“Look Mommy, now I am beautiful!”
These were the words I heard my three year-old niece happily exclaim to her mom as we sat in the living room together. She had just applied her new, transparent chap stick to her face (lips would be an understatement). My sister and I just looked at each other, a little clueless as to how her young daughter already equated makeup to beauty.
My sister has tried so hard to teach her children that the term beauty does not equate to appearance. And yet somehow the act of covering her lips, even in something invisible, made my niece remark on her beauty. Maybe this event isn’t abnormal, but it is so telling of our culture and just how young we are when we begin to recognize the word "beauty" as something associated with changing ourselves.
When I was in high school, I loved makeup. You would never see me without it. I always needed to have it at the ready to cover an incoming zit or to darken my blonde eyebrows and lashes. My family would say that I didn’t need to wear makeup; that I was beautiful without it. I always answered their comments with a frustrated response, stating that my makeup was truly an art form; that I knew I didn’t need to wear it, but I really liked how I looked with it.
It took years before I realized that maybe my family’s comments hit a little closer to home than I had thought. Maybe I liked how I looked with makeup because I was uncomfortable with my natural, pale face and my blonde eyelashes. Maybe there was a reason I never left my house without it. I was afraid of walking out of the house with nothing between me and the world.
After I realized that I actually had anxiety about leaving the makeup off my face, I made myself do it for a day. And then another. It was fairly intimidating at first, but eventually, I began to feel free and strong. Free enough to face the world without the barrier in between us, and strong enough to allow the world to face me.
When I think back on that season of my life, I often wonder how such a harmless thing became so harmful to me. I’m sure it was built over time by little messages that whispered lies into my ear about the ways I needed to change to be beautiful. I wish they had been shut down sooner, but I’m also grateful for all I have learned and all the grace I have been given to understand beauty the way I do today.
Everybody has their own barriers that they feel tempted to hide behind. For me it was makeup. I truly believe that makeup can be used to empower, to express, and to be creative; I can now say that any makeup I use is not to hide who I am, but something that I enjoy wearing time to time. It's important to recognize that there are things that may empower one person, while also acting as an obstacle for another to feel beautiful in their own skin. Every body is beautiful no matter what we have, or do not have on, or inside our skin.
As for my niece, I feel comfort in the fact that she is often told that she is beautiful, with and without chapstick. I feel even more comfort that she is also told she is strong, intelligent, kind, and loved.
About the author: Abby Case studies nutrition at Syracuse University and has recently joined the Circles of Change community. She is passionate about food justice and encouraging everyone to discover a beautiful relationship with food and their body. Abby loves good documentaries, climbing high peaks, and really sharp cheddar cheese.