As much as the beauty industry claims that makeup is a tool for empowerment, for me, it’s more of a crutch. Sure, there’s something “empowering” about the fact that covering my acne makes it easier to focus on my work. A red lipstick gets me in the headspace to have a fun night out, and thick winged liner makes me feel like the ’60s It-girl I want to be. But when it gets down to it, I use it to feel prettier and to cover what society has drilled into my head are my flaws.
I’m not ashamed to say that. I don’t think wanting to look a certain way makes me any less intelligent, or less of a feminist, but it is exhausting. Every day, I wake up and spend at least 30 minutes getting myself ready for the day ahead. I layer on a full-coverage foundation, along with concealer, blush, highlighter, brow gel, liner, and mascara, and slowly sculpt myself into the face I recognize. I started wearing makeup when I was 12—my mom generously let me wear neon Urban Decay eyeshadow to middle school—but it wasn’t until high school, when my acne began and my self-esteem plummeted, that it became something I couldn’t live without.
I’ve struggled with cystic acne for a decade now. I had a brief stint of clear skin thanks to Accutane in 2018, but it returned with a vengeance last year. And after a particularly brutal breakout this winter left me covered in red scars, it hurt to look in the mirror. This sounds dramatic, I know, but if you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll understand. I’ve long depended on makeup to make myself feel like myself, and not like I’m stuck in a bad dream or a teenager’s body.
I refuse to run to the corner store without at least a light layer of tinted moisturizer and mascara. Even when I have nowhere to go I’ll pile on some foundation and liner so my heart doesn’t sink every time I catch a glance in a reflective surface. On the off chance I do pop out for an errand without makeup on, I find it hard to make eye contact with anyone I pass.
Cut then to a few weeks ago. In early March, I woke up as usual and put on my regular face, paying extra attention to my cat eye since I hadn’t slept well amid the growing anxiety about coronavirus. I checked my email before stepping out the door to see a message that, like most of the country, my team was told to work from home until the situation got better. I worked from home in a full face that day. The next day, I applied my foundation as usual, grasping at some semblance of normalcy and wanting to look good for a Zoom meeting.
It went on like this for days until I woke up one morning exhausted by my new normal. With the reality sinking in that social distancing didn’t have a foreseeable end, I didn’t reach for my makeup bag all day. I told myself it was a pledge to let my skin breathe, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that painstakingly covering every spot on my face (probably about 25 at last count) felt like such a waste of energy.
One month later I can count on both hands the amount of times I’ve worn a full face of makeup during all this. I started wearing it only out on runs to the store or days where I have video meetings, but I’ve slowly tapered it off to about once a week. I wear mascara some days, and a light coat of foundation when I have Zooms scheduled with beauty brands (I’ve since abandoned that when just meeting with my team). Once a week I’ll treat myself to the whole shebang—foundation, liner, blush, mascara—just to feel like myself. Plus, playing with my products is legitimately fun—and, fine, I need one day a week to take cute selfies.
But on most days, I’m barefaced. It doesn’t seem to be helping my skin—thanks to a diet of stress and sugar, I’m breaking out just as much as usual. But I’m not stressing over it the way I usually would. Sure, I still don’t love what I see in the mirror (I’m not sure I ever will), but I’m slowly moving toward something resembling acceptance. Some days are better than others. I’ll consider swearing off foundation forever only to wake up the next day ready to cake myself in it. Currently, I have two giant red zits, but it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. Maybe because so many other things do.
Going makeup free has really hammered home the point I’ve always told myself but never fully believed: No one is looking at you. It’s become shockingly apparent that everyone is so caught up in stocking up on bread, enjoying their daily walks, or trying to make it to work without contracting a raging virus to judge me for leaving the house with visible pimples. In all the chaos, it’s become a strange comfort. I’ve even started to appreciate things I’ve never noticed: how dewy my skin is when I’m not suffocating it with foundation, or how green my eyes are in certain lights.
Does this mean I’ll retire my Charlotte Tilbury when this is all over? No. But it’s nice to know that if I do, the world will keep on turning.
Bella Cacciatore is the beauty associate at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @bellacacciatore.