By Fiona McKim
There are so many makeup myths out there. My favourites include the one about red lipstick being a universal confidence booster, when really it makes most women feel self-conscious. Or that much-trotted-out tip about using white liner to disguise tired eyes, which only works because it makes them look distractingly intense and starey instead.
Probably one of the most pervasive narratives in beauty mythology is the idea of no makeup makeup as some kind of effortless option. Just a light frosting of the best foundation, a slick of tinted lip balm, an optional coat of mascara and off you pop – a barefaced beauty!
This is not how it goes in my world. For some reason, doing a little bit of makeup – particularly the “naturally flawless” variety we’re encouraged to aspire to – inevitably snowballs into doing a lot of makeup. “I’ll just pop some concealer on my dark circles” becomes “Well, I’d better use face primer first and perk up my now-uniform skin with some blush”. This is usually followed by: “Hmm, weirdly pale mouth – where’s my nude lipstick? Oh, now my eyes look a bit naked – just a coat or four of mascara... Hey, where have my brows disappeared to? I’ll just quickly fill those chaps in while I’m at it.”
Did you ever draw a house as a child, try to neaten up one wobbly side, then have to keep adding to the other sides to make them match up until all that remained was an enormous scrawl that your mother couldn’t even pretend to want on the fridge? It’s a bit like that, but on a face.
All these subtle tweaks that go into creating a feasibly natural look are so much tricksier and more time-consuming than just slamming on the heavily pigmented statement stuff and being done with it.
Does setting a time limit on makeup work?
Of course, I’m probably revealing more about my own insecurities here than anything else. There are plenty of women out there who just genuinely love makeup and don’t see it as a way to fix themselves, just as there are those who wear none at all, or pop on one or two products and feel perfectly satisfied.
In 2017, author Zadie Smith famously told an Edinburgh International Book Festival audience that she had imposed a 15-minute makeup time limit on her daughter, saying, “I explained it to her in these terms: you are wasting time. Your brother is not going to waste any time doing this. Every day of his life he will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a shit if you waste an hour and a half doing your makeup.”
Kudos to Smith, who has explored the theme of beauty standards thoughtfully and brilliantly in her work. I aspire to this level of rigour in my beauty routine – so much so that I tried to apply her 15-minute rule to my barely there look (which actually involves 15-plus products, including eyelid primer and something called unicorn glow balm).
Sadly, all I gained was a sense of frenzied panic in what was once quite a meditative part of my morning, then a bit more time to faff around with my hair.
Learning how to be confident without makeup
And then… well, you know what happened next. The Great Pause is the most poetic way I’ve heard it described, but just to really spell it out for you the pandemic happened. And those of us in the fortunate position of being employed, healthy and able to work remotely experienced a finger-click shift in the demands on our daily appearance.
Goodbye, bras, and hello, stretchy waistbands. My hair was air-dried, my nails bare, my slippers had never seen so much action and had to be upgraded to a more durable model. With nowhere to go and no one to gaze upon all those self-diagnosed beauty concerns, my make-up bag, along with the bags of habitual cosmetic users across the world, spent months largely untroubled by human touch.
Obviously, there have been exceptions to the new naked-faced normal. That brief yet intense period of wall-to-wall Zoom quizzing was something to put the old face on for on a Friday night, and important video meetings sometimes warrant a brow scribble or tinted-balm top-up. But, on the whole, this felt like a rare chance to kick back and embrace 30 reclaimed morning minutes then another ten at night.
So, by default, I had to embrace something else: My real, bare-as-a-loo-roll-shelf-back-in-March face. This meant daily exposure to dark circles, ruddy cheeks, a wonky left eyebrow and everything else I used to toil to “perfect” with my complex no-makeup makeup look.
And do you know what happened? I loved every bit of what I saw. Only joking! The truth is I got used to what I saw and now feel totally at peace with it. Once I stopped assessing my face as a series of flaws to be fixed, I was able to accept it in a neutral and dispassionate way, which is its own kind of confidence, and considering how catty our internal monologues tend to be, I will take as a victory.
Can going barefaced make you love makeup even more?
Another victory is that, thanks to this inadvertent exposure therapy, I have learned to challenge the baseless fears that lay behind my compulsive makeup behaviour. Put it this way, I began lockdown part one as someone who would react to a friend’s spontaneous “pop round” with some hurried cosmetic troubleshooting. Now, not so much. I’ll spend that time whipping up a round of Aperol spritzes and throwing Kettle Chips in a fancy bowl instead. Between me in makeup or a round of snacks and drinks, can you guess which one my friends prefer? Exactly. So, what was all the panic-applying for anyway?
Just to be clear, lest I go down in history as the beauty editor who put herself out of a job by telling her readers to burn their makeup, this is not me saying makeup is inherently bad. Or claiming that it isn’t useful or great fun when you want to be powerful or glamorous or however it makes you feel. This is me saying that actually, on those days when a barefaced look is all you want or need, it might be a good idea just to sport your actual bare face.
Which brings me to the final, brilliant side effect of not bothering with a daily makeup routine – how enjoyable it is applying a full face when I actually do feel like it. Now that it’s not an everyday chore, priming and painting and blending feels like a creative activity, like colouring in for grown-ups. I find myself experimenting with brighter, bolder looks, a flick of metallic liner here or fuchsia lipstick there. Why not? When something stops being a grind, it can become a joy instead.
So, while it’s not for me to say if this new barefaced and proud schtick will last or if our collective 2021 clapback to this au naturel zeal will be piling it on like never before.
Either way, I’m glad to feel that little bit comfier in my own skin. I’ll definitely be enjoying this simpler (and, let’s be honest here, far, far easier) beauty life while it lasts.
As woman&home's Senior Beauty Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about a brilliant beauty find on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair dye experiments and cute shih-tzus)
Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013, working under legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know about the industry (clue: learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism).
In a previous life, Fiona studied journalism back home in bonnie Scotland and honed her skills as a magazine features writer, with a brief and terrifying stint on the showbiz gossip pages of a tabloid newspaper in between. She's a skincare fanatic who can’t resist adding an extra step to her routine if it’s all the rage in Japan, loves fragrance, has fun with makeup and never turns down the chance to test a new hair tool. Basically, she loves it all.
When not slathering herself in self tan or squinting at a tiny ingredients list on a moisturiser, you’ll probably find Fiona enjoying something to do with food - cooking it, eating it, cajoling her friends into trekking across London to try a hyped pop-up in a dirty car park.
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