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Is Beauty Without Makeup The Best Goal?

"True perfection, it seemed to me, had to be effortless," an editor remembers.
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I had my first girl crush as a freshman in high school. She was a senior to whom I never said a word but whose image is, eight years later, still ingrained in my mind. It was late fall at my New Hampshire school and I was passing a common room on my way to dinner when I saw her. Dressed in the school's unofficial uniform of jeans and a North Face fleece, her hair was damp and her makeup-free face flushed from the cold. She was perched on the edge of a couch with her legs slung over a boy's lap, face crinkled with laughter as she chatted with friends. Her natural beauty and ease with which she carried herself simultaneously enthralled me and felt like a knife in my gut at a time when I was painfully aware of myself and spent hours packing my face with foundation, ironing my hair until it felt like straw and agonizing over what to wear.

A year later, in the hospital for treatment of an eating disorder, I recounted this memory to my therapist. She was perfect, I said. I would never be that perfect. Her perfection was effortless and every aspect of my life seemed to require enormous effort. To talk to boys was an effort. To get dressed, an effort. I was sitting there shivering in a locked ward because I had put a dangerous amount of effort into my quest for perfection. True perfection, it seemed to me, had to be effortless.

The glorification of effortlessness is pervasive in our society. Effortless thinness ("I eat five cheeseburgers a day and have never step foot in the gym!" -- insert name of size zero actress and/or model). Effortless brilliance ("Isn't it wild that I didn't open the textbook and still managed to ace this class?"). Effortless style. Effortlessly perfect relationships. And, perhaps most of all, effortless beauty. Gone are the days of glorified primping and preening. Of heavily arched eye brows, roller curls and powdered faces. Today, "natural beauty" is in.

On January 2nd, the New York Times hosted an online debate titled "Does makeup help or hinder a woman's self-esteem?" The responses, from women, makeup artists and a straight man, varied from, "I took three minutes today for myself because, you know what, I deserve it," to, "Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage [of makeup] may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it." In other words, it's a moot debate. The choice to wear makeup or not -- and the feelings behind that choice -- belongs to the individual. We don't want to be a society that shames women for leaving the house without makeup. We also have no business telling a woman who wears makeup that she is subjugating or objectifying herself.

As Amanda Marcotte at Slate XX argues, however, one contribution to the Times debate stood out as particularly off base. Thomas Matlack, the straight male contributor, said that his wife is most beautiful bare-faced and that he loves "to sneak a glimpse of her first thing in the morning, before she puts on makeup or clothes." In other words, she's the kind of beauty who wakes up in the morning with glowing (but not oily) skin, tossled (but not knotty) hair and, in Marcotte's words, morning breath [that] smells like cinnamon buns.

I don't think the Room for Debate forum is so powerful that Matlack's words will cause all men to expect similarly "effortless" "natural" beauty from the women in their lives. (And let's be honest -- it's probably not effortless for his wife either.) His comments bothered me because they reminded me that my fears have basis. I don't look my best when I wake up with sleep in my eyes and carrot top hair. And I would be fine with this if it wasn't for the idea, helpfully echoed by Matlack, that desirable women don't have to put any effort into their appearances.

Fortunately, I'm no longer in high school, and I've learned a few things since, like the fact that great results usually don't arise from zero effort. I don't wear makeup all the time, and for the most part I'm comfortable with that. Sometimes I'd rather sleep, and sometimes I just don't feel like it. If I want to look my best for something, though, I spend more time and energy getting made up. Because I'm also comfortable with the fact that I look better with makeup on, that I look better with effort. That is okay. That's what makeup is for.

Effort is okay.

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