Makeup-free experiment goes more than skin-deep

Annie Garau, a Herald-Leader intern and an Indiana University student, has been makeup-free since Jan. 1.
Annie Garau, a Herald-Leader intern and an Indiana University student, has been makeup-free since Jan. 1.

Like most women in this country, I don't consider myself beautiful.

I, like many other women, have looked in the mirror and hurled mental insults at what I saw: love handles; weird nose; pale, squinty eyes; thin lips.

Makeup helped.

With my trusty concealer, I could mask any blemish. Eye-liner, mascara and eye shadow downplayed the squinty-ness. A touch of bronzer and blush made my pale winter skin look less like that of a corpse. Add a bit of lip-liner, lipstick and lip gloss, and bam! I had visible lips.

As my makeup collection grew and my self-esteem continued to shrink, I wondered: Did the makeup help?

It might seem a trivial debate: To bronze or not to bronze? But I began to think that makeup was just a small piece of a much larger problem in our society.

When 90 percent of women report feeling unhappy with their appearance, a study commissioned by Dove said, and less than 19 percent of our representatives in Congress are female, you have to wonder if there's a connection.

Makeup is only part of today's beauty culture, but it is especially relevant because it is used almost exclusively by women.

I decided to conduct an experiment.

I allowed myself one more glamorous, long-lashed, red-lipped night out for New Year's Eve. Then, beginning Jan. 1, I put away my bag of cosmetics for a year.

Saturday was day 200, and it has been an interesting seven months.

A whole year?

My friends sometimes asked me if I really had to go clean-faced for a whole year. As I sat on a bed watching a row of girls purse their lips, stretch their eyelids and blot their chins under the harsh lights of a giant mirror, it was hard not to feel weird or left out. They told me that I could wear it for a few nights out and no one would notice. At least I could put on some cover-up to hide that awful zit.

I was often tempted to quit. As a 20-year-old college student at Indiana University, I spent many weekends at fraternity parties surrounded by intimidatingly beautiful young women. My friends were right that no one would really know if I cheated. Even if they did, they probably wouldn't care.

I felt uncomfortable, undesirable and embarrassed when we went to these parties or when I saw myself in photos. I felt as if people were treating me differently, and according to research I read about in Nancy Etcoff's book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (Anchor Books), I might have been right.

Studies have found that people can look at a face for only 150 milliseconds and rate its beauty. Conventionally attractive children typically get better grades in school (although their advantage disappeared on standardized tests). Even babies have been shown to stare at beautiful faces longer than at less good-looking ones.

Fewer guys talked to me at these parties, and when they did, the short-lived conversations felt awkward. I was less outgoing when meeting new people, and I didn't like to dance or draw attention to myself. I started leaving earlier, eventually avoiding large fraternity parties altogether.

I found that most guys thought that they preferred women without makeup, but subconsciously, they were attracted to those who had used makeup in a subtle way.

They enjoyed the idea that a woman was naturally beautiful, but they didn't realize the extent to which makeup enhanced that beauty.

Femininity 'is our power'

As the days went by, I didn't exactly become happier with my appearance, but I did spend less time thinking about it.

Margaret McGladery, the assistant dean for research at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, said the time and energy women spend on their appearances can be a waste of potential.

"I've seen so many of my friends and coworkers, brilliant women, spend so much of their lives and time and money maintaining this ideal," she said. "When we're using these beauty practices, we're essentially draining women's ability to fully participate in political, work and social life. It's a brain drain for girls who are distracted from things that might be more fulfilling."

Don't misunderstand; McGladery loves makeup. She also is a fashion enthusiast who has had a Vogue subscription since age 11. What she doesn't love is when women feel overly stressed about their appearance or think they have to wear makeup or conform to society's idea of beauty to be accepted.

"Our femininity is our first right. It is our power, it is our treasure, and we have the right to employ it however we see fit," she said. "Beauty practices are important to modern feminism because they do provide us with a vehicle for a full range of self-expression.

"As long as we don't feel that we have to embody these beauty practices to feel valuable in this world, then they can be empowering."

The 'need' for makeup

I've described my experiment to many young women. Almost all of them liked the idea of not wearing makeup, but they were unwilling to try it, even just for a weekend.

They allowed me to take their pictures with no makeup on and post them on my blog, but they refused to believe that the photos were beautiful, and many immediately reapplied mascara when we were done.

They would say things like:

"Your skin is perfect; you can go without makeup. I'm so blotchy, I never could."

"At least your eyelashes are visible. I need mascara so people even know mine are there."

"I feel 100 times more beautiful in my makeup."

Discussing things you don't like about yourself is always a good conversation-starter in a group of girls. Each girl tries to top the other. Throbbing zit beats frizzy hair which beats too small of a thigh gap.

If you're dealing with a horribly bad haircut or spray tan gone wrong, congrats! You might win.

My friend Carly Ball described why she felt the need to wear makeup.

"I use it to feel good about myself. When I don't wear makeup, it feels like everyone has an unfair advantage over me. It's like a competition to be the most beautiful, and without makeup, you can't win."

The beauty effect

The reason life might sometimes feel like a beauty competition is because life can be a beauty competition.

According to Daniel Hamermesh's book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful (Princeton University Press), attractive people earn an average of three percent to four percent more than people with less likable looks. They also get promoted more quickly and are more likely to get married or bring in more money for their companies.

"Women are especially harsh on each other's appearances," McGladery said. "They are often unhappy about other women's successes or beauty because they perceive one woman's gain to be their loss."

Then there are the beauty pageants. The University of Kentucky alone hosts five of them.

Karen Tice, a professor at UK who works in the department of gender and women's studies, has spent a lot of time researching these pageants and has spoken on the reality show Toddlers and Tiaras.

"Universities still post pictures of pageant winners on their websites, and it makes me choke a little bit," Tice said. "The message is, 'Look! This student won a beauty pageant. Isn't she special?' A competition that awards appearances is highly problematic."

"We live in a makeover culture where we're always responsible for improving ourselves," she said. "That's such a heavy burden that mostly women share. And the images of what we see as beauty exclude so many people."

Applying perspective

I am not against makeup, but I am against the feeling that I have to change my face to feel good about myself. If you think you couldn't possibly try my experiment, then it would probably be a good experience for you too, even if just for a week.

I still don't exactly see myself as beautiful, but I care a whole lot less.

I've saved time, money and energy that I might otherwise have spent fixing superficial flaws.

I've learned that some people do treat me differently, but the people who matter don't. I've also learned that I overemphasized how much thought other people gave to my appearance.

I've started relying more on my other assets. Working on kindness, humor and positivity has helped me change in meaningful ways.

I still haven't decided if or how I'll use makeup in 2015, but I will always enjoy the feeling of being the only girl in the room who can honestly sing Beyoncé's famous lyric, "I woke up like this."