My boyfriend and I are getting ready to go out to dinner. Let me re-phrase that: I’m at the bathroom sink getting ready, and he’s leaning against the bathtub watching me put on my makeup. We’re talking and laughing, when I realize that I’ve been gesticulating with my concealer, rather than putting it on my face, for several minutes now. I go to put it on, and then pause, glancing at his reflection in the mirror. I’m hesitating. For no good reason, I know I won’t feel comfortable putting on my concealer while he’s in the room. He’s not meant to see this. “Are you sure you want to see how the magic happens?” I joke. “Wouldn’t you rather just imagine that I look that this good without even trying?”
In that moment, I understand what it means when sociologists say that gender is performed. More specifically, I understand just what it means to perform the role of “naturally, effortlessly beautiful woman.” Putting on concealer in front of my boyfriend would have been like a ballerina allowing the audience to see that dancing en pointe was hurting her toes. It would be like an actor forgetting his lines and turning into the wings to ask for a prompt. It would shatter the illusion that what the audience sees on stage is effortless and real. In theatrical terms, by letting my boyfriend watch me apply my makeup, I was essentially breaking character, and revealing that the role of “naturally, effortlessly beautiful woman” is just that – a role.
It seems silly to hesitate the way I did, and as these thoughts crossed my mind, I told my boyfriend about them. As we talked about it, I put on my concealer, wondering aloud why I felt so damn uncomfortable doing it in front of him. After all, he doesn’t love me for my even, Revlon-assisted skin or my long, Rimmel-assisted lashes. We both acknowledge that I actually look quite nice without makeup on. It might seem silly to feel uncomfortable “breaking character” in front of a significant other, but it’s also deeply socialized. Women are held to an impossible ideal of natural beauty. And while we’re constantly told that no one is too beautiful to go without makeup – even Scarlett Johanssen, Jessica Alba and the other gorgeous women who serve as spokes-models need to use it, right? – we’re also told that by using artificial means, we can at least achieve the appearance of natural beauty. Nowhere is the idea of beauty as seemingly-effortless performance more apparent than in the trend of “natural look” makeup.
I’ve written before about the perverse concept of “natural look” makeup, and about the irony of spending an hour in front of the mirror applying “barely there” foundation and “nude lipstick,” all to achieve the appearance of having expended little or no time on one’s appearance at. The preponderance of makeup brands promising foundation that makes your skin look “naturally flawless” that “blends perfectly, so the world doesn’t see makeup, just the look of great skin,” as Cover Girl puts it, make it even more evident that beauty is a performance. And like any performance, it’s supposed to look effortless: The world doesn’t see your aching toes, just the look of a ballerina floating across the stage. Allowing the audience to see what goes on in rehearsals or in the wings reminds them that what they see on stage isn’t effortless, but the product of years of training and months of rehearsal, with help from costumes, sets and lighting.
In the case of makeup, training and rehearsal are replaced by women’s investment of a good deal of time and energy, not to mention money, in their appearance. But it also means hiding that investment from people, often from the very people we’re meant to be attracting with our physical beauty. The fact that these people are often allowed to see us naked before they’re allowed to see us without makeup on says something about how committed we are to the performance of effortless natural beauty. There’s nothing more natural than nudity. And there’s nothing less natural than applying an extra coat of mascara before bed, as one of my friends in college did, so that she’d wake up looking like the same long-lashed beauty her boyfriend had gone to bed with the night before.
Then of course, there’s the fact that when it comes to visibly expending time and energy on one’s appearance, women walk a very fine line. To spend too much is to try too hard, and care too much, to admit that one is not naturally beautiful. To spend too little is to violate another rule of womanhood: Women are supposed to care about how they look, and are supposed to “take care of themselves” accordingly. Maybelline, for example, simultaneously instructs women on how to create a natural look, while also calling a woman’s face her “masterpiece.”
If makeup advertising is anything to go by, the way to walk that line is to make the investment, but to hide it by wearing makeup that “blends perfectly, so the world doesn’t see makeup, just the look of great skin.” The solution, apparently, is to hide that fact that our performance is a performance at all. Even from the people who get to see us naked. Even from the people who, because they love us, think we’re beautiful without even trying.