Today is my 30th birthday, though I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in the last 12 months. My body certainly feels like it. I went from having two or three gray hairs that I would sometimes pluck to having so many I stopped counting (and plucking, because then I would be bald). It’s been more than a year since my last Botox appointment, so the creases around my eyes are now deep and pronounced when I smile, and a new wrinkle’s moved in on my forehead and won’t go away, no matter how much cream I slather on it. I can’t remember the last time I had lip injections, but I’m reminded it’s been too long every time I look in the mirror. My hands are constantly dry. I stopped all intense exercise several months ago, and my once strong, athletic body is now soft and squishy. The thing is, I don’t really care. The other thing is, maybe I should.
You see, I’ve worked in the beauty industry for nearly 10 years now. As the beauty director of BAZAAR.com, I’m an expert who people turn to for advice on becoming their silkiest, glowiest selves. There’s an expectation that I would not just participate in all things hair, makeup, nails, and body care, but relish in them. It’s true that I once did. But now? I don’t know if it’s a consequence of the last year or simply the notion of turning 30, but there’s been a seismic shift in my relationship with beauty. A decade that had been marked by 100,000 lipsticks is ending with none.
I was hired to work at Allure magazine when I was just 21 years old. Looking back, I can’t believe they hired an infant. I rarely told anyone my age, because I didn’t want to be perceived as too young for certain career opportunities. If asked, I would often round up. “It’s my job to look young,” I’d joke at 23. “I’m secretly 60, I just use a lot of face cream,” I’d tease at 25. This age denial went on for years, but it seemed to work: I went from an assistant to a senior editor in about three years. With every article I published, I feared being called out for my obvious lack of age authority. Who wants to read a 24-year-old’s thoughts on crow’s feet and face-lifts, no matter how meticulously researched and reported?
I was hungry to prove my worth in an industry I deeply admired and respected, so I would show up to work every single day in a full face beat—usually some combination of soft red lips and a subdued cat eye. I would fuss over the way my notoriously difficult hair looked and wobble around the office in heels. I remember once being told, years before I started my job, that most beauty editors don’t wear makeup. It struck me as so odd at the time. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of not wearing makeup out of the house, let alone to my job. I was raised to always be “polished” and “perfect,” and that meant putting a little effort into my outward appearance. That meant never being seen with chipped nail polish or wearing open-toed shoes without a pedicure. To this day, my mom puts on red lipstick before going to the grocery store, even though her lips are hidden behind a mask. “Beauty is pain,” I would repeat to myself while getting knots pulled out of my hair, wax ripped off my body, and needles injected into my face.
It was true, by the way: Many of the veteran beauty editors I got to know did not wear much makeup. If they did, it certainly wasn’t obvious. I would study their glowing faces as we sat together and edited my feature stories line by line—not because I was interested in what they looked like, but because I was fascinated by what they had to say. We would talk about the things that made me fall in love with this line of work: Beauty is powerful, it’s deeply personal, and it’s a transformational tool that touches all our lives. But wearing false eyelashes doesn’t make you a better investigative reporter, and no eyebrow pencil in the world can help you write a compelling intro.
At 27, I was spending close to an hour each morning on my makeup ritual. I would tell myself that it was part of my job and use that time to test new products so I could write about them. What was once a quick and somewhat relaxing makeup routine started to feel more like work with each day that passed. I felt like a chef who had to come home and cook dinner. Every hair appointment, every nail appointment, every facial, every moment of beauty in my life started to feel like something I had to do, rather than something I wanted to do out of free will. Not even beauty—something considered universally fun and enriching—is immune to the malignancy of excess.
By the time I started at BAZAAR, it wasn’t enough to look beautiful in person; I now had to look that way on camera too. I was shooting Instagram Stories and YouTube videos that were viewed by millions of Internet strangers, who had millions of opinions about the way I talked, dressed—even the way I held products in my hand. I wasn’t particularly insecure about the way I looked, but that soon changed. I started applying makeup on my ears, because I heard that’s what they do on TV; worrying about the way my neck looked from every angle. I was being told to “get lip injections” in the comments section, even though I already had them! I felt like I had to live up to a certain nebulous ideal of Internet beauty.
Then I got engaged and soon started an intense diet and exercise routine so I could look toned and ripped in my wedding photos. I would start my days with early weight lifting sessions and end them with post-work Botox appointments. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that beauty should enhance one's life, not consume it.
I’m celebrating my 30th birthday in the fixer-upper I just bought with my husband, an hour away from New York City and surrounded by half an acre of giant, towering trees. I cut five inches off my hair last week by myself in one of my bathrooms. I do not have makeup on. My fingers and toes are unpainted and gnarled by all the house work I’ve been doing. I don’t have any meetings today, so I might not even brush my hair. I’ve been this way for months. When the pandemic first started, I posted an Instagram Story about how excited I was to wear no makeup for “two weeks.” A couple weeks turned into a year.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve formally done my makeup since last March. Each time was for something public facing, like shooting a video or hosting a virtual event. I’ve applied a little concealer here and there, sometimes a swipe of lip tint, but for the most part, I’ve spent the last year rejecting all the beauty notions I once held true. When I wear makeup now, it feels performative, like a costume I’m slipping on for the role of beauty editor. I still love mascara and lip gloss and all the things that have afforded me this career—they’re just no longer draining me of emotional energy or time. I’ve stopped caring so much about the way I look—not because I deem it “unimportant” or because I’ve “given up,” but because I’m no longer participating in beauty for the validation of others. The house of beauty rules I’ve built over the last 29 years has come crumbling down.
These days, I feel most beautiful when I take a deserved shower after an afternoon of sunscreen and yard work, or when I’ve just completed a sweaty workout. In some ways, I’ve never felt more like myself than in the year I’ve spent away from my regular beauty routine. But I also know this won’t last forever—the world has to go back to some semblance of normal. Will I?
I’m no longer insecure about my age (at 30, I actually feel like a functioning adult), but I’d be lying if I said the insecurities about my authority in the space have gone away. Can I still be a beauty expert if I’m no longer smothering myself in it? Will people look at my bare nails and think, What does she know about manicures? I still worry, perhaps too much, about what others think of me and my physical relationship with beauty. What nobody tells you about aging is that you don’t always shed the old layers of yourself as you grow.
Though I may look a little less glamorous than I did a decade ago, with a few more lines and way less black goop around my eyes, my love for beauty has not diminished, but instead evolved into something else. Maybe once I get a taste of normalcy in the coming months, I’ll go running back to the nail and hair salons. Or maybe those veteran beauty editors—who mentored and guided me without much makeup on at all—had more of an influence on me than I originally thought. I know I’m not the only one who hit pause on her beauty routine and is now wondering what’s next, though my situation is more peculiar than most. I can tell you the hottest hairstyles for fall 2021 and the lipstick everyone will be wearing, but I can’t tell you whether or not I’ll be wearing it too.
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