My 3-year-old daughter has reached the age of wanting to dabble in beauty products, which means most of the time she just wants to smear red lipstick all over her face like Diane Ladd in Wild At Heart. But when she’s not demolishing my lipstick, she’s become fascinated in the meaning of makeup. As in, Why does Mommy wear makeup? What is makeup for? And most importantly, Can I wear makeup too, please?
I fumbled with her line of questioning, mostly because I’m not a daily makeup wearer. I only started wearing makeup more regularly in the past few years since turning 41, when my anxiety-provoking, unchartered vanity issues have turned into daily battles. I spend each morning deciding whether I should rock giant sunglasses or wipe Bobbi Brown’s oil-free tinted moisturizer on my flawed face. Then dab with concealer. Then the bronzer. The mascara.
So I answered her in a basic, third-wave feminist response: 1) It feels good to look pretty and it’s okay to wear makeup to look and feel pretty. 2) You don’t need makeup to look and feel pretty because you’re beautiful just the way you are. 3) Being kind and smart is more important than looking pretty.
Yet, what I really wanted to say is, “Mommy is wearing makeup because Mommy has age spots and one day you’re going to want to disguise your skin as well.” And more, that the aging process is a normal part of our vain existence that we’ll forever have to wrestle with. Because at some point in the far-away future, you’re going to spread cover-up on your face just like I do.
Too much for a 3-year-old? Maybe not.
It’s not as if my daughter isn’t going to run into our cultural obsession with beauty at some point. This fixation is so deeply ingrained that a study last fall found that we not only judge women who don’t wear makeup, but we find them incompetent and less trustworthy without it. Another report pointed in the same direction: according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Renfrew Center Foundation, half of the women questioned said they liked themselves better with makeup.
But I don’t have to quote a study to tell you what you already know: makeup, for most of us, is an obligation. Bare face to work? Never. Not unless you want people asking you why you “look so tired,” or if you’re “feeling stressed.” For those of us who refuse to regard makeup as 24/7 crucial, there’s still a conflicting need to run to the drugstore for the newest brand of anti-wrinkle cream. (Those BB products — one serum to perfect your face!)
Then, as Ashley Judd wisely pointed out last spring in the Daily Beast, we spin the cycle of maliciously judging each other’s looks. We slam those who opt for enhancements, pulls and tucks. We slam those who have possibly used enhancements, pulls and tucks.
Of course, I’ll soften my the-world-is-a-cruel-place theory by mentioning those who break rank. Like Hillary Clinton, for instance, who unveiled her decidedly un-made up face in China and India last May. Hillary could care less what you think about her “bare” face — because Hillary is busy saving the world as Secretary of State. The rules are different for her than for us mere mortals. As in, take your double standards and shove it.
Even with my callus explanation, I’ll make sure my daughter knows there’s not one prescription for makeup. That society is going to toss a nuclear bomb of beauty expectations at her for two unavoidable reasons: our faces change and cosmetic companies have products to sell. Either way, I’ll tell her, when you look in the mirror— with or without makeup — you should love what you see. (Just like I do when I look at you.)