Facing the difficulties of going ‘au naturel’

Eleanor Birdsall-Smith examines the fascination with 'natural beauty' and its destructive effects

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Recently, Alicia Keys has been braving the world with a bare face, choosing to wear only minimal or no makeup for all her public appearances, including her recent Grammy show and interview with Jimmy Fallon. All instances of this, thus far, have received an inevitable, yet nevertheless extreme backlash. The comments ranged in their criticisms from a simple aversion to her appearance, right up to discussions surrounding a women’s duty to wear makeup, which ties in with other recent controversies on issues like the requirement for heels in the workplace.

It goes without saying that women should not be forced, or even expected to paint their faces in a way that suits the supposed requirements of society. However, these issues throw light on problems that lie on the other side of the argument. While (as recent events demonstrate) to not put your best face forward, so to speak, is taboo, there is an equally unhealthy obsession with ‘natural beauty’. Of course, everyone wants to be beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with going au naturel, but the desperate need to look as if no effort has been put into our appearance has become yet another cage that women are trapped within. These desires both feed into and are fuelled by unrealistic societal expectations, which have recently been manifesting themselves in popular internet memes like ‘this is why you take her swimming on the first date’, and it needs to stop.

There were so many trials and tribulations that I experienced during my tween-teen years, which I struggled through in isolation, but since talking to friends about it, I have realised I was in fact just one of many. One factor that most surprised me was the fervent desire to conceal any use of makeup. “Ooh are you wearing mascara today?” a friend might ask, to which the hasty reply might range from an outright no, to stories of having tried things out last night and forgetting to wash it off. I distinctly remember coating my face with a Benefit highlight and bronzer block, (without any kind of skill or blending, I might add) but when I was asked if I had contoured, I point blank denied it, getting preposterously stroppy about such a ridiculous assertion, while the powder pink glitter gleamed on my cheeks.

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We see this type of behaviour throughout, with common expressions like, “Oh I just rolled out of bed,” or “I just threw it on.” The severely problematic film The Ugly Truth even has Katherine Heigl in a perfect bodycon black cocktail dress utter the phrase, “Oh, I was just doing the dishes,” in a bid to come across as most desirable to the needs of man.

Herein lies the issue, for why are we so terrified of the embarrassment or ridicule received when looking as if we have tried, if we are fit to receive the same treatment upon actually not trying and showing a true face without makeup?

This is not an issue necessarily exclusive to the fashion industry. It is just as common for people to pretend that they haven’t studied in order to appear fundamentally more intelligent, while also fending off ‘nerd’ stereotypes. Yet, it is exclusively within the world of fashion and beauty that these issues predominantly harm women. It plays into the age-old stereotypes of the vain blonde with no brain and the unkempt shrew, and it just further narrows the microscopic space in between these two sides, which is apparently where women are permitted to function.

It shouldn’t be a revolutionary statement at this stage to say that women need to be permitted to look and do as they please, putting in as much or little effort as they see fit at any given moment. Yet apparently this is something that still needs to be actively fought.

It is, however, sadly unrealistic to expect the magazines and society to stop holding us to these standards. What we can do is give ourselves and each other a break. The shame surrounding ‘trying’ needs to be fiercely broken down, and that means more honesty.

If it makes it easier, channel Alicia Key’s approach, who, upon Adam Levine’s enquiries as to why she was wearing makeup (after her previous stance against it), replied “I do what the fuck I want”.