Going without make-up is easy? That’s a bare-faced lie

The Yes Woman: It’s all very well to talk about being comfortable in your own skin, but actually dropping the powder and paint is a different matter

My interest in make-up sprang from nowhere in particular. I never sat as a child and watched my mother conduct the ritual of applying her face. It was never important to her. She wore a little, I think, but she never talked about it and didn’t look for the most part as though she was wearing any.

And so I was relatively old before I thought much about make-up; I was about 18 when I started to experiment properly with it. When I had to tackle acne, the purpose of cosmetics changed for me. Instead of being a means of expressing whoever I felt like being that day, they became a means of concealment, something to rely upon and hide behind. I began to feel that I needed foundation, and became self-conscious without it.

Make-up is a part of the trajectory into womanhood; whether you wear it or not, you are making a statement about yourself.

When I got older and my skin cleared up, I became fascinated by the power of cosmetics, and decided to do a professional course in order to learn more. My family was surprised, given that I spent most of my time lost in a pile of musty books. I suppose it was slightly strange. Philosophy and make-up don’t seem to be all that intertwined, but an interest in the history of make-up, its ability to offend or to be subversive and to say something about the wearer doesn’t strike me as silly or irrelevant. It changes how others see you, how you feel about yourself. That is powerful.


The course thrilled me. There was, as you might expect, the usual make-up for weddings and general prettification, which is an enjoyable ritual to indulge in briefly. However, the real pleasure came from the otherworldly potential that cosmetics have. Creating suppurating limbs with latex; ageing a young face beyond recognition; recreating the expressive and splendid make-up of drag queens: the illusions that make-up can create are endless.

The illusion make-up creates are ephemeral and conditional. Stage make-up is designed to look good from a distance. See it up close, and it morphs into a collection of stripes and blotches that looks very unrealistic. The illusion is very much dependent on light and situation, and can be broken in an instant, crashing you back to reality.

Many Irish women are guilty of wearing too much make-up. Too much, that is, to project illusion as reality. We buy cosmetics in unbelievable quantities. There is no such thing as too much if a person feels content. Unfortunately, however, as a general rule, when we wear more make-up while going about our daily business, it is because we want to hide something. On days when my skin has mutinied, I apply more. When I feel more confident, I wear less.

No make-up selfie

The “no make-up selfie” trend earlier in the year was proof of this. In many of the “make-up free” photos, women were in fact wearing a little make-up, or the photos were heavily filtered. Women I know became very anxious at the idea of publishing a make-up-free photo online. Our made-up faces have become the norm; it’s as though we have forgotten what we are supposed to look like without it.

This year, I’m endeavouring to say yes to new things when I would previously have run in the other direction. Saying yes to going make-up-free for a few days is hardly a big deal. I do it all the time. But I’ve decided to go without make-up in everyday scenarios where I would usually wear it.

Because I've had training, I count make-up application as something I'm good at. Usually, when I go to a counter at a department store, the staff are friendly and understand that I probably know what I'm doing. Yesterday, on the way to an appointment, I stopped in at a well-known brand's counter to buy something. I knew exactly what I wanted and asked for it. The girl on the counter looked at my face, sans slap, and said, "Oh no. That's not the one for you. This is the one for you." She picked up something much more expensive, which I had no interest in, and looked at me as one looks at a small child attempting to insert crayons into its nose.

‘You look like you have TB’

I decided to meet my brother, who lives in London, for dinner when I visited earlier in the week. His usual playful response to seeing me without make-up is to declare, “Jaysus, you look like you have TB”, and then laugh heartily. Putting on a nice dress but no make-up made my face look somehow more naked, and I felt shabby.

Usually, if I look under the weather, he’ll ask polite questions about how my life is going to glean whether the cause of my dilapidation is physical or otherwise.

“This is just my face,” I said. I’ve created the expectation in others that I should look a certain way, but I can eliminate that.

Of course it isn’t that important, but few things are. We should be able to feel comfortable just as we are. Enhancements such as make-up are a wonderful source of pleasure and expression. I find it exciting, but I don’t want to need it, or feel inadequate without it.

I don’t want people to feel that the way I am is not good enough or not attractive enough, especially those I care for. If they do, though, that’s not a fault in me; that’s their problem to tackle.

  • The Yes Woman says yes to . . . enjoying make-up and being comfortable in your own face, and no to . . . becoming reliant on a mask