The Paradox of Pretty

I feel guilty about wearing makeup to teach yoga. I am trying to convince people to focus on their inner landscape for an hour, but there I am before class carefully pruning my outer one.

If you were to ask me why I do it, here is what I would tell you: a part of communication is facial expression, and when I am teaching, I need all the tools I can get. So, like an opera singer, or a kabuki performer, I’m defining my features for the back row.

But sometimes I wonder if under that explanation lies a deeper, older reason: that I just don’t feel pretty enough without it.

I briefly dated someone in my early twenties who criticized my habit of not leaving the house without wearing makeup. What was even more irritating than the criticism was his conviction that his rejection of makeup made him a “better feminist” than me. This only made me less willing to leave the house without it. My eyeliner became the emblem of my dissent.

 “Pretty” is such a loaded word, and such a double edged sword. It seems there are two options for a female: a life lived in its service (see also: Toddlers and Tiaras, TLC Network) or a life trying to get beyond it. From the cradle, we are indoctrinated that pretty is the currency of our worth. Once we enter the realm of critical-thinking adulthood, it is implied we are being petty and narcissistic to still care. With pretty, you just can’t win.

I have a friend who is certifiably pretty by any objective standard. People, there is just no bad angle. Surprisingly, she often doesn’t feel that way. At the very least, she has an uneasy relationship with her prettiness, as though she lives at a distance from it. When you tell her she is pretty, there is an unsettling sense that both of you are talking about someone in the next room.

Who's the prettiest yoga teacher? Don't answer that!

One night, this friend picked me up for a party. She had on a colorful, swirly shirt and full makeup – which she wears less often than I do. But it wasn’t just her face that sparkled. When I remarked how nice she looked, she accepted the compliment with uncharacteristic gusto. “I know,” she smiled. “I almost called you when I was putting on makeup to warn you that I’m looking good tonight.”

Did my friend subjugate her authenticity to fit a cultural standard of beauty?  Or, did a wand of eye shadow tap into the magic of a ritual women have been performing forever, whether with henna or kohl or lip gloss, to remember and recognize their own loveliness?  How do we reclaim “pretty?” Or is it beyond salvaging, too belittling, too far gone to be worth anything at all?

I have been going days without makeup lately, and feeling prettier. I’ve even taught class au naturel. Unusually, people have been remarking on my appearance, commenting on a “bloom” I have about me. If there is anything useful left in the word pretty, it is connected with this bloom. There is a freshness about the word, something graceful, if only we could divorce it from its sad, awkward history. Someone who is in touch with what is quick and alive in themselves is pretty, and it seems ugly not to say so.


About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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14 Responses to The Paradox of Pretty

  1. Ryan says:

    Re: “What was even more irritating than the criticism was his conviction that his rejection of makeup made him a “better feminist” than me.” This guy clearly needs to a lesson in male privilege. There is much less at stake in a someone with a male gender identity “rejecting” make up than one with a female gender identity. And this isn’t even getting into butch/femme dynamics.

    Re: the rest of this very thought provoking post… My uncle, who has done more than his fair share of drag, is actually a huge advocate of make-up for both genders. He “confesses” to wearing make up every day, even though most days you would never even know it’s there. The key is, as is key with everything, his intention. He wears eye liner to his consulting gigs because it brings out his eyes, which means that he can communicate with authenticity better. It’s a tool to help him step into what he’s trying to do. Maybe it’s like a yoga teacher and props. Using them doesn’t have to mean being lazy or only half doing a pose; it can be a tool that often helps you inhabit a post most fully. If those tools are used with intention, with mindfulness. And, conversely, there is a place for not using tools, if not using them is done with intention and with mindfulness. Back to make up–in the highly gendered world we live in, we miss a lot of opportunity for intention and mindfulness when we tell men “Thou shalt not” and women “Thou must”. These kinds of limits and dicta shut us down and close us off.

  2. Lorin says:

    I agree with Ryan, though I also understand being torn (a lot). I have an uneasy relationship with makeup. I love the artistry of it and I enjoy “playing” with makeup when I have the time. I dislike when I feel that it is something I have to do or that I’m not acceptable without it, and I dislike the time it takes when I’m in a hurry. I think, as a yoga teacher, if wearing makeup makes you feel that you can stop worrying about your appearance because you look fine, or makes you feel more powerful, in charge, or able to communicate, then go for it!

  3. blogasana says:

    reminds me of this amazing piece by katie makkai:
    and what i love about this post is that while “pretty” is not what we want defining us, we can be brilliant, gifted, kind, loving… AND pretty. pretty is not the evil.
    you bloom. xo

  4. Kara says:

    Very interesting piece that sparked some thoughts…

    My roommate was putting on her full face of makeup the other day before going to the gym and I asked her why. She responded, “Even though you’re working out, it’s a public place. There are cute guys there. People see you!” The chime in her voice was sweet and earnest, but the answer gave me pause. I knew I was guilty of putting on a bit of eyeliner and mascara before yoga or the gym because I like how it makes me look — awake, my eyes stand out! But I do that for me (it honestly makes me feel more awake), not because I care who’s staring at me in the mirror. So I feel like it’s the motive for wearing makeup that matters. Is it for you or some cultural standard of pretty that you’re trying to please?

    Please share thoughts!

  5. scthree says:

    great post. we should divorce pretty from its awkward history and make it about the inner and the outer. i also agree that the bloom from within is what makes one the prettiest!

    I think being a feminist is about having choice, not the stripped down absence/absentia of the representations of patriarchy. One’s dedication to feminism should not be measured in layers of foundation or tubes of mascara- or lack there of. to do so shallowly equates women w/their appearance, only, and does not see the substance withiin. Look harder, world!

  6. Have you read this article?
    I wonder how guilty I am of hyping up “pretty.” I love the concept of intentional role modeling mentioned in the article.

    Added bonus of teaching at 6 am: going sans makeup is the default. It’s freeing to literally face the world in the morning as I am. And yes, I come back home to put on makeup before going to work (because it seems more “professional”). I like Lorin’s comment, “if wearing makeup makes you feel that you can stop worrying about your appearance [. . .] then go for it!”

  7. Brittany says:

    Good for you! I regularly leave the house without makeup – and usually people tell me I look “tired.”

  8. Carmen says:

    Thanks for making me think on this Saturday morning. This is such a weighty concept and I feel like I have so much to say about it.
    I have a good friend who is seriously gorgeous, but her boyfriend of a year who would love her no matter what has never seen her without make up on. My favorite though is that she’s seriously smart. And super strong (physically, like the girl can kick serious ass). She once almost punched a guy at a bar because he (old, ugly-and yes I’m using that word on purpose, jerk) told her boyfriend that his girlfriend was “Hot — but can she spell?” We had to hold her back.
    And that’s why I’m friends with her.
    I love the intention behind the make up. That’s a great way to think about it. I’m going to wear my mascara with pride today, because I like my eyelashes.

  9. While I have enough good sense not to criticize the women I date about their make-up (or complain about waiting for them to get ready), I have NEVER met a woman that isn’t more beautiful, at least in my eyes, WITHOUT it.

  10. I just don’t feel pretty enough without it. <— or look enough like my "self" without it. As I get older I find myself putting on makeup in order to capture a more "youthful" appearance: darkening the eyelashes, eyebrows and lips because all have lost the color and/lushness of youth over time. I feel like I am maintaining rather more than anything else at this point.

    Kara, I'm with you about doing it because it pleases me rather than trying to live up to an external standard. I didn't really start wearing make up regularly until my late 30s.

    I'm with Brittany – without it I just look tired. Which I probably am, but at least with a little make up on I can try to fool myself.

    All that being said, I'd still be up for a make up lesson or two or at least having a professional make over just to see what make up can do to enhance my beauty. Anyone???

  11. Jennifer says:

    Lots of thoughts on this one. Growing up, my mom was completely natural – she rarely wore make-up, kept her hair short, no pierced ears, etc. She also dressed utilitarian. Along comes me, a shoe-loving, costume-dressing, ruffle-craving, make-up loving fool. At age 2. (My poor mother.) She did her best to raise me in an inner-beauty world. I tried my hardest to get the outer-beauty to keep up.

    As a teen and in my early twenties (after that first glorious rush of allowable make-up at age 13), I felt much easier without make-up every day. Now that I am in my late thirties, I feel much easier *with* make-up of some kind most days. My skin is a little less glow-y, my eyes less bright, and my lips paler now. I love my face, and the changes aging brings, but some days, I need me some lipgloss and mascara and no mistake.

    For me, wearing makeup is about highlighting what I’ve already got. I don’t go for foundation and concealer and two kinds of eye shadow etc. etc. (but if that’s your thing, you go girl). It’s about feeling more confident, feeling more pretty, more able to “face” the world. As well, I am short and I look much younger than I am (shut up, it isn’t as great as you think). A little extra oomph in the face helps the public see me as the woman I am.

    So I am calculated with my use of cosmetics. And I love them for what they do and how they make me feel. Am I fooling myself that it’s all my choice, my intention? Maybe. But for me, wanting to be pretty outside has been part of my innate nature since toddlerhood. I love seeing myself as pretty, and I am thrilled if someone else thinks so, too. *

    * Full disclaimer – I am middle-class (with all the privileges of good nutrition, health care, dental care, and skin care that brings), cis-gendered, hetero, white, temporarily able-bodied, young-looking, athletic, petite, over-educated, high self-esteemed, and healthy. For all of these reasons, I am extremely fortunate that my wish to look pretty often coincides with how I think I come across to others. My sassy post is in no way meant to disparage others; I know that there are many privileges that are woven into my personal experiences.

  12. Priscilla says:

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post. I’ll be thinking about all of the points you and people here have raised when I decide whether or not to put on makeup today!

    I often feel that the days that I put on makeup indicate that I have strong intentions for that day, whether I’ll be doing yoga, shopping for groceries or running errands with makeup on…

    I work at home, so there’s no need for me to get out of my pajamas some days, let alone put on makeup. But there’s something about the act of standing in the mirror, looking myself in the face, and yes, trying to look pretty, that sets the tone of the day quite differently for me. Wearing makeup doesn’t mean that I’ll have a better, more meaningful, or successful day. Sometimes, as people have said, I want to look less tired. Sometimes I want to make a certain impression, sometimes I want to look professional, and yes, sometimes I just want to feel pretty for myself!

  13. Mel says:

    Bloom. I love it.

    I’ll spend 3 hours a month sitting with henna in my hair, but I don’t wear makeup. I had a brief, strange interlude this spring though where I suddenly had to buy a tube of mascara (and concealer. but for some reason, the mascara was the thing). I finally realized there was something deeper than the prettiness going on – I was having a need to be seen. Once the need passed, I was ok and the tube of mascara sits. Sometimes I’m surprised by my face in the mirror – I don’t seem to really look when I’m there brushing my teeth or washing up… and I’m not sure why I’ll spend the time on my hair, but not on anything else. I think there are times when this not looking can be as unhealthy as much as applying makeup with a sense of lack might be – there have been times when this has been a kind of neglect of myself and I’m surprised to notice a disheveled or tired face… But sometimes when I catch a glimpse I’m surprised to find a shining look (a bloom!), and those are the times when I think it’s all good. Choices (personal choices!). Healthy balance, all that. I loved this post!!

  14. Heidi Sue says:

    This post is something I needed to read. Thank you for another thought provoking post.

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