There are a lot of things I see framed as choice, when they’re really about maintaining the illusions of free will, of not giving a fuck, or of resisting the dominant paradigm. I want to see my actions as autonomous, as a source of strength. But I’m coming up against the constraints of one so-called choice, and it’s a huge and tiny internal war, one that also shows quite plainly on my face.
When I discovered femme identity, I found a gender and aesthetic that felt like home. There was strength and softness there, and the recognition of beauty rituals for self-care.
Queer femininity taught me to uproot hidden strains of misogyny that lurked and lingered in myself and others, craftily masking themselves as authenticity, self-acceptance, or concerns for health. I could be pretty and tough and feminine, and none of these elements contradicted each other.
I never felt like I had to wear makeup. I enjoyed it. I’d go out without it sometimes, but more often than not I felt better with it. It was my femme armour and I wore it with pride.
Then this weird thing started happening on my face. It was a kind of acne or infection or I don’t-know-what. It hurt and itched, and it was always red and spotty. I’d never had perfectly clear skin, but I’d never been as blighted as this before in my life.
I tried maintenance and treatment: A different face wash, aloe vera, tea tree oil, and then concealer and some powder.
I soon realized that the spotty thing got a bit better when I was home all day, makeup free. The decision seemed simple, and an obvious tradeoff: take a break from wearing makeup, and let the spotty thing clear up. But I pouted. I insisted that I wanted to wear the makeup, it was my choice, and by my politics, my right.
Eventually discomfort won over. I committed to taking a break, just until the spotty thing went down, then I’d re-introduce bits of the makeup routine.
But the spotty thing would not go down. Just when I thought the last spot was healing, poof, another one appeared and brought its friends. And every morning I woke up to the same awful conclusion: My self-acceptance was bullshit. I hate my face.
It didn’t matter if I was in a good mood, if life or relationships are going well, if I was otherwise healthy, or felt secure in my strengths and successes. Every day, when I saw my reflection in the mirror, it was the same Face Hate voice. This sucks. There is no way you or anyone else could see this as pretty.
If I stay on that train, it hits all of the obvious points of self-deprecation, true or not. No one will love me like this. Anyone who says I’m pretty or even beautiful are clearly lying (and maybe they’re not, but they still say what’s going on with your face? No one loves the spotty thing.) The Face Hate voice is highly unoriginal, repetitive, and cruel.
I tried to embrace the face. I’d take a selfie and stare at my own mug, willing myself to find something to appreciate. That used to work in other periods of self-deprecation, but it was more like a pat on the head than a shift in vision. I stared and stared and saw nothing.
I tried to reason with the hate I have for my face, but it won’t budge.
Dear Face Hate: Don’t you know that aesthetics aren’t the most important thing about this human being? Why don’t you back off and consider all her other good qualities. Nope, it says. You’re cool and all but your face still sucks.
Dear Face Hate: Didn’t the gods of the spotty thing get that no-makeup sacrifice I made? I thought we had a deal here. Nope, it says. Spotty thing is gonna stick around, and so am I.
Dear Face Hate: You’re boring. Why are we doing this everyday? I don’t NEED to be pretty. And it laughs and laughs and laughs. It doesn’t need to say anything, because it knows that if I truly believed that, it wouldn’t be here. I have a choice, right? I can always pick up the brush, and apply pretty if I want it that bad. Do I?
I know that I have the privilege of choosing to wear makeup or not – none of my jobs require me to (overtly or not), so I can stick with this stubborn, uncomfortable experiment. But as much as it sucks, I’m learning that despite my femme politics, I’m so much more affected by heteronormative patriarchal standards of beauty than I’d ever want to admit.
The voice of the face hate sounds like mine, but it’s not. I didn’t put it there, but I also thought myself immune to it, and never noticed its insidious entrance until now.
I’ve come to treat it kind of like running the gauntlet. Get up, shower, brush teeth, then there’s the mirror and the tired refrain. Yeah ok, what’s new? Still hate the face. What’s next? Then I move on to breakfast.
Breakfast used to get quickly passed over in the morning chaos. But an unexpected benefit of skipping makeup is extra time for a tasty meal, and a little bit more room for groceries too.
I wish I could close with redemption, with some positive message about self-compassion, about accepting yourself, even about breakfast. I could post a token photo, bare all and invite reassurances, stand face-naked in all of my vulnerability and hope for absolution. But I know it’s not that simple. There’s no quick fix.
If there’s anything I can accept, it’s that love – for self and others – is turbulent and not always kind, it’s the imperfect state of progress and the slow nature of change. Something will shift, eventually, but for now it’s still spotty.
I’ve rarely worn make-up, but it wasn’t out of some kind of proud defiance of norms. Instead, I just never learned how to apply it and felt like a fake putting any on. My face hate taunts me with “Make-up won’t fix the problem so why bother?”
Yours is a jerk too! I’m thinking these voices have a lot in common.
I’ve struggled with spotty skin my whole life – and I’m almost 40! I always thought it would get better – ok, it did, slightly – but it’s still there, makeup or no makeup. The thing is I’m not sure it’s as bad or as obvious as my voice tells me it is. At this point, I do what you do – try to bore it out of itself and move on quickly. Here’s too good breakfasts, though?
Good breakfasts feel so good! I know it’s probably not as obvious as I see it is, so it goes with all the “flaws” we focus on, our own vision of ourselves. But hey. Breakfast. Yeah, that’s nice.
I don’t often wear make-up (largely because I used to wear LOTS of it through my childhood because of stage performances for dance), but I completely get your face-hate. Have you heard the Sweet Honey in the Rock song “No Mirrors in my Nana’s House”? Your essay brought that song so vividly to mind. Such a thoughtful, deep, poignant essay.