Shift: Crash Course

I took a whole year off. Cold turkey. No explanations. No make-up.

No mascara, no lip liner, no eyeliner. No nothing. Naked face to the world.

The idea: to focus on inner beauty, prove to myself that I had value beyond how I look. That, and to wean myself from the vice of vanity that had begun about 30 years earlier, when I became a teenager…

I wanted to feel daring, uplifted by this healthy, natural approach to personal grooming. Told myself it could make a difference, that I could be an example to encourage and liberate others.

Why spend all that time getting dolled up? No one expects men to go to these lengths. Why should I? After all, it’s not my job to be pretty.

And I know that a time will come when no amount of make-up will disguise me, make me look young and healthy. What will that feel like, I wondered.

I wanted to test the tepid waters women tread between trying too hard and letting ourselves go. It was time to zero in on the authentic me, to look beyond the surface, to be beyond the superficial.

And I fell so short.

Not so secretly, I didn’t want to bow out of the ranks of the good-looking; I wanted to live up to a new standard of natural beauty, to be so stunningly comfortable in my own skin that I could go without.

Sad to say, in my world, expectations around appearance turned out to be a huge deal.

The embarrassing reality is that, without make-up, I was even more self-conscious—and settled into a prolonged funk because my eyes looked smaller.

I told myself “it’s only mascara.” But up close, where I mostly see myself, I pronounced myself plain. And the verdict cut deep; I felt diminished.

It seemed I thought about it all the time. I made a mental note the first time I went to a formal gathering ‘unadorned.’ The first time I performed in public, on stage, ‘exposed.’ I cringed at the sight of a camera. And when I looked at photos of my bare face, all I saw was a deficit. Even though, from a distance, there wasn’t much difference, in real life or in photos—at least, not on the outside.

I didn’t announce that I was going through this awkward phase, but it wasn’t just me who noticed the difference.

For several months, there were no compliments from my husband. Gone was the customary: ‘You look nice.’ I missed the appreciative appraisal.

At work, well-meaning colleagues worried out loud that I appeared extra tired.

For a while, I tried to figure out why it bugged me so much. Did I no longer fit in? Was it fashion? Or biology? Did I really think I could be bigger than that?

Exploring my relationship with my face, I’d hoped to attain some inner peace. But I didn’t manage to tuck away untidy loose ends… For me, it was much more complicated than it appeared on the surface. And the origin of my long-held, hard-to-break habit, the relentless urge to judge, assess, compare, monitor and maintain ‘my looks’ did not reveal itself.

That tube of mascara I packed around (just in case), but didn’t use during the 12-month trial has an impressive shelf life. I know because I’ve put it back into service.

Lessons learned? I don’t look like a super model, and I never will.

But it doesn’t hurt to comb my hair.

And a tan helps—even without mascara.

Julie Ann Luoma is happy to share quirky conclusions drawn from life’s little dramas.