Beauty is only skin deep, or so the saying goes, yet most of us plaster our skin daily with a not inconsiderable layer of reconstituted pig fat, or whatever makeup is made of, to ensure we reach maximum depth. On average, we’ll spend up to £9000 and roughly 240 days on it. Dolly Parton had it right when she remarked how much it really cost ‘to look this cheap’. Far from a modern invention, make-up, like prostitution, has been around forever. From ancient Egyptian kohled eyes to Elizabethan leaden faces, women have never really embraced ‘au naturel’ in the way they perhaps should, and though we laud ‘fresh-faced’ girls, these fresh faces are rarely entirely fresh. Indeed, Calvin Klein once said that ‘the best thing is to look natural’ only to add plaintively that ‘it takes make-up to look natural’. One can’t help but wonder, moreover, why make-up is a purely feminine phenomenon; why can’t you find foundation in the already embarrassingly metrosexual men’s aisle in Boots? Should we take up the feminist face-wipe and cleanse ourselves of this social blight?
There are several reasons why I decided to take up the challenge of a week without make-up. Facing finals and an addiction to the Bridge, I thought it would be one way to encourage hibernation whilst simultaneously rediscovering my inner beauty. But perhaps I did it to prove Schopenhauer wrong, to show the world that it is not inherent in women ‘to regard everything simply as a means of capturing a man’. Perhaps I even thought the project would be enlightening: it’s not that I actually cake my face in foundation – in fact I pride myself on caging the inner WAG – but I rarely, if ever, leave the house with none on whatsoever. It was therefore not without trepidation that I entered into this task.
The bustling social scene that is the Oxford library network suddenly became a somewhat terrifying prospect. Could I be seen in the Rad Cam without facial embellishment? What if that mysterious and brooding 4th year philosopher from Magdalen were there? Swoon. Sure, we’d exchanged a few lingering glances at the library checkout desk, but he certainly wouldn’t feel the same visceral reaction if my fluttering eyelashes weren’t caked in mascara, would he?
Having moisturized my skin to within an inch of its own suffocation, polished my nails to perfection and blow dried my hair for the first time in about 2 years, I set off bright and early last Tuesday morning. With all my good intentions of a productive day in the Bod, once I actually neared the cobbles of Catte Street, I quickened my step and ended up facing the glass doors of the RSL. I knew that here I was safe, for in the eyes of my fellow mathematicians, my obvious natural beauty could never parallel that of Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of the primes, with or without makeup.
Aside from being forced to confront myself in the toilet mirrors, encounters which I kept as brief as possible, by the end of the day I had completely forgotten about my nakedness, but this lasted only as long as my social seclusion. On Tuesday night, in contrast to my day, I did brave the more humanities inclined student body at the finale of Antigone. Thank god for experimental student drama and its requisite low light levels. That said, my confidence in the dark faltered at the after party, and I lasted a mere 20 minutes before fleeing to the backstreets of Cowley and the anonymity of being among the Brookes crowd (around whom it’s normal to feel make-up deficient).
Wednesdays usually require a touch more lipstick than average, as at precisely 5 minutes past 2, my silver fox of a lecturer begins, in his husky Dutch tones, to educate me in the continuing presence of Kantian themes in subsequent continental philosophy. Swoon. (I am constantly swooning, which is sometimes problematic). Today, however, I didn’t sit in the front row, nor did I venture to ask a question. Even in spite of my conscious show of cleavage I retreated to the very back of the lecture hall, conveniently placing myself next to the fire escape lest an unsuspecting fellow philosopher should turn around to pass me a handout.
By Thursday, I had no choice but to put most of my fears to one side, and boldly decided to go where many have gone before: the Bodleain Lower Reading Room. Given my designs for a post-grad boyfriend, with requisite facial hair, that hark back to my days as a fresher, this was a more daunting prospect then it may at first seem. One unexpected effect was that in ensuring my face was kept hidden from public view, most easily done by keeping my head in my books, I soon actually found this purely narcissistic activity translating into genuine concentration and much more time efficient working. Apparently the time usurped by cosmetics is more far-reaching then one could ever imagine.
Thursday night and another outing, this time for my DJ-ing debut at Supermarket. After my crowd pleasing set – the 10pm slot meant I was truly grateful to my three supportive friends loyally busting their moves in the almost entirely empty downstairs of Babylove – I went to socialize with the steadily growing mass above. Ignoring my internal insecurities, I soon realized that actually, no one cared or even noticed. Well, that lasted until an unnamed Cherwell type shouted across the crowd, ‘she’s not wearing any make up!’,and those around me promptly began to console me with lots of ‘you really don’t look any different’, and ‘no, I don’t believe it’. It seems that for all our apparent intelligence, no-one really gets lying. Either that or I too am totally self-involved, and cannot fathom how people wouldn’t see, even on being explicitly told, that I looked entirely different to usual.
Friday, and I felt already well-versed in presenting myself in a natural light – it’s all about the floral patterns and bright colours. Time to enter the intimidation and imminent insecurity of the Rad Cam. Already excited at the prospect of not having to worry about my far too visible vaso-dialation – rosy cheeks aren’t quite as endearing when you can’t control the rosyness levels. However, after three days of obvious vulnerability, it seems my pinnacle of makeupless insecurity was less a culmination of self-esteem and personal acceptance and more a realization that quite honestly, no one gives a shit.
So, by the end of my week, had I shed my image-conscious outer layer to discover the magnificence within, or had ‘the natural look’ exponentially increased the time I took choosing what to wear? Shamefully, the latter is closer to the truth. However, I did learn that confidence cannot be applied to the face, however deftly it may be done, but equally, feeling attractive certainly does help. The day after I got back on the makeup bandwagon, my renewed sense of self-worth prompted a few friends to mention how nice I looked (I’d rather choose my self-assurance then my tinted moisturizer as the reason). And my Tuesday library outing to the Taylorian, may or may not have resulted in a propositioning from Philip the devilishly attractive cleaner.
Is Schopenhauer right then? Does our love of make-up stem from our need to reproduce and our inability to do so naturally? Or as the man who believes that ‘only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short legged sex the fair sex’ shall we take his view with a pinch of salt and claim make-up is worn because we’re worth it? No, I’m sorry, but it was not the lonely nights, watching iplayer in bed, that made going cold turkey so hard. We wear make-up to be attractive, to be able to compete – it’s ‘the other woman’ who propels us to further our chance for survival.
But does that mean, as the feminists would have it, we are crippled by our need for make up, and that men condition us to feel inadequate and exposed without it? No. We all want perfection and shall continue to strive for it. Indeed, on explaining to a cosmetics-obsessed housemate that Simone de Beauvoir saw make-up as a chauvinist tool of oppression with which women are forced to conceal the degradations of their female flesh, she replied simply – ‘I reckon she just hadn’t found the right mascara’. I have promised this second-year Wadham linguist that she shall remain anonymous.
Surely in the same way as I’ve seen a Godard film and read Nietzsche – isn’t it all just a self-conscious attempt to appear interesting to others, better ourselves and get the most from life? Am I not allowed to want those sleazy men, Hugh Grant included apparently, to buy me drinks at Wahoo on a Friday? However, even though I’m not so obtuse as to say girls have make-up and boys have the gym, there is some contrast between the falsity of an attractive girl and the rugged reality of an attractive boy. Therefore is there some truth in make-up as concealment – is our charm our covering? Then again, have you not seen the hoards of teeth-chattering semi-naked girls on Cornmarket or what we wear to Park End?
Girls have no problem exposing themselves, much to the dismay of my mother, and the feminists should let off. I’m not going to solve the gender war with 1500 words and a week without bronzer. But all I do know is girls want to be pretty and girls want to have fun, and the two are intertwined. Plus soon, I’ll shed my youthful beauty – which just necessitates a touch of rouge – and have to resort to numerous nips and tucks. So let me have my girlish fun, whether with or without make-up.