Most of us wear clothes with some regularity. It’s one of those markers of anything and everything or even nothing at all. Many of us accessorize too, adorning our necks and ears and bendy bits with any number of points and lines. It’s certainly trying at times to figure out which points go with which lines to create an ideal plane out of your appearance that you can take into the world and its many intersections, but it can be a lot of fun, too, as any busy center of commerce shows.
One of those commercial nodes is always, always, always cosmetics. I’ve never paid much attention to it, with the rationale that rather than spending thirty dollars on a palmful of snail essence or royal jelly serum-cream-milk-balm, I could go outside and find some real snails or bees instead. Add to that my unfortunately sensitive skin and I could really never be bothered to subject myself to 6 quintillion lumens blasting from a glass display case of bedazzled creams.
But when in Rome…
On my first time in Japan some years ago, as a student, I remembered being told that makeup is as essential for women as pants and shoes. I’d seen interviews online where Japanese women balked at the idea of going even to their local convenience store without some foundation. So before my flight, I went with my mom to buy some basics: foundation, eyeliner.
I didn’t know anything about setting powder or spray, feared poking my eyeball in with an eyelash curler, and knew that I’m too easily overstimulated to wear any sort of lip anything. At the time, my skin wasn’t in good shape; it hurt simply to brush on foundation. But I did it, because everyone said it’s what they do, and I wanted to be “they.”
All the worst stars aligned that autumn. I ended up fine, and the spring was actually fantastic, but the autumn was often excruciating. Not least because of the makeup. In photos from that time, my forehead glints with an oily sheen, and shadows play off the hills and dales of my cheeks. I imagined myself a slug, trailing Warm Honey 332 up and down the streets of Kyoto, leaving oily stains in the corners of every booth.
In the evenings, gingerly washing my face, watching it swirl down the drain, I would whisper why, why, why to the water until it ran clear.
Flash forward to late October last year. Once again, I hook arms with my mom and walk toward the searing lights of The Makeup. Much of me – masked face included – has healed since then, and I step with only a little hesitation over the threshold. On a shelf near the entrance, I spy a familiar bottle and hurry past. This time is different. This is a proper Cosmetics Store, not the health and beauty section of my neighborhood supermarket. These people are professionals.
An attendant helps me find something that disappears into my skin. “It looks like you’re wearing nothing at all!” I feel a quip cross my mind about saving the money and truly wearing nothing. My mom picks out an eyeshadow palette (“You never know when you’ll want a smokey eye!”) and I scan shelves for products I’d read about online. My hands don’t waver. This time is different. It’s pants and shoes. It’s easy.
And so makeup became part of my daily routine. Five minutes: prime, foundation, curl, mascara, set. I would jazz it up with a bit of eyeshadow every now and again; sometimes, my students would even compliment my look. In the evenings, the tan water was simply water. But when I removed my mask for lunch, or to wipe condensation from the inner lining, I always felt a twinge of embarrassment at the caramel streaks. Put it face-down, wipe quickly (and throw that tissue away before someone sees…!), replace it with haste. Envy crept past when I saw a male teacher wash his face after lunch.
When I’m wearing my pants and shoes, my legs and feet are still there. I can still touch them. I can scratch an itch or stretch my toes without anything flaking off. When wearing makeup, I realized, my face feels somewhat disembodied. It’s an art piece, yes, and one that can be finely detailed with many different tools and shades, and that is beautiful! But I do not want to live my daily life with art balanced on my shoulders, in danger of being eroded by the sun and the hands it’s attached to. I don’t want to be an orb-weaver who has to eat her web every night and spin it anew every sunrise. I just want my face.
So I’m not going to wear makeup anymore. That’s the point of this long rambling bit. Especially with summer coming on, I’m not sure even an industrial fixative could keep sweat and sebum from melting the face off my face. My relationship with makeup is not sour, no – I have no qualms about it as pertains to my gender expression or how other people perceive me as a gendered entity, which would’ve probably surprised my college-age self. It’s practicality that drives me. That, at least, would come as no surprise to any of my selves.