless women could be priests, was now written as a declaration of independence on my face. I wasn’t going to do things that made me unhappy anymore, not with my money, not with my appearance, not with my life. I was gaining confidence in who I am at my core and what I look like without a veneer of self-imposed “shoulds” covering up my face and my actions.” (p. 118).

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