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When Others Comment on Your Makeup (or Lack Thereof)

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It is 2012. I am 15 years old, sliding into my seat in my high school chemistry class. The girl one desk over to the right and one desk up is a year older than me. Her name is Hannah, and she’s pale-skinned, she has blonde hair, she wears liquid glitter eyeliner, and she is usually involved in most of the school activities. We have been going to the same schools for six years, at no point in which I think we’ve ever spoken to one another.

Today, though, she turns and speaks to me, inexplicably.

“You know, you wear too much eyeliner. My mom’s a makeup artist, so it just bugs me.”

My mother (who I do not live with) is not a makeup artist. She teaches after-school activities for low-income children.

I live with my two older brothers and my father, who is also not a makeup artist. He is a civil engineer.

I don’t know how to respond to this. I am starting to squint at her under my glasses, through my thick, black winged eyeliner. It is the only piece of makeup I ever wear, because it is cheap, fast and dramatic on its own. (Plus, I had discovered with delight, if you mess up, there is a simple, ingenious solution — just draw over the fucked-up wing and make it bigger.)

The dark-haired, brown-skinned boy sitting to my left saves me from trying to figure out how I’m supposed to answer this.

“It’s emo,” he says helpfully.

Me and Salil are on more familiar terms. We’re not really friends, but we joke around a bit in class, and sometimes he sends me messages on Facebook. Sometimes there are objectifying messages about girls. I laugh along and sometimes make sardonic, self-denigrating and misogynistic comebacks, because this is a common, typical way people joke in 2012. Later, I will learn that this is called toxic masculinity.

I know he says it as a sort of backhanded defense of me, so I nod and laugh along and affirm sarcastically, “Yeah, it’s emo.”

(I don’t really think I am emo, but I understand that if you wear thick black eyeliner, people will call you this sometimes as a joke, though it is not necessarily considered to be a bad thing.)

Class starts.

Class ends.

School goes on, and I am still applying my thick, black cat-eye every day throughout.

Years pass.

But there is something that makes me remember this specific interaction in more vivid detail than most interactions I’ve had. It is possible that this was due to, as they say, the Audacity of This B*tch.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

In 2014, I am 18 years old. I am in my business class in my second year of community college. The professor runs a class project where each group simulates being the owners of competing bakeries. My groupmates mostly do not care about it. They speak some words and nod for a minute when I talk, then turn back to each other and start gossiping about something else, and so I inherit the task of physically doing most of the project. I am used to this; I am good at this. I don’t mind it much. It is not difficult and I don’t care much about the other things they talk about. My group gets second-place with my Mumbo Jumbo Bakeshop.

A year later, I am working as a barista for a “dessert lounge” called Frost. When I become the store manager for the main location, I start buying crisp blazers and pencil skirts. I begin spending a half-hour every morning putting on a full face of makeup. The black eyeliner is still there, but I am also buying foundation, blush, highlighter, bronzer, spending hundreds of dollars every few months to maintain this visage. I am looking up “contouring” tutorials on YouTube. Every day I come to work a 19-year-old masquerading as a manager. I am wracked with anxiety every time I address my older employees, but I think that I at least look like I know what I’m doing, probably, and that thought helps my voice stay level even while my heart is palpitating tangibly in my chest. Later, a couple of baristas will tell me on different occasions they appreciate that I am “really chill,” that I have a comforting presence that puts them at ease. I will laugh at the irony.

When I begin going through severe mental health issues in 2016, I stop wearing makeup, more often trading in the blazers and wedge heels for the standard, dark work uniform and non-slip shoes. I begin going to therapy. I am 20.

My superiors hold a managers’ meeting where the male vice-president of the company mentions in front of everyone that they had been noticing “some people” (i.e. one of the females — me) not wearing makeup, that it was unbecoming, and that “you need to be selling yourself, not just the product.”

A couple of the other male managers begin debating the ethics of telling someone to wear more makeup, to no clear resolution, and I sit there, stone-faced and silent. I have been struggling to find the will even just to get out of bed in the morning lately, and no longer can find the time to put on all that makeup. I hadn’t really thought this was something anyone at work would actually go so far as to demonize, though.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

My mental health steadily worsens. Sometimes as I get ready in the morning I am crying thinking about being stoic enough to get through another day. I can’t hold back the tears as I am putting the fucking makeup on, but I catch them with my fingertips as they form at the edges of my eyes, tipping my head back so the mascara doesn’t run. I grit my teeth and keep applying the pink blush to my cheeks. I become adept at crying without visibly messing up the makeup. No one notices it, but they do notice I am late.

The district manager at my next workplace — this one is a small, dimly-lit, vegan donut chain called Mighty-O Donuts — says it more explicitly to me. She pulls me aside, and says that since I had worn makeup during my interview with her, she had been expecting I would wear it daily, and that as a manager, my bare face is “unprofessional.” She tells me this as she is wearing yoga pants and a hoodie in front of me and a negligible amount of makeup on her own face. “Well, it’s different for me because I’m pregnant, but I always at least put on a little mascara or something.”

I stare blankly back at her for a moment. I feel tired.

“OK. I will work on it [my face].”

The night before National Donut Day, the busiest day of the year, the baker dies by suicide.

His name was Daniel. He was two or three years older than me, with brown hair always covered by a cap when I’d seen him. I had only interacted with him on a few occasions, but I remember he was slightly soft-spoken and very funny.

The owners memorialize him in one email, and no one says a single word about the timing.

They bring someone else in to help bake the donuts that day. And business continues.

My mental health steadily worsens. I cannot get myself out of bed.

When I finally do, I spend 10 minutes blurring the imperfections on my face and darkening my eyelashes as I was instructed. I am chronically late. I get fired from this job and the next.

I opt not to pursue being a manager anymore, and take up being a barista at a busy little waterfront bakery-cafe in Edmonds called Red Twig. My manager here runs both the front and back-of-house, as well as the operations for the whole cafe, and she keeps minimal direct contact with the baristas and cooks, aside from monthly meetings. We create our own work culture independent of direct supervision, for the most part. Sometimes I clock in a few minutes after the hour. Each time, I am burning with guilt and shame. No one ever says a word, though.

It is 2017. I am 21 years old. Sometimes I wear light makeup, when I feel like it, when I have the time; sometimes I don’t wear any. Sometimes it’s nothing but thick, black winged eyeliner. As time goes on, I wear makeup less and less often, and eventually it becomes something of a rarity.

No one says anything about my face — except a few of the customers.

Some of the women I make easy chitchat with make sweet, earnest side comments like, “By the way, I just want to tell you, you are really beautiful,” as they stand behind the counter, waiting for me to finish crafting their lattes and frothing a little heart or a feather on top of the delicate foam.

My heart drops a little bit in my chest. I feel relief and warmth. I feel seen.

“Thank you. I’ve had other places of work reprimand me for not wearing makeup, so that is really nice to hear.”

“You don’t even need to wear makeup. You are lovely,” they tell me, without hesitation.

Not so coincidentally this was the workplace where I felt most comfortable being myself, where I was happiest, where I connected most with my coworkers and my customers, and was able to heal the most. I stop going to therapy. (A few months later, my dad’s health insurance plan stops covering it.)

I move to Bellevue in 2019. My next place of employment is a French dessert shop called Lady Yum, and it has several glamorous women working behind the counter with flawless makeup, exquisitely curated outfits, brimming with confidence. Here I wear makeup daily, and even dresses sometimes, an unheard-of event for me — not because anyone said I had to, but because I feel good, and I am surrounded and inspired by this ultra-femininity. It is fun, though it feels more like playing dress-up every day than actually presenting my own self. I laugh and gab, pop bottles of champagne, buy bright colors and big statement earrings, and play along.

My dad dies on the store’s fifth anniversary. I am 23 years old. My brother tells me he is dead over the phone as I am sitting down in the back kitchen, wearing a flowing purple dress I’ve never worn before and a stupid paper crown on my head that my boss had given all of us to wear in celebration, rainbow disco lights wheeling overhead in the lobby.

Later, I would find out he had likely died around 8 a.m., about the time I was getting ready for work. This was enough to estimate that I was probably putting on my makeup, trying on outfits, pinning on my earrings, as my father was convulsing alone on the floor. His heart probably stopped as I was testing my smile in my reflection.

I stopped wanting to play dress-up as much after that.

“So, are you doing OK?” Lady Yum’s male operations manager asks me a few weeks later.

I am still wearing a dress on that day; navy blue, black belt cinched around my waist, galaxy-studded earrings, but I had stopped wearing any makeup since my dad had died.

I give some collected, noncommittal answer. It is half-honest and very professional.

He replies: “Well, based on your presentation, I would say that you weren’t.”

I am setting up a display case of macarons as he says this. I laugh darkly at the old familiarity of it and shake my head as I keep stacking cookies.

“Thanks for letting me know,” I say to him, and then a customer comes in.

Thinking of my dad, I still cannot get myself to stare into a mirror applying powder to my face and painting my eyelids different colors, but I start putting on more jewelry after that.

Six months later, after weeks of uncertain chatter, COVID-19 reaches the United States.

It begins in Kirkland; the very city of the Lady Yum shop where I work.

All the shops shut down in March 2020. I am 24 years old. I go home from work.

Suddenly, everyone is wearing masks that cover most of their faces. The women on my social media say, “I don’t mind wearing a mask. It’s kind of nice not having to wear too much makeup.”

I do not go back.

Image via contributor

Originally published: February 19, 2021
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