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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

My Life Without Makeup: Alicia Keys Won’t Regret Her Decision

On Alicia Keys’ no-makeup pledge, my own 50-year boycott, and vanity on the campaign trail

The author at age 44 with her children.  Photo: Courtesy of the author

Decades ago, as a college student, having never yet bought or figured out how to apply makeup, I made the decision I was never going to use the stuff. That was almost 50 years ago. I’m now 67 and I’ve stuck to my guns.

Over the years, I haven’t thought much about my odd decision. Then came 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s humiliating struggle in the brutal Democratic primary. I wrote about the burden placed on women in politics. In “The Cost of Being a Woman,” I described Obama’s “huge built-in advantage” over Clinton—his dark suit/white-shirt uniform, his buzz cut, his makeup-free face. I quoted a writer who described a Cristophe stylist who “goes to Clinton’s house almost every day at the crack of dawn.” Someone else presumably styled her hair and someone else—reportedly Huma Abedin—put together the pastel pantsuits and matching jewelry, scarves, shoes.

Then last May, I read 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys’ Lenny essay, “Time to Uncover.” Her Dionne Warwick-inspired song, “When a Girl Can’t Be Herself,” contains the lines, “In the morning from the minute that I wake up / What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup / Who says I must conceal what I’m made of / Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem.”

While reading Keys’ essay, I looked at before and after photographs and I thought the 35-year-old singer/songwriter looked beautiful with makeup and without. But she is the same age as my older daughter, and reading it made me wonder, if only briefly, how others see me.  Do they think, “Boy, she looks sickly. Give the old girl a steak or some iron pills”?

To my unadorned face, highlighted by bluish circles or, worse yet, what my son used to call “baggies” under my eyes, almost nobody over all these years has remarked on my weird stubborn resistance to all makeup. I have never even applied lipstick, not once. (I write “almost nobody” because on the day of my son’s Bar Mitzvah, a friend of my mother’s told her I needed a talking to; that it was about time I grew up and did what women do. I told my mother to tell her friend to mind her own business, and that was that.)

I put Keys’ public declaration out of my mind until last Friday when  I read a Washington Post essay, “Alicia Keys isn’t brave for taking makeup off. For most of us, putting it on is braver: Going barefaced to make a statement sends the wrong message.”

A self-described “longtime makeup-wearer” and author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women Lives, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano turns Keys’ no-makeup vow on its head. She celebrates the “power…in showing the world your most made-up…self. Makeup announces that you are trying,” working at looking good. She questions why we as a society value hard work, “but not when it comes to women’s appearances.” She worries about making the teenager with acne feel bad; same for the girl “with a port-wine birthmark.”

As these things often do—and I’ve certainly discovered this as a mother of three—it all goes back to my mother, no longer alive to defend herself.

I grew up a tomboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the youngest of three and only girl, in West Rogers Park. I was athletic, wiry, and, for the time, tall. In my neighborhood, female appearance was so important that, after Christmas or spring breaks, the halls of my high school were sprinkled with girls sporting black eyes and bandages over the bridge of their noses. My classmates not only had their noses “fixed,” they ironed their wavy hair, colored it, and, of course, wore makeup.

I did none of the above. I was an unruly-haired redhead with the pale, heavily freckled complexion to go with it.

The younger of my two brothers teased me mercilessly, watching my every move toward puberty, waiting to mock me. Had I applied even the subtlest makeup, he would have noticed, and I could not face the ridicule.

I agree with Whitefield-Madrano that wearing makeup takes a kind of courage, and I didn’t have it.

My mother seemed to find her son’s behavior acceptable and even amusing, and so on he went.

As a child and teenager, for reasons still mysterious to me, my mother couldn’t express physical or verbal affection to me. She could to my brothers, whom she flagrantly favored, cooing over their good looks and popularity. She would call me away from homework or my reading habit to set the dinner table and make the salad while my slightly older by 11 months brother—her most favored—watched television. The insane unfairness of it infuriated me and I’d retreat to my room trailing loud sobs and slammed doors. The upside was that I decided late in my freshman year of high school that I wanted to be nothing like my mother; I wanted a career (she never had one) and I wanted to be a writer and I was going to focus on academics as a means to get there.

I chose to believe my father who often told me, “You look like an all-American girl.” I didn’t really believe him, but any port in a storm, and all-American girl sounded good to me.

As for my mother, our relationship was so awkward that I avoided all subjects that could be considered girly, and makeup fell squarely into the forbidden zone.

I also grew up in an era when not only my friends’ mothers, but my friends themselves would use the expression before going out, “I have to put my face on.” I didn’t want to put my face on. My brothers didn’t have to; why should I?

Looking back, my decision has saved me countless hours. I get up in the morning, shower and get dressed. I used to run on the track at a fancy health club, and I’d note the women fussing with their hair and makeup in front of a long bank of brightly lit mirrors in the locker room. I’d see the same women fussing even after my 40-minute run.

While I don’t feel my age, I know I often look exhausted. I like to say that I have a face made for radio. When I’m invited on television shows to discuss politics, they’re generally the sort of local productions that expect guests to arrive already made up for the unforgiving cameras and lights. I come as is, and was shocked the first time I watched the result. My solution: don’t watch. I’ve been on the occasional national show, and locally WTTW’s Chicago Tonight employs a highly skilled makeup artist. When the show is over, I rush to the first sink and wash it all off. I guess, thinking about it now, I don’t want to heighten anyone’s expectations.

I am happy in my skin, and I think, especially for women of my age, that’s saying something. I attribute this to sticking with my style, as age-unsuitable as it may be. My decision is my decision. I’m not a proselytizer for going makeup-free. While I do notice, especially on hot, humid days, how makeup pools in the crevices of skin, especially aging skin, and feel relieved that that’s one problem I don’t have, I would no sooner remark on that than on any other matter of personal style.

But back to Hillary, eight years later, she faces an opponent who also wears makeup and who has a nature-defying complex construct of a hairdo that surely requires daily professional care.

Not to say that the gender playing field is leveled, but if Donald Trump has brought one positive to this ugly race, he has shown that it can be just as arduous and time-consuming a task for a man to maintain his makeup and hair as for a woman.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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