I remember the setting so clearly: I was standing on the Bloor-Yonge Subway platform in Toronto waiting for a train to take me to a show at Massey Hall. For whatever reason, I didn’t have my headphones with me that day and was forced to listen to the sometimes-amusing-but-mostly-banal conversations of everyone else near me on the platform.
I wasn’t there long before they strolled onto the scene — a trio of baggy-pantsed, shaggy-haired, too-cool-for-school teenaged boys, that is. They chose a spot far away enough to not be in my space, but definitely within earshot.
They were talking about a girl.
Boy 1: “Oh my god dude, you hooked up with her?”
Boy 2: “Yeah, and she wasn’t even wearing any make-up!”
Boys 1 & 3: “That’s so sick dude, gross!”
Boy 2: “Here, I’ll show you a picture.”
I stood there, brain and feet frozen to the spot. The boys had created a scene that I have played out in my head many times in a million different contexts. You know, the one where I stand up for feminist principles and teach these young men a thing or two about common decency. But I didn’t move, and despite the anger bubbling inside, my lips stayed firmly pressed together. In a minute, the subway pulled up and we got on different cars.
Because you never know how you’re going to react until you’re in the situation.
I tell this story not just to display how we must must must teach our sons a thing or two about feminism, or that this scene, in particular, is a regret for me, but because of an underlying topic at hand – make-up, and why we wear it.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately because it seems everyone has an opinion on it. I’ve heard other travellers say that wearing make-up is a waste of time and energy on the road. I’ve heard the shock in others voices when they learn a woman would dare to leave the compacts at home. Meanwhile, the media is constantly barraging us with ads for products to make ourselves more “acceptable”. And frankly, I find it all exhausting.
I started wearing make-up when I was fourteen. Over a couple of years prior, some of my family members had begun to give me some shades of eyeliner and lipstick as birthday presents, but it wasn’t until ninth grade that I actually took an interest. I was shy about it at first, unsure of how the world would react to my dressed-up face. I was nervous my younger brother would start teasing me when he saw it, just like the way he pronounced the event to my entire family the first time he noticed a bra strap slung on my shoulder. I was embarrassed to be seen with make-up; I didn’t want anyone noticing that I suddenly cared about the way I looked.
And then, within the year as the initial shock wore off, you wouldn’t see me without make-up at all. I would scavenge the drugstore bargain bins for the blackest of black eyeliner, and then harshly outline my eyes as if I was auditioning for a My Chemical Romance video. This cheap make-up would begin to slide down my face within the hour, every single time I wore it. Of course, this was also the year I wore a big grey hoodie all summer to cover my body and my face began to be speckled with acne. So, due to my teenage hormones and still-shaky self-esteem, the make-up that was once a curiosity soon turned into an everyday crutch.
Slathering my face in make-up was who I was throughout my teen years. It wasn’t that I just liked wearing make-up, it’s that I felt incomplete and vulnerable going without. Heading to the grocery store to pick up some milk? At least dab on some concealer and mascara. You’re not actually going to let THEM see your FACE are you?
Heading into my twenties, as my self-esteem grew and I ventured out into the world, make-up became less of a crutch and more of an accessory — albeit one that I still wore every single day. Though I no longer felt the need to dupe the world into believing I had naturally lush, black eyelashes and nary an acne-scar on my face, I started to experiment with my routine and began putting on make-up to make me…well, more me.
It’s kind of like when you wear your most favorite outfit. The outfit may not necessarily be the most glamorous or the most awe-inducing, but when you wear it, it feels as though who you are on the inside shines on the outside too. What make-up eventually became for me was a form of self-expression, but in order to be that, it had to come with a certain level of self-awareness.
And part of that self-awareness was the realization that so many people seem to have an opinion on make-up. Those boys on the subway platform held the viewpoint that a girl showing her natural face is weird and shameful. They’d been taught that beauty comes not from self-love, personality, or individuality, but from societal standards that tell people they need products to be beautiful. Ignorantly, they were upholding these standards (of course, they were upholding other problematic viewpoints too that, once again, for the sake of withholding another tangent, I’m not going to get into here.)
At the same time, I’ve also seen the exact opposite side of the coin, when women are praised for not wearing any make-up. As though NOT WEARING MAKE-UP MEANS YOU HAVE SO MUCH MORE SELF-ESTEEM THAN IF YOU DID. As though if you don’t wear it, it means you’ve risen above the comments telling people that they should wear make-up. Bullshit on all accounts, because it’s such a personal thing.
And let’s be honest, we’ve all been that girl the boys on the platform were talking about in one way or another. Not only are we, as humans on this planet, constantly bombarded with societal norms telling us that we need to drink from the fountain of youth, hit the gym every day, and slather on eye cream to be deemed socially adequate, but that any little outward imperfection is a reflection of inner turmoil.
For example, how many times (if you’re someone who generally wears the stuff) have you shown up to work, sans make-up, and were immediately told that you look tired? Or simply given the ol’ pseudo-concern-filled quip, “Umm, are you okay?”
YES I’M OKAY, I JUST DIDN’T FEEL LIKE HIGHLIGHTING MY CHEEKBONES THIS MORNING, COOL?!
What I’m getting at through all of this, is that when we wear make-up, we need to wear it for ourselves. We wear it (or not) because that’s how we feel. Further, how we feel and who we want to be might change by the day — ask me about my glam phase sometime. I would literally wear glitter and metallic lipstick everywhere a few years ago, and that was who I was. I wasn’t wearing silver lipstick because I thought I had to (nobody thought I had to), I wore it because I had morphed into somebody who felt good wearing it. Not to mention, it was a statement.
(Full disclosure: it was more or less a statement that I was listening to Manipulator by Ty Segall on repeat, but whatevs.)
And while my make-up isn’t always a statement, I wear it travelling just as much as I wear it at home. I know a lot of people choose to leave the make-up at home when they travel, as they either love high-adventure travel and find it wears off easily, or they just can’t be bothered putting it on every day.
Personally, while I do wear make-up while travelling, my style changes when I’m on the road. I love embracing the coconut-island girl I become, and my make-up changes along with that. My skin gets a glow, the sun bleaches my hair even blonder, and I feel like a very specific version of myself. Maybe I’ll forgo certain aspects of the face paint, for fear it will make me look like a raccoon after a swim or something, but I’ll still stick to a basic routine.
That said, make-up culture is different depending on where you go. People wear a lot more make-up in some countries than in others — hell, in some cities more than others. In some places, a ring of kohl around the eyes is commonplace while in others, even a spec of eyeliner will get you a look (or worse, a comment).
So I refuse to listen to the other travellers who tell me that make-up isn’t important on the road. I refuse to listen to the boys on the subway platform who think natural faces aren’t beautiful. I refuse to listen to the media that tells us we need products to feel good. I’m going to keep wearing my make-up, thank you very much — exactly how and how often I want to.
Through it all, wear what feels good to you — what you feel most like you in. Whether you’re travelling or on the road, you’re the person you have to impress the most every single day, so why not shake off the opinions and just… do what you want?
TL;DR Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you should or shouldn’t be wearing make-up. Wear it (or not) for you, and only you.