Going makeup-free in public isn't brave — it's human

Whether it's Hillary Clinton or the models of the new Pirelli calendar, women who bare makeup-free faces in public generate a lot of chatter. Why all the fuss?
Uma Thurman Pirelli Uma Thurman in the 2017 Pirelli calendar. Photo, Peter Lindbergh/Pirelli.

Every November, the Italian automotive company Pirelli releases calendars featuring gorgeous, barely-dressed models. They're so exclusive they can’t be bought (the company gifts them to a lucky handful of celebrities and customers each year) and they generate a particular kind of luxury buzz.

For 2017, Pirelli has opted to celebrate “more real and truthful” beauty. Photographer Peter Lindbergh wanted “to create a calendar not around perfect bodies, but on sensitivity and emotion.” His images of actors like Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling, Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyong’o are shot in artsy black-and-white, and many of the women have no make up on. Not surprisingly, they look lovely in their slightly rumpled state.

The actors featured are famous in no small part because the camera loves them — their faces are already extraordinary without artificial enhancement. The same goes for Alicia Keys, who announced her allegiance to the growing #nomakeup movement in a heartfelt essay for the Lenny newsletter back in May. After posing fresh-faced for publicity photos, Keys says it was “the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt.”

Photo, cover art for "In Common"/Paola Kudacki. Photo, cover art for "In Common"/Paola Kudacki.

Whatever a woman chooses to do with her face is her business and no one else’s, but suggesting that going makeup-free is “brave” or an act of feminist courage sounds either like an insult (why should a woman be scared to forego mascara or foundation?) or a humblebrag (women who know they look great au naturel pretending to be schlumps). This degree of “effortlessness” requires considerable hidden work — good genes and Instagram filters aside, looking flawless and well-rested without makeup is easier if you can afford facials and massages, luxury moisturizers and pricey hair care products, as well as a nanny, chef and maids to free your time for primping.

The #nomakeup trend reminds me of another, earlier b.s. social media cliché: skinny girls posing with carbs, pretending to actually consume them. That trend proved to be so obnoxious it spawned its own Tumblr parody called You Did Not Eat That. It was the embodiment of what Gillian Flynn called the “cool girl” in her 2012 bestseller Gone Girl: a male fantasy of a woman who is both hot and brilliant, and who eats like a horse but never gains a pound. This new brand of cool girl, it seems, is free to bare her dewy skin in public so long as she #wokeuplikethis.


One woman who will never be accused of being cool is Hillary Clinton. After her loss to Donald Trump, she's appeared in public without makeup on a few occasions — a choice that's drawn multiple interpretations. Writing in The Cut, Stella Bugbee called the varying reactions to Clinton’s makeup-free face “a perfect social inkblot,” proving your conviction that she is either a phony and a manipulator, a grieving fallen hero, or a hapless victim of sexism.

Clinton herself has lamented how the “hair and makeup tax” affects women in high-powered jobs. It’s a no-win: sacrifice precious time to your primping ritual, or be ridiculed and judged for not looking like the very picture of grace under pressure. Meanwhile, a man might get by with quick shave and fresh shirt.

And the fact that her beauty regime, or lack of one, continues to be a subject of fascination in the aftermath of the divisive U.S. election proves that it doesn't matter what heights a woman may reach, her lipstick is still going to be a topic of conversation. All made up or #nomakeup, it seems a woman can’t make a choice about how she looks without it meaning something much bigger than herself.

Photo, Canadian Press/ REX/Shutterstock Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at the Children's Defense Fund Beat the Odds Celebration at the Newseum in Washington, DC. This is Secretary Clinton's first public appearance since she conceded the election to Donald Trump. Children's Defense Fund Beat the Odds celebration, Washington DC, USA - 16 Nov 2016 Photo, Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who recently became the face of the U.K.'s No7 makeup brand, recently spoke to the New York Times about double beauty standards women experience. Adichie, whose TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” was a viral hit, says it’s equally ridiculous for a woman to feel compelled to wear makeup if it isn’t her thing, as it is for one who cherishes lipstick to be seen as frivolous.

“When we see a man who’s well dressed, we don’t assume that he must be shallow or he must not be a serious person,” she says. “Talking about men is helpful because we can then say, ‘If this woman who we are judging were male, and everything else stayed the same, would we judge her the same way?’” That’s an excellent point. And it does make you wonder: If the genders were reversed and a group of good-looking male actors posed for photos with minimal makeup and styling, would anyone consider it brave or groundbreaking? Would we even be talking about it at all?


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