Hello, dear internet friends,
Last month, I reflected on how powerful our actions can be in shifting our moods, and how I’ve come to think the same approach can be applied to any negative self-beliefs we may hold. For me, that has meant challenging my (too high) standards of productivity by choosing rest. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how a similar strategy could be used to improve one’s body image or relationship to their appearance.
I would like to devote more space on this site to body image, because I understand how impactful it can be on someone’s day-to-day life when they’re deep in struggle with it. I wouldn’t be a writer without having been there myself! But when I’m selecting my monthly topic, body image doesn’t often jump to mind, in part because it’s not as personally pressing for me as it used to be. That’s not to say I’m perfectly “healed” or never have negative thoughts or feelings about my appearance, but they don’t swallow me whole like they used to. I prioritize existing in my body and taking care of it, instead of judging or “fixing” how it looks on the outside.
Over many years, I have totally transformed my life in that regard. But how did I do it? By changing my behavior. By making new choices, over and over again, until they became habits—ways of life that positively impact me on a daily basis, with little conscious effort on my part.
A few years ago, I made a decision that was relatively small in the scheme of body-image-related changes I’ve made, but ultimately very impactful. I decided to stop wearing foundation on a regular basis. Well, not just foundation—makeup in general. Oddly enough, this decision came not long after having decided to become the type of person with a “daily makeup routine.” I had assembled a little cosmetics kit with all the “must-haves” I’d learned about from beauty YouTubers: foundation, of course, but also primer, blush, highlighter, mascara… the works. And I planned to layer it all on my face. Every single day. Even when I was just going to work with the same small group of people I saw every weekday, who had all seen me without makeup an uncountable number of times.
But why? I couldn’t tell you. When I look back at middle and high school, my motivations for changing my appearance are very obvious. I thought being capital-P Popular would make me happy, and I believed I needed to look a certain way to be Popular. But I didn’t have any similar motivations when I set out to put on a full face of makeup every day. I got on well with my coworkers. I was in a relatively new relationship, but I already knew that I did not have to look or be any particular way to impress my boyfriend. I was in the midst of a transition—stepping into a new role at work and reorienting my life around my writing goals—and I think the unsettling, unsatisfying truth is that beauty culture had so ingrained itself in my brain that I believed that new chapter in my life would be even better if I went through it with a painted face.
Of course, I was wrong. I quickly realized that all I got from regularly wearing makeup was a growing dissatisfaction with how my face looked without it. So I stopped. I knew I had to.
Now, when I say this happened a few years ago, I’m talking about pre-pandemic 2020. My decision to stop wearing makeup quickly became the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t spend much time evaluating my choice or what I hoped to get from it, other than feeling less bad about my actual face. Had I looked deeper and been honest with myself, I would have seen that the impulse to see beauty (in its culturally sanctioned, narrowly defined form) in the mirror was still there. A quick look into my Ulta account confirms this; in September 2020, I purchased a rather comprehensive (and expensive) skincare routine. Who needs makeup when you have *flawless* skin, am I right?
No, that’s not right. But the fact that I can both recognize that beauty-culture logic in my own thinking and choose to act differently shows how far I’ve come in the last three years. I don’t have it all figured out. I still hear some self-criticism over my not-so-“perfect” skin when I look in the mirror. But I am also choosing every day to act from a place of self-acceptance—mostly not covering my skin, and not spending excessive time and money trying to “fix” what isn’t broken. Taking this moment to sit back and let that sink in… I am really proud of myself for that.
I said I’ve “mostly” stopped using foundation, because I got my makeup professionally done for a major event last year and will do so once again this year. I haven’t decided if those choices are contradictory to my beliefs or not that big a deal (probably both). And I haven’t rejected all kinds of makeup. After writing this piece last year about the Jackson Pollock manicure, I bought myself some just-for-fun makeup. Eyeliner with these very fun stamps in the shapes of butterflies, hearts, and smiley faces, as well a variety of glittery products. I’m still experimenting with them and how they make me feel. By no means do I think we need to fully reject the fact that we have physical forms that we can present to world however we choose. But it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of making choices that don’t really serve us, that are based in a value system we wouldn’t subscribe to if we felt empowered enough to challenge it.
I understand that in the face of a multibillion-dollar industry, my decisions about makeup may seem tiny, but I also believe that we often underestimate our sphere of influence. You never know who in your orbit may be inspired or even subconsciously influenced by the actions you take. I hope that you can find the power to explore what choices are best for you, but I also want you to take to heart the potential your choices have for being a ripple of good in this world.
It can be hard to go against the grain. I find it easier to do when I realize I’m not just doing it for me, but for all of us.