09/01/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2013

Cosmetic Culture: For Some of Us, Making Up Is Hard to Do


There are a number of things about lady culture that baffles me these days. Apparently, I can freeze my eggs until I'm 75 and ready to be a baby mama (Angelina will have already had her fifteenth kid at the ripe young age of 309), but I can't lead a Catholic mass. I need a pink hammer for home improvement projects, lest I suddenly become confused that I'm actually a dude working around the house. I make less money than the average man, but am told I have more consumer power than all the Kardashians put together. Also, what the hell is twerking and how do I know whether it offends me or marks the start of fifth wave feminism? There is a lot going on. Maybe that's why I recently found myself paralyzed in the makeup aisle at Target.

Included as a bridesmaid in my brother's wedding, I realized several days before the event that I would need to purchase makeup. I don't own any because I don't wear any, and it dawned on me that this day was not about me. My new sister-in-law might prefer her bridesmaids showing up in a conventional camera-ready manner. For a long time, I envied the girls who diligently and religiously applied their makeup: in high school bathrooms, while squinting into smeary mirrors; behind the wheels of their Toyota Tercels; crammed around someone's vanity before going out to parties. I coveted their cases, sleek and shiny, decked out with flowers or polka dots or embossed with the cool Clinique name and logo. They seemed to contain more than powders and goopy wands; they seemed to house the very secrets of womanhood. I gamely played along. I rouged and lined. I swept all the colors of the rainbow across my brow bone at one time or another. "That shade makes you look like you have pink eye," my mother said one morning as I left for school. Maybe I had the wrong kind of makeup case. For me, the secrets of womanhood remained a mystery.

Like so many aspects of lady culture, the relationship between women and makeup is far from straightforward. At one time, cosmetics signified the worst about women: morally low, sexually available and generally the kind of girls you don't take home to mama. As ideas about gender and beauty evolved through the eighteenth century forward, the stigma surrounding makeup shifted so that it became preferable for women to use cosmetics in the service of maintaining the illusion of youthful ideals. Looking a drab, ancient 28? Nothing that Dr. Campbell's Arsenic Complexion Wafers can't smooth away! (True product). While contemporary women still use makeup to mask perceived flaws and imperfections, they also treat makeup as a tool of self-expression and play. Makeup can be part of our everyday performance of self just as much as fashion, hair or the speech we affect.

In the years between the end of high school and the middle of college, I weaned myself off makeup. It was actually not all that traumatic. I never gained proficiency at creating a "look" that didn't conjure up comparisons to the wives of Southern, televised preachers. I rarely wanted to spend the time on either end of my day applying or scraping; I definitely lacked the budget, and most importantly, I preferred my face as-is -- complete with freckles, sun spots, laugh lines and divots -- to one spackled over.

There's nothing wrong with wearing makeup. Some of my best friends wear makeup (Har). But it's moments when I find myself in a store completely overwhelmed by the rows of compacts, tubes, pencils, kits and bottles that I am reminded of the social compulsion to shut up and makeup, so to speak. For weddings, for job interviews, for first dates (or fifth dates), for the highly public rituals that comprise our lives, the expectations for women's self-presentation remains historically unchanged: appropriate dress, styled hair, tasteful makeup. End of list. Show up to a shareholder meeting, fresh-faced in jeans and a hoodie? Please! Who do you think you are? Mark Zuckerberg? Maybe you forgot to buy your pink hammer at Home Depot; maybe you're a little confused. Or maybe you just find the makeup aisle in Target as alien and baffling as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and maybe you actually prefer it that way.