My first encounter with makeup was watching my mother getting ready in the morning. I stood outside my parents’ room on the landing of our sunlit apartment and listened to her humming to jazz. The music drifted into other rooms to open the day.
I began by observing, watching YouTube videos of girls cooing over the textures of eye shadows, lipsticks and Egyptian magic creams. The hunt was on for the perfect product that would bring out a better version of me. It was exciting to become familiar with the aesthetic of different brands, and every item I tried was another chance to hit the jackpot of the perfect one. I searched for items to achieve the kind of lips, brows and complexion I desired. Endowed with the confidence I felt wearing makeup, the items I used were no longer disposable commodities with a shelf life, but talismans I called upon for the spark I needed.
As I grew up, looking presentable and pristine became the conditions of me taking up space in the world. A sense of not being enough as I am had always been with me, like an old friend. I felt uncertain about myself in public settings, but when I’m made-up, I am certain of my appearance. Behind a screen of beauty, I looked out and I knew that other people would see this prettier version of myself that I had created. I couldn’t be a girl who never had her you-know-what together, was Chinese (whilst living in a predominantly white society) and ordinary. At least if I were beautiful, I had partial control of how I was perceived. I could be in any room and breathe easier, knowing that I am safe under the cloak of my appearance.
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I Lost Sense of Who I Was Without Makeup
After a decade of seeing my bare skin only in the process of putting makeup on or taking it off, my brain started to interpret makeup as a part of my face. Being barefaced wasn’t like being naked without clothes on, but being naked without skin. I had forgotten that pores were normal. Anything that marred the smooth canvas of my skin irritated me to an irrational degree. My bare skin was a mistake to be corrected and restored with foundation to the way that I was supposed to look. Arriving at the recognition of my own reflection as someone who resembled me, but was not me, I had placed my own likeness in the uncanny valley.
Before going on a date once, I felt so uncertain about myself and the other person, I stood in front of the mirror routinely scanning my face with my fingers and picked at the bumps on my skin. Before I could stop myself, I had wounded my skin deep enough that no makeup could cover.
When I look my best, I extend myself easily, there’s a tone of certainty in what I say, and I have faith that my appearance will carry me over any first date jitters. Looking at myself in front of the mirror and seeing just how far I am from the version of myself I had to summon in the morning, I felt emotionally exhausted to go through the drill again. On that night, when my inner and outer realities diverged to a point beyond my ability to bridge them, subconsciously I removed the option of showing up as someone more complete than I was feeling.
I called in sick the next day and canceled the date.
A Freak Accident Made Me Show My Real Face to the World
I was in my early twenties when I became conscious of my belief that if people found out the truth about me, they would be appalled. My selfishness, my anxieties about the future, my indecisiveness, jealousy, pettiness and mood swings all had to be hidden. I had to earn the right to be loved, and if I weren’t pretty, polite, achieving good grades and fulfilling whatever other expectations appropriate for that time, I would not be loved. As more people became attracted to my appearance, the more alienated I felt from myself and others. I wanted to be enough as I am, to be seen as I am, and loved as I am—yet I doubted the affection of others when I knew they never interacted with the real me, only the actress. Thus I turned my attention to people who made me feel as bad as I felt I deserved.
The routines which were cemented in my brain started to come undone almost by accident. In my second year of university, I visited my best friend on the island where she spent her childhood summers and discovered that my concealers were no match for the Caribbean Sea. My makeup routine was discarded upon arrival when I acquired a sunburn by day two. I couldn’t apply anything even if I wanted to. Aloe vera only! I felt more and more at home in my body as each day went by, and as new skin was revealed underneath the shedding.
A few years later, I met a boy who saw me and loved me for who I am. He forgave me for big and small things, and he raised a shelter over the weakest parts of myself. Months after our relationship had ended, I still can’t explain to him why I haven’t moved on as efficiently as he had. To have loved without any masks on, and for the space we created to have caved in under me as abruptly as it did has left me untethered. I know that my capacity to love remains the same, but our love was the first home I came home to. Like my mask, I’m still learning to leave it behind.