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.
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.