I’m not sure what on earth possessed me to say yes when my editor issued the dare: to wear not a speck of makeup for an entire week. Part of me, I admit, was keen to prove that I’m no slave to product. Part of me wondered if I could be like the natural beauties I’ve always envied: women such as fashion insiders (and street-style muses) Caroline Issa and Yasmin Sewell with their perfect, no-maintenance skin, who can slap on a bit of moisturizer and look better than me on my best of days. And part of me will try anything for a good story. Maybe naively, I didn’t predict how hard it would really be.
It’s not that I normally pile every- thing on Snooki-style, but my “bare minimum” entails at least a rosy cheek (always!) and some eyeliner or dark shadow—practically no one sees me without them. And special occasions call for extra trimmings: a bold red lip, liquid eyeliner, mega- mascara. Nevertheless, I start my makeup-free week only mildly apprehensive. Although I’m not allowed to just hide out at home in my jammies (entirely possible thanks to my freelance life), I cavalierly assume the hardest part about the challenge will be meeting new people and publicists without the safety of my “pretty mask.” Forget impressing boys: The London fashion industry is as judgy as it gets. The rest of the time: No makeup, no biggie, right?
Reality sets in fast. Like any addict going through withdrawal, not six hours into my makeup ban I’m jones- ing for powders, gels and pretty pink potions. My normally intact self- esteem also takes an immediate hit— I find myself walking faster and looking at the ground more often, and I can’t help feeling unattractive, naked and seriously self-conscious. That’s the same way that a whopping 44 percent of women feel when they forgo makeup, according to the depressing stats from a recent U.S. survey. Based on my own highly unscientific experiment, I’m convinced this number is wrong: Are they sure it’s not more?
It’s no wonder our makeup and our identity are so tied up together. Like many women, dipping into product helped me define myself as a fledgling teen. Growing up in Calgary in a strict household run by immigrant Chinese parents who believed in working hard and saving money over material luxuries and vanity, I’d wait until they left for work, then race to my mom’s medicine cabinet, hastily rub a bit of her foundation over my face and swipe Clinique’s Black Lily lipstick (a shade as dark as it sounds) onto my 14-year- old lips before running to catch the school bus. It was a quasi-goth look for an innocent Asian girl and probably an attempt to show the world my rebellious side; to prove I wasn’t as young or nerdy as I looked. With makeup, I felt like I could have that nascent sex appeal I saw on models in Seventeen and YM; that I could still be classified as one of the cool kids without skipping school or chain- smoking cigarettes. Later, in high school, filling in my eyebrows was an obsession. And now, in my 20s, deep indigo eyeshadow and raspberry blush have become my essentials. The former draws attention to my almond-shaped eyes, which would otherwise dwindle into the rest of my face. Without the latter, I feel sallow and pale, as though I really ought to try to get more sleep (well, true). Back in the early days of my relationship, I’d even sneak out of bed to covertly dab on a bit of both before slipping back and “waking up” next to my then-not-yet boyfriend.
Giving them up now, I feel ex- posed. On Day 1, as my boyfriend and I head out to meet friends at Electric Brasserie, a busy brunch spot in Notting Hill, I suddenly find myself wishing we’d picked somewhere less trendy for eggs benedict. Preferably somewhere not frequented by fashion editors—or anyone else, for that matter. As we near the restaurant, I fight the urge to race home. I have, after all, been putting a brave face on the whole ordeal, telling my boyfriend, “It’s no big deal” and “I don’t wear that much makeup anyway.” (Ever since an early gaffe— when he jokingly quipped, “What happened to your face!”—his smartened-up response has been, “You’re pretty with or without makeup.”) Now, as we walk down Portobello Road, I pinch my face, frantically trying to bring some colour to my cheeks.
My pinching is in vain, as no one seems to notice anything different about my appearance. I’m suspicious. Are my friends just brilliant actors, or do I truly look the same to them? Given that we’re dining with a guy I’ve known since I was six and his girlfriend, who is as blunt a Londoner as they come, I convince myself that their lack of comment means I must look pretty normal.
Come Monday morning, my female boss at my part-time office job shoots me a peculiar look but stays mum, likely chalking up my pallor to a weekend bender. The rest of the team, mainly guys, don’t blink. But their obliviousness doesn’t make me feel more confident; instead, I wonder how observant they are. I doubt they’d notice if I showed up in blue lipstick.
Surprisingly, however, this pattern continues as the week goes by. I quick- ly grow to appreciate the extra time I’ve gained in the morning, using it to properly blow-dry my hair and eat my breakfast sitting down. A publicist I meet for the first time even tells me I look “fresh-faced”! My gut reaction is again suspicion, but this time, it’s easier to convince myself she may not be lying. Midway through the week, I pull a near-all-nighter to meet a deadline, but the next day, my under-eye shadows and pallid skin don’t draw any odd (or horrified) stares.
I start to wonder if my cheeks and eyes don’t need as much help as I thought, if I’ve overinflated the effects of makeup all this time. Could it be that years of wearing it has only affected my self-esteem? That to the outside world, I’m the same—with or without that glossed-up veneer?
It all comes to a head on a Saturday night at a friend’s birthday party at Circus. Featured in British Vogue, Wallpaper and The Sunday Times Style Magazine, it’s a restaurant-meets- cabaret-meets-nightclub—the type of place where I’d normally wear five-inch heels, red lipstick and some piece of fabulous jewellery. But with- out makeup, I can’t shake feeling underdressed and under-prepared, despite my Isabel Marant stilettos and favourite 3.1 Phillip Lim dress. I confide (as much as you can confide something that is obviously visible) to a friend in the bathroom that I’m not wearing any makeup, but she just says, “Darling, you don’t look a day over 25.” Hmm, I think she’s drunk. Soon, however, all is forgotten once again—aided, this time, by the free- flowing champagne, which does little for my looks but everything for my mood. Soon, I’m laughing and telling funny stories about being a foreigner in London; soon, the night is over, I’ve forgotten about my lack of lipstick and I’m stumbling into a cab and home into bed.
One of my small victories for living a makeup-free life: waking with a clean face after a messy night. On top of this, I now know that I don’t look like Frankenstein’s bride bare-faced, and that the future of Nars doesn’t depend solely on my support (what a relief!). Living without my so-called beauty essentials didn’t render me unrecognizable—and it sure didn’t make me a different person. Even though I’ve since resumed my makeup routine, these days I don’t stress if I skip it once in a while. Not surprisingly, being released from the security blanket of makeup has given me a new sense of freedom. I do feel I’ve gained more of that confidence (insouciance, even) that is, perhaps, what makes Caroline Issa so radiant. Most importantly, going without made me realize that even if I’m (still) in the 44 percent of women who prefer the way we look with makeup on, it’s a choice, not a necessity.