In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

I’ve loved makeup for as long as I can remember. I used to sneak into my mother’s makeup bag (something she realized, no doubt), lured by the rosy shades buried in her dresser drawer. And when she sold Avon, though she wore little makeup herself, I waited for her samples like it was my birthday—a feast of one inch tall lipsticks with names to cover every variation of red and pink. In middle school, I used a rare stint of home-alone freedom to literally run to the drug store and buy an eye shadow palette; in my terrible twelve-year-old taste, I chose colors that didn’t suit me, nor did I really know how to apply them. Not to mention the whole not-being-allowed thing.

I even studied makeup in college, choosing to annotate the references to cosmetics in some of Jonathan Swift’s poetry for one of my English class assignments. Think “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”—both of which satirize the process of beautification as grotesque. One line from the former—“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”—stuck with me so that I couldn’t name a child Celia, despite its heavenly appeal and the way the poem teases the lover who presumes a beautiful maiden doesn’t share ordinary human bodily functions. My work on that paper landed me a job for two years as an undergraduate, as a research assistant for The Swift Poems Project. It was a great job for me, and to think it started with makeup.

Today, makeup, the forbidden fruit of my adolescence and the (partial) livelihood of my young adulthood, stands as a bastion of the ordinary in my grown up life. Some of my choices are practical—a moisturizer and foundation with sunscreen that I wear every single day. A bit of blush and mascara to make me feel fresh and vibrant even when I’m not. Putting on my face is part of my morning routine, like brushing my teeth and drinking my cup of tea. When I went into labor with my first child, I spent some of the time waiting around my house doing my hair and makeup. The rhythm of preparation soothed me. I also knew it was utterly ridiculous. It’s not a part of childbirth preparation I particularly recommend, but, hey, I packed my makeup bag for my second child’s birth, too.

As these anecdotes illustrate, I have my own history with makeup. I imagine most women do, whether our experiences are negative, positive, or somewhere in between; whatever our personal feelings about makeup, it’s impossible to deny its influence on expectations of femininity. So I came to Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint: The Story of Makeup with my own impressions and a keen interest to place myself within a larger cultural and historical narrative. Eldridge is a makeup artist, along with being a strong writer and a good storyteller. She weaves together historical, commercial, and aesthetic interpretations of makeup in an impressively accessible story. The book repeats in some sections (my guess is with the intent that many readers will not read cover to cover), but the scope is substantial enough that reminders of key persons and events is almost welcome. Visually, the book is stunning, a beautiful testimony to the artistry that Eldridge invokes with her career and her passion for the subject.

Part of the text’s appeal is the way Eldridge connects past to present, demonstrating our longstanding (and sometimes ambivalent) relationship with makeup. As she says, “If you explore the use of makeup through ancient times, it soon becomes clear that the freedom and rights accorded to women during a given period are very closely linked to the freedom with which they painted their faces.”

She layers that statement with irony on the following page, acknowledging the pattern wherein “courtesans, professional mistresses, and prostitutes [were] afforded more freedom and power than other women (in addition to wearing more makeup)”. Makeup, then, is another reminder that the spheres of femininity, the divisions between the so-called public and the so-called private, are always nebulous, always under negotiation; and the kinds of faces women can present without censure are always contingent upon the context. How we wear makeup is always tied up in what kind of women we’re “supposed” to be. I don’t think that’s changed.

Eldridge discusses the damage of skin-lightening treatments, the cutthroat competition of the makeup moguls, and the technological trajectory of the arena of cosmetics. It’s a fast read that encompasses a huge cross-section of world history, marketing, and technology, and raises its subject matter to a level of significance I didn’t realize was possible when I reached into my makeup bag this morning. She draws out the competing (and repeating) historical controversy between makeup as art and makeup as artifice, or even deceit. Where’s the line between false eyelashes and a false face, more metaphorically speaking? Yet even as she canvasses the history of makeup and its reception, her conclusion is resoundingly optimistic:

Some women wear none, some wear a little, and others apply a full face on the train to work each morning. In many parts of the world, we’ve come a long way. Ultimately, nothing empowers a woman more than the right to a good education, and the freedom to choose whether to wear a red lip and smoky eye…or not.

As much as I like the sentiment here, I wish it were so simple, and I feel like a complex examination of makeup loses its way a little at the end with excessive confidence. The “makeup tax” concept comes to mind for me immediately, with the idea Olga Khazan writes about in The Atlantic that “Makeup, in short, is a norm, and nothing ruins a first impression like a norm violation. Some women contend they only wear makeup to ‘boost their confidence,’ but the reason they feel less confident when they don’t wear it is that there’s an expectation they will.” I’ve certainly been told I look “tired” when I’m wearing little to no makeup, thus reinforcing the sense that I ought to wear it, regardless of my own preferences. There’s also still the expectation that women should pay for a “natural” makeup look that stretches the definition of natural.

I love makeup and I loved reading Eldridge’s book. It reinforces for me the ideas of creativity, of play, the joy of makeup that drew me to those rainbow hues and tiny brushes in the first place. There is a spirit of joy about this text that makes me appreciate my makeup (and those who make it) more than ever. I can reconcile my God-given beauty with the pleasure of art more easily because of Eldridge’s book, and that helps me to disentangle the alleged-falsity of makeup from any potential spiritual misgivings. Am I wearing makeup to hide my features or to delight in them? Am I proclaiming myself as fearfully and wonderfully made (up), or am I making myself a false idol? Isn’t it always the heart that matters? I think so. Eldridge’s book, what it offers and what it ignores, reinforces the connections between beauty cultures and capitalism; as much as her work is artistry, it’s still artwork that demands (and rightly so) compensation, though I think it’s wisest if we consider the whole contexts of its costs.

1 Comment

  1. I am an elementary school nurse and have an evening with fourth grade girls and their moms every spring where we talk about maturation, self and body image, and their uniqueness. I liked especially the question of am I fearfully and wonderfully made or am I making an idol. Great question and good for discussion. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

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