How I looked before I quit makeup cold turkey. (Photo: Stephanie Yoder)
I used to wear a lot of makeup.
Actually, that’s not totally accurate. I know girls who wear a lot of makeup, who practically paint on a new face each day, and I was not one of them. My daily routine consisted of a bit of moisturizer, a powdered foundation, some eyeshadow, mascara, blush, and lip gloss.
Still, the fact remains: I had a daily makeup routine. But that all changed two years ago, when I started living on the road. I pretty much quit wearing the stuff cold turkey.
It wasn’t intentional, at first. The truth is, I didn’t wear it because I was too jet-lagged to even bother. But as time passed and I got used to road life — and therefore didn’t spend half my days jet-lagged — I still couldn’t be bothered. There didn’t seem to be a point to putting on a face.
When I was in Australia, for instance, I lived out of a van, and the idea of putting on mascara in the rearview mirror was almost comical. In Southeast Asia, it was so hot, it would have immediately melted off anyway. In China, I already looked so radically different from everyone else that my skin color practically was my makeup; I didn’t see any reason to try to dress things up even more.
Not a trace of makeup to be found. (Photo: Stephanie Yoder)
And here’s the thing: I didn’t miss makeup at all. In fact, I abandoned most of my beauty routines when I started living on the road. Instead of blow-drying or curling my hair, I put it up in a ponytail every day. I lost all qualms about wearing the same dress four days in a row, even in Argentina, where women get decked out just to go to the grocery store. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my appearance; it was that suddenly, for the first time since childhood, my own face seemed like enough. I didn’t need to add anything to make myself presentable to the world.
Back when I lived at home, I remember going to work one day without makeup. I was late, and I’d simply forgotten to put it on. My co-workers were surprised; lots of them asked if I was sick that day. But that never happened when I was living on the road. Nobody commented on my bare face. I don’t think I look like a model in the photos from that year, but I don’t look half bad. My beauty secret is written all over my face: I look so, so happy. Smiling eyes totally make up for a lack of eyeliner.
Her smile’s so bright, she should put on her shades. (Photo: Stephanie Yoder)
Of course, contemplating a woman’s relationship with makeup is nothing new. Women all around the world go to great lengths to fit cultural concepts of beauty, and some anthropologists have made entire livings studying this phenomenon. There are the doll-like women in Japan, for instance, who teeter in high heels and wear fake eyelashes. There are Chinese women who buy skin-bleaching creams at the supermarket. There are Colombian women who sport such marvelous fake boobs and butts that one could call them incredible works of architecture. The point is we’re all impacted by the cultural concept of beauty, but it seems a bit easier to abandon it when you’re not on your home turf.
Chinese supermarkets are filled with beauty products. (Photo: Stephanie Yoder)
Which brings me to now. I’d like to say that the moral of my story is that makeup is totally useless, and I never wear it now. But that would be a lie. Now that I’m back in the U.S., certain beauty routines have crept back in. It’s vanity through and through: I just cannot go out for drinks with my beautiful girlfriends and be the one washed-out weirdo. I just can’t do it, even though I did it while I was abroad. The honest truth is that the beauty ideals here are just too strong, and I’m not immune to their power.
I’m still a low-maintenance girl; I always have been. I don’t wear heels, I bite my nails, and my two hairstyle choices are basically “up” or “down.” But I also just bought a huge load of sparkly makeup, and I’m currently obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress.
It’s complicated, of course. What my year of traveling with a bare face taught me, though, is that it’s OK to have a nuanced relationship with beauty. It’s OK to pick and choose which cultural beauty standards I want to participate in, and it’s OK to not buy into the idea that there is one way that is the way. Our cultural beauty standards are totally arbitrary and unique to our society, our space, and our time. It wasn’t until I spent some time opting out of them that I realized they were something to opt out of in the first place. Travel helped me realize that we all have a choice to participate or not — and that choice is truly liberating.
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