Published on July 13th, 2015 | by Patricia Sully


Today on the bus: eye candy

In one hand she held a small mirror, the gold plastic lid hiding the small reflective surface. In the other, a brush. I couldn’t see the bag on her lap, but I could tell it was there as she adeptly dipped into it and resurfaced, carefully sliding the brush over her eyelids.

I was not a child interested in makeup and I grew into a woman who doesn’t know how to apply it. I didn’t even try until my late 20s, and even now, well into my early 30s, I’m limited to the basics. Foundation is applied with the same broad strokes as sunscreen — rubbed between my hand and then smeared across my face. Topped with a stroke of blush and quick coat of mascara, the routine takes no more than two minutes, which is probably at least a minute more than what it is worth. I will have rubbed it all off within the hour anyway.

The woman on the bus was clearly not a woman who smeared. She was an artist. As the bus rumbled from Tacoma to Seattle, she carefully painted. We all spend our time on the bus doing something — I read emails and the news, others page through novels or play quiet games of solitaire on their phones. She did her eye makeup.

It could only be a routine activity for her — the well practiced dance of navigating the bumps and turns inherent in public transportation make clear she was not a novice at on-the-road application. She moved with purpose, knowing just which brush to use to create the desired effect. It took close to forty-five minutes, start to finish. Each time I thought she might be done — surely, she was done! — a new task would emerge. She dusted and lined and shaded, careful but with ease.

She knew exactly what she wanted and exactly how to get it.

I stared. Blatantly. I couldn’t help it.

Later that day, in a meeting run long, I thought about her and her makeup. Truth be told, I didn’t like how it looked.

It is easy to say that makeup doesn’t matter, that women should wear it if they want to, not wear it if they don’t. Those are true statements, sure. They just don’t reflect reality.

Reality is that as women, we are consistently punished and rewarded for our looks. Men are too, I know. But not in the same way or to the same degree. The history of patriarchy and oppression makes it different. It is not that men are not judged on looks. But cis-men, particularly cis-white men, have not been oppressed.

Women have been.

So yes, women do not have to wear makeup. And yes, women can wear makeup that is not conventionally considered attractive. Women can do anything!

But we will be punished for it if and when we do. The punishments may be subtle and hard to see. They are there though. Women who do not conform to societal standards of beauty are paid less. Treated worse. Viewed as less intelligent, lazy, and less worthy.

Of course, if you wear makeup, you get punished too.

Sometimes, it seems as if there is just no winning.

My younger self, the version of me that did not wear makeup at all, would have said I eschewed it because I was a feminist, or because I just didn’t care.

The part I wouldn’t say — the part I was ashamed to say — was that I didn’t wear makeup because I was afraid of being judged if I did. I was afraid of doing it wrong and looking silly. I was afraid that I was not pretty enough, not enough of a “real girl” to engage in something viewed as so “girly.” Afraid it would highlight how little I fit into the trope I was meant to fit. I was not pretty enough to try and be pretty.

As I got older, those fears changed and shifted. Women who wore make-up, women who were “those kind of girls” were something other. Silly or vain. Not serious about the things I was serious about. Not real activists or feminists. Make-up and traditional femininity became a marker of sorts. As my feminist identity grew, so did fear around acknowledging that I did care sometimes. Yes, I disagreed and still disagree with the way we have limited and defined beauty. And also, sometimes I worry I don’t meet the standard that I don’t think should exist.

It is really fucking exhausting.

We are punished if we wear too much makeup or wear it “wrong.” We are rewarded when we meet certain standards of beauty. But then punished in other ways if we exceed some ill-defined middle ground. Men judge us. We judge each other. We judge ourselves.

It’s kind of a mess. I’m so tired of it.

But despite this mess, I can embrace the fact that it is complicated. And I liked the woman on the bus.

I don’t know why she wears eye make-up that takes nearly an hour to do. It’s probably not all that different from why I do the things I do: part habit and desire, an ever fluctuating combination of enjoying the way it looks and attempting to make it such that others like the way it looks too. I suspect she wears it at least in part because it helps her.

We all learn how to survive patriarchy the best we can, and grab liberation in all the moments we are able. Makeup is no exception. It’s okay that it might be both. That it might be survival and liberation. Many things are.

I hope the woman on the bus was satisfied with her artistry. I hope it gave her a sense of self-expression, and also gave her whatever small leg-up in the world it can.

And I hope if I see her again, I am brave enough to ask her how to apply eye liner.


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