I grew up in a makeup-free household. My mom didn't wear makeup, and my dad often said he preferred her without makeup and he didn't think women should be pressured into wearing it just to fit in.
My mom was a free-spirited feminist who shunned most of the ideals about women's beauty that we're subject to. She often went without a bra. She washed her hair with simple shampoo and towel-dried it. Her typical outfit was a pair of loose jeans and an oversized sweatshirt with cats on it, or a T-shirt from the Melrose Fire Department where my grandfather worked.
When my mom died in 2004, I had to navigate my teen years alone. I didn't feel like I was missing out on learning about hair, makeup, and fashion from her, because that would've been out of the question no matter what. I dedicated myself to being the kind of woman my mom was: I wore loose, oversized clothing, towel-dried my hair, and, most importantly to me, went completely makeup-free.
While other girls were experimenting with bright shades of eyeshadow and scented lip gloss, I was becoming something of a feminist stereotype, and not in a good way. I started to actively look down on women who wore makeup and read fashion magazines, thinking they weren't as intelligent because their interests didn't align with mine.
Everything changed when I entered high school. I learned more about feminism, and I realized that being a feminist meant believing in the choice to wear makeup, not believing that makeup was inherently bad. I knew my mom, if she were around, wouldn't want me to label other women. She'd want me to support them.
In high school, I became interested in makeup, beauty, and fashion, now that I no longer associated them with anti-feminist ideals. I realized that I'd been holding myself back. I began a deep love affair with alternative fashion, and soon after, started experimenting with hair and makeup. Instead of wearing my hair behind my back or in a ponytail, I dyed it a variety of colors, used a blow dryer, and straightened it daily. Every day, I applied bright, sparkly makeup that matched my fashion sense and complemented my outfits.
I felt freer, and most importantly, I felt like I was still holding true to my own feminism. My mom's decision not to wear makeup or do anything to her hair had been just that: a decision. Making a different decision didn't make me a bad feminist, it just made me an individual. I grew to be proud of my colorful experiments in hair and makeup, and people came to expect that I'd pair rainbow-colored hair with bright, sparkly eyeshadow.
By the middle of my undergraduate career, I'd grown accustomed to wearing makeup on a daily basis and I felt naked and vulnerable if I ran out of time or wasn't feeling well and decided to opt to go makeup-free for a day. I'd look at myself in the mirror on days when I forgot to apply makeup and I'd think, "Wow, I look awful." People would ask me if I was sick and didn't notice that the difference was a lack of foundation, concealer, mascara, and eyeshadow. I also realized that with long days where I was sometimes out for thirteen hours straight, wearing makeup was exhausting. It felt heavy on my face, and I wanted nothing more than to go home and wash it off as soon as my day was over. From the moment I put it on at seven in the morning, I was itching for the day to end so I could take it off.
I slowly experimented with taking makeup out of my daily routine, and with simplifying my hair care routine. I didn't want to spend close to two hours every morning getting ready. It left me exhausted and, by the end of the day, dying to take off all the layers of modification I was wearing. I opted for wearing wigs instead of getting up to wash, blow dry, and straighten my hair. I cut back to only appealing concealer under my eyes, without any foundation, eyeshadow, or mascara.
Since I've cut back on my makeup routine again, I've simplified my daily beauty and fashion routine by at least an hour and a half. I save the heavy lifting for special occasions, and will sometimes apply a full face of makeup for a semi-formal occasion or a date. Even then, if I'm planning to be out more than a few hours, I usually opt to go makeup-free.
Even though switching my routine to a makeup-free lifestyle for the second time wasn't based on feminist decisions, it still feels like I'm taking a stance. It's clear when I'm among a group of women, all wearing makeup, that I'm clean-faced. I already look several years younger than I am (I'm told I pass for 16, and I'm 23), but going makeup-free exaggerates this. I'm also not going out of my way to try to impress anyone but myself, which is freeing and allows me to focus on who I am and what I enjoy, rather than on anyone's expectations. It also taught me something crucial: that it doesn't matter whether a woman wears makeup or not. We're all capable of being strong, independent, intelligent, creative, and fun. Whether or not you wear makeup doesn't define who you are.
My mom never wore makeup, and I almost never do. But when I do, I no longer worry if she would disapprove. She believed in freedom of self-expression, and that matters more to me than whether or not I'm wearing mascara.
Alaina Leary is a native Bostonian currently completing her MA in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College. She works as a social media designer and editor. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, BUST, AfterEllen, and others. When she’s not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats, Blue and Gansey, and at the beach with her girlfriend. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books, watching Gilmore Girls, and covering everything in glitter. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys.
photo by Greta Ceresini/Flickr
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Alaina Leary is a native Bostonian currently completing her MA in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College. She works as a social media designer and editor. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, BUST, AfterEllen, and others. When she’s not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats, Blue and Gansey, and at the beach with her girlfriend. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books, watching Gilmore Girls, and covering everything in glitter. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @