The first time I put on make-up in front of my daughter, she was just a few days old. She was lying there like a tiny lump of newborn human and I gave my first “you get to be who you are” speech. It went something like this: “Mommy likes to put on her eyebrows. You don’t have to do this. Some girls don’t do this and some do. Some boys do this and some don’t. You will get to make all the decisions about your body.”
If you can’t hear it loud enough, that’s the sound of me beeping my own horn. Momming: totally nailing it. Flash forward two weeks of no sleep and I would be slightly less confident I was cut out for the job.
We’ve had the same conversations about make-up her whole life. She’s allowed to play with mine at home. I’ve taught her how to do it well. I’ve always talked about it as a choice, something she could choose or not when she’s older and something I find fun. Because I do. I actually used to do it for a living. While I realize I can’t role model every possibility of expressing womanhood (it’s unlimited, really), it’s important to me that I’m always holding space for other women as well as whoever she may become.
So it came as a shock when baby girl told me to put make-up on the other day.
She was complimenting my outfit and said, “You look beautiful, but you should put make-up on and be more beautiful.” It wasn’t mean-spirited. She wasn’t being rude. But that should stood out to me. This same conversation played out a few times in a week and I realized this was something worth addressing. I thought I’d been so clear. It was a choice. Everyone is beautiful as they come. And then my example hit me like a ton of bricks.
- Tell her make-up isn’t a mandate.
- Tell her it’s a choice for fun.
- Put it on every single day.
I know being authentically myself is the best thing I can do for my girl. I know I can only be me and that there are limitations to what I can show her through my own behavior. I know I can’t show up different all the time just to give her options. But I certainly can choose not to wear make-up every day. That’s a small choice for me and I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t made it before. I might have needed to listen to my own speech.
My introduction to make-up was all fun. My neighborhood friend had an older sister. She had long fake nails, her own phone line, the tallest bangs I’d ever seen, cassette singles with explicit lyrics warnings, and all the make-up. If those facts don’t tell you she was the coolest girl ever, we’re probably generationally separated. Because she rivaled Christina Applegate in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead at cool. She defined cool. And she was generous enough to let us play in her things. Or maybe we were getting away with something. Either way, I loved everything about it.
I started wearing light make-up in first grade. I know that is early, but my poor mom didn’t know what to do for me. I went to the dermatologist for the first time for severe acne that year. We went because my mom figured it must be a rash. First graders don’t have faces full of acne. I did. I’m not being dramatic either. Long before I became the “you have such a pretty face” girl (the words I came to dread when I was obese), I was the “it’s too bad about her face” girl.
I started with a pressed powder and a light blush as the “too even” skin tone is pretty unnatural-looking. By the time I was in junior high I’d established myself as the one with all the make-up skills. It definitely didn’t feel like a choice then. I can conceal anything with absolute expertise. I was so embarrassed of my skin, I wouldn’t have left the house without make-up. In fact, when I stayed at people’s houses I would fall asleep with my make-up on, wake up in the middle of the night to take it off and put on my medication, and then wake up at sunrise to put it back on so no one would see me. It was exhausting, but it didn’t feel like a choice.
Looking back now, I’m not sure I ever really changed my relationship to it. I quit hiding my face, but I also quit having such severe acne. Since the gym became a regular part of my routine, I don’t put it on first thing in the morning. I drop Lola off at school almost every day in gym spandex and barely having brushed my hair into a ponytail. But I certainly put on a full face to go to work. Was this a habit, a perceived mandate, or an empowered choice?
Because I didn’t have the answer to that question, after Lo suggested I put on make-up that day I just quit wearing it for a while. I went several weeks without even considering it. I didn’t always recognize myself in the mirror, but I kept saying, “My appearance doesn’t define me” over and over. If I am to teach this clearly, I must embody it, not just give speeches. And if I want to teach my daughter from a healthy place, I have to be willing to look right at the uncomfortable questions.
Facing those questions wasn’t as scary as I thought.
It’s not a challenge for me to go without. I’m not sure I can articulate why I didn’t ever ask myself those questions before. It also turns out, I like my face. All those early years of training have left me with some pretty impeccable skin care routines, and I find that I really enjoy caring for myself in that way. It doesn’t feel like an obligation to be “pretty,” and it also doesn’t feel “ugly” to go bare-faced. For once in my life, the hard questions had easy answers.
I also still like make-up.
I’m back to wearing it, but the thought process has changed. It’s not a habit. It actually feels like a choice. And I make it each day as I please. Which honestly means most days I go without. It doesn’t feel “less put-together.” I don’t show up less in my life without lipgloss (whew). And while I’m not at all insinuating anyone else should make the same or different choices than me, I feel relieved upon investigation that this decision for me is a light one.
As for my baby girl, I’ve made a point to mention my choice. I’ll tell her about my awesome hike and how it was so windy that it would have been kind of a mess in eye make-up. I tell her I just felt like putting on lipstick today and it was fun. I try to role model empowered choices, and with some real reflection I was able to come to a place where I was actually making them. She is very not into my new haircut, which I’m kind of happy about. Mommy’s job is not to be pleasing to others. It’s certainly not to be pretty. If a “weird” haircut helps her work through some of that, I’m excited for the opportunity.
This stuff is hard. I don’t think you have to put on lipgloss or throw it away to be a good mom. I don’t think any choice about make-up or appearance in general holds the key to ultimate empowerment. But I do think it’s best to make sure they feel like choices. If we are to raise healthy children, it’s worthwhile to examine our own stuff. For me in this phase, that meant making sure my relationship to make-up was healthy and consequently finding I didn’t want to wear it all the time. There are a million ways to do this well, with love and thoughtfulness.
There is no handbook for mothering in an inclusive, empowering way. My compass is what I want for her, and my map is the uncomfortable work of self-examination. I’m doing my best to raise a girl who navigates her own choices and life with confidence. Becoming a woman who does the same is not always easy work, but it is always worthwhile.
Erin Brown is a writer, activist, and empath aiming to change the confines of what it means to be a woman. She draws continued inspiration from being the mother of a girl to challenge and grow past her own ingrained beliefs. She does individual sessions, leads workshops, facilitates retreats, and speaks on issues such as body image, self-care, trauma, and empowerment. Her work can be found at iamerinbrown.com.