Magic’s In The Makeup?

If the magic’s in the makeup, then who am I?
“Magic’s In The Makeup” by No Doubt

As a 13-year-old misfit attending a small Southern private school in the early aughts, I idolized Gwen Stefani. She wore neon-colored makeup. She snarled at the camera in her music videos. And most importantly, she didn’t look like the other girls I heard on the radio and saw on MTV.

In middle school, I was jealous of my cool(er) friends who got to dye their hair and pierce their ears. I wanted to set myself apart from my Abercrombie-wearing, designer purse-toting peers. I wanted to be different, like Gwen. But growing up in a family that outlawed piercings and dyed hair, and attending a school with a strict dress code, my options were limited.

I needed something temporary, bright, and noticeable, and so I turned to jewelry and makeup. I rocked bubblegum pink bangles and thrifted faux diamonds. My go-to shade of nail polish was a metallic silver, and I had eye shadow to match. I coveted the bright red lipstick and the green eyeliner, choices a bit too daring for me to risk. During a three-week academic summer camp in a city two hours away, I experimented with black nail polish for the first time. That deviant shade had been strictly forbidden by my parents, singled out for its particularly offensive hue.

As I cracked open the bottle of Sally Hansen nail polish in that midnight black, purchased surreptitiously at the local drugstore, I felt something shift. In that moment, as I waved my glittering fingertips at the whirring fan, something clicked. I remember lacing my fingers together, admiring the shiny gleam of each blackened tip. I’d catch myself glancing at them in class, and when I noticed a tiny crack in the polish, I’d religiously apply a new coat.

Fast forward five years: I’m standing in Sephora, and I feel physically ill. Surveying the rows and rows of paints, powders, and puffs, I’m fighting the urge to run.

What happened?


For starters, Gwen Stefani wasn’t my role model any more. I had just finished my first year in college. My taste in jewelry trended more toward simple silver and nice wristwatches, and I could count on one hand the number of times in the last year that I’d worn more makeup than chapstick. In middle school, the act of putting on makeup made me feel empowered. Years later, cosmetics were a unique punishment. The Gwen Stefani that I had idolized in years past was long gone; the Gwen Stefani of life-after-L.A.M.B. seldom resembled the role model of my younger days. We all grow up, I suppose.

When I was first embarking on the cosmetic expedition as a 13-year-old wannabe punkette, there was something innately transgressive about the unnatural effect of my metallic eyeshadow and inky nails. I was a newcomer to the world of makeup and fashion—a world dominated by the voices that promoted the commodificaton of the female body and set up unreasonable expectations. This world, new to me, would soon reveal itself to be about so much more than $3 mascara in the drugstore. Soon, I would be bitten by the unattainable fantasy, a surreal alternate universe where all the women were thin, beautiful, and (for the most part) white, where everyone sported flowing, long hair and all-knowing smiles.

Thirteen-year-old me didn’t know what the word “commodification” meant. Thirteen-year-old me was smart, precocious even, but she sure didn’t know much about a world in which women were only as good as their disposable income. She didn’t know that, behind all the airbrushed countenances and snappy promotional gimmicks, there was an entire industry built to exploit her burgeoning self-consciousness. And most important of all, she was only at the beginning of her journey as an advertising target.

Four years of unsteady growth in high school and a year of college made me wary of what had once been the tools of my empowerment, made me question my eagerness to brush on the glitter. Perhaps too wary. Years of experience withstanding the onslaught of advertising, promoting, and pandering that is the so-called beauty industry soured me on makeup. It took the magic away.

When you’re subjected to the same images, the same ideas, over and over again, you start to wonder if you can even trust your own reflection in the mirror.


Back to Sephora. It’s the summer before my sophomore year of college. I’m there with my mother, and we’re picking out a cosmetic trousseau to accompany my impending debut. (That’s right, as in debutante ball. But that’s a different story entirely.) As I stood in front of all these tiny jeweled bottles and miniature mirrors, my flight response was informed by years of being told that unless I pick up that blush, unless I find the right color for my (flawed) skin, I won’t be valuable. I won’t be wanted. As the makeup artist daubed and speckled the worry out of my forehead, she remarked, “You’re doing this for your mother, aren’t you?”

She was right. I certainly wasn’t doing it for me. But when did that happen? When did the magic go out of the makeup? I could barely stomach that Sephora trip, and even though I left the store laden down with purchases, I felt out of place.

Years later, I am still nostalgic for my early forays into the world of makeup. My first proto-feminist understanding of my own body as a source of power came from the application of paint. It was something that I could control. Nostalgia aside, I have also begun to question the fear that consumed me during that trip to Sephora, and for the better part of the last few years. I have met many women—and men—who have really embodied the relationship between cosmetics and empowerment, and that has impressed me. I saw that you could wear the makeup, rather than let the makeup wear you down.

In the last year, I’ve begun to dabble in the land of cosmetics yet again. Gwen isn’t here to guide my steps, and in fact, I don’t really have a role model in this return to cosmetics. But I am trying to develop a more nuanced understanding of how my own body can operate in a world that is marked by forces beyond my control, by systems that are fueled by my objectification and commodification. That’s not easy, but it feels worth it.

It doesn’t matter if you wear lipstick. Makeup isn’t a referendum on your place in the world, and its presence (or absence) should not define you. It’s up to you. We can reclaim the right to decide how we represent our bodies by wearing makeup religiously and by never bothering with it, by keeping a spare lipgloss in your bag and by swearing off the cosmetics. The choice is yours. Makeup doesn’t possess some inherent power, or some innate evil. Makeup is what we make of it, and it’s still just a little bit magical.

In fact, I’m wearing some of that silver nail polish right now.

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View Comments (2)
  • I have always found the evolution of makeup wearing very interesting. There was a transition from wanting to wear makeup in elementary school (getting in trouble then), haphazardly wearing it in middle school with the raccoon eyes, slightly more moderate but dramatic in high school, no makeup in college as I trundled to class after rolling out of bed… I once, in my junior year of college, made the mistake of broadly stating that I didn’t see the point of makeup because I didn’t want to catch a man – with which I promptly offended some of my friends and realized I had mispoken. Over the past couple of years I’ve transitioned to realizing that wearing it to enhance my features makes me feel better about myself, and who cares what others think. I struggle with pretty bad dermitillomania, but I recently started wearing nail polish because it helps me not pick as badly because it’ll mess up my nails that the ‘perfectionist me’ slaved over for far too long. I have kept my nails painfully short to minimize damage, but I’m hoping I can let them grow out a bit using this tactic, and it’s a good little self-care thing to do. So yea, just babbling along here. Thanks for the posts – I’m a fan of y’all :)

    • Thanks for your comment, Kelsey! I’m glad that you touched on finding ways to use makeup as a self-care strategy. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing we often overlook in discussions of makeup and the beauty industry. It’s easy to write off makeup and other related commodities as “bad” because of their relationships to broader societal pressures, like the commodification of women and the insane beauty standards. But when we start thinking about makeup as something women (and men!) can do for themselves, I think that’s really rad. Glad you’re enjoying our site!

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