10/23/2013 06:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

I'm Not Vain -- But I Can't Survive Without My Makeup


Some girls think they look better with makeup, despite someone telling them "You look sooo much better bare." For some, this might be true, but what if you are a swarthy-ish, middle eastern-ish, Jew-ish looking person (like yours truly) that grows hair in places ladies aren't supposed to, has bad skin, and actually needs cover-up to not resemble someone going through puberty? And say you are on a month-long camping road trip/vision quest/spirit journey/YOLO adventure from Washington DC to Californ-IA? If that is the case, then a little bit of face maintenance is required.

Because I have appearance anxiety, my cross-country journey would be different from my male beat poet heroes. I would be on the road like Jack Kerouac riding in a magic bus like Ken Kesey, experiencing the harvest moon like Neil Young, but unlike these men I would carry more than just a wailin' song and a good guitar. I would also carry makeup.

Why? Because I have internalized subliminal and explicit messages that tell me natural girls who don't need makeup are pretty, but those pretty girls naturally don't have unibrows and acne. Well, naturally, I don't fit that image, and so naturally the resulting insecurities bind me to products that create a mask of natural beauty, naturally, naturally, naturally. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline."

For this reason, my version of the American female road trip is told through the lens of a makeup mask:

We go on a four-mile hike and it's beautiful. We come upon a babbling brook, and I see my reflection ripple in the mirror, I mean water. Putting on my face has been a part of my daily routine (give or take a few hours) since the day I discovered mirrors. Does the guy I'm traveling with also define himself as being "in a relationship" with a mirror?

We gaze in awe at a breathtaking waterfall and feel existential; pondering our place on Earth, and how we are connected to the water, to the trees, to each other. We are all made of the same star stuff. My cover-up is made up of the same star stuff -- is it flaky?

Damn, this waterfall is magnificent. Is my leg hair coming back in? I swear I shaved it this morning. I point in excitement at a mama bear and cub I see in the distance. Nature is wondrous. It's a wonder nature gave me a unibrow. My friend asks why I tweeze it. I ask why he's never dated a girl with facial hair.

me Night falls, and the cosmos is in full view. The moon and the campfire make our faces glow, and he explains the physics of a black hole. What about the physics of a blackhead? I sneak away to apply foundation, and he wonders why I'm not self-secure enough to go without it.

I tell him it's because I experience a world different than his. In my world, the idea that a woman's self-worth is tied to her physical appearance has been reinforced since birth. Images of feminine 'naturalness' have been co-opted and imposed on me by society, and I feel an inescapable pressure to alter myself (through makeup, tweezing or shaving) to match a picture I don't fit genetically. Now my beauty and confidence are so entwined, that it makes it challenging to let go of a crutch that I think helps my exterior, and consequently affects the way I relate to others and myself.

Every day I work toward moving beyond this damage, but that is a longer journey than this road trip.

We arrive in Mount Rushmore, and the presidents look great because rock does wonders for blemishes. We camp. We leave. We find a lake. We swim. My concealer is two shades too light for my new tan, and now I look like a geisha. Shit.

My friend challenges me to go just one day without makeup because I am delusional, and look better natural anyway.

His intentions are good, but the challenge comes off as a condescending dismissal of a lifelong struggle that bothers me in a way he doesn't understand. No woman has asked me to go a day without makeup because they oftentimes relate to the emotional implications of that. Yet, he is not the first man to mistakenly assume he has so much power over me that his opinion will be my cure. I am delusional because society made me that way, and no external voice telling me I look better bare can erase those deep psychological (and acne) scars. Rather, it takes inner work to feel secure, and I am comforted, and alarmed, to know that many women share this struggle.

The Pacific Ocean finally emerges when we leave Portland, and it means we have officially reached the West Coast. "I'm going to find a spicket to fill the water" I say. I wander off behind some spectacular Redwood beast of a tree with my pocket mirror and makeup essentials. I come back waterless, but my face is one color again. The forest really is magical.


Over 3,000 miles behind us, and now the small stretch ahead will get us home in just a few hours. Before we know it, we are crossing the Bay Bridge into Berkeley, California.

As I look back on this narrow account of my trip, I can laugh about my dependence on makeup, but also know that it has a dark side that deserves examination, not condemnation. It's not about vanity, but about personal insecurities that stem from being immersed in patriarchal beauty standards that shame me, as a woman, for not naturally having clear and hairless skin.

Truth be told, I would have loved to write about a journey across America that ended in my overcoming a reliance on the makeup mask, but that would have been a "made up" camping trip. Maybe one day I can learn to be more accepting of myself, and our society can learn to be more accepting of female "imperfections."