column Elizabeth Thai
When I first arrived at Yale-NUS College, I wore makeup everyday. Maybe it was because of some repressed interest in the act—I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup back in school—or maybe it was simply because of Sydney’s fashion culture. Nonetheless, it was part of my daily routine and one that I didn’t consciously question. I would occasionally wear bright lipstick and heavy makeup and I remember constantly receiving strange looks or odd comments that “you look better without makeup”. I quickly adapted to Yale-NUS culture, deciding to hide my interest in cosmetics and doll up at night just to remove it all minutes later before I went to bed. A year later, and after a corporate summer internship where makeup was not merely tolerated but expected, I returned to school with a renewed love for aesthetic expression. Again, I was asked “Why are you wearing makeup?” far too often.
Eventually the questions stopped, but the sentiment that wearing makeup was superficial did not. For obvious reasons, few people would tell me I’m superficial to my face, but time after time, people would confess to having the wrong impression. I was even criticized for my appearance on the Confessions page.
While questions like “Why are you wearing makeup?” are seemingly innocuous, they are indicative of a negative hypersensitivity towards beauty that, ironically, leaves some people—myself included—feeling more insecure despite feeling more beautiful. When it is more commonplace to turn up to the dining hall wearing pajamas than wearing makeup, I understand why people might be surprised to see me putting time and effort in my appearance. However, why do people associate makeup and appearance-sensitivity as superficial? Even if we assume that everyone who is superficial cares about their looks, the converse isn’t necessarily true. Here, in a place as ostensibly liberal as Yale-NUS where we scrutinize and often debunk most stereotypes, why are we so content to accept this stereotype? Has our intellectual snobbery blinded us so much that we cannot see makeup as anything but a sign of despicable superficiality, and one that must stem from a place of insecurity?
For me, the exact opposite was true: not wearing makeup came from a place of insecurity. I never wore makeup because I did not dare believe that I could be beautiful, and figured any attempt to appear beautiful would just be embarrassing. No one likes being judged for their weaknesses or what they have little control over. With something as subjective as beauty, the only concrete standard is a narrow perspective imposed upon us by the fashion and beauty industry—most of us don’t like to put ourselves on that scale. But, to paraphrase the Scottish philosopher David Hume, beauty is not an external quality in itself but a certain kind of pleasurable feeling. Amid changing conceptions of beauty across time and place, this feeling is the most universal and timeless standard for beauty. Rather than denying ourselves its pleasure, we should seek to share it with others. By expanding our definition of beauty beyond the Megan Foxes and Miranda Kerrs of the world, we can reject the exclusivity of beauty without rejecting beauty completely.
We should feel beautiful enough to wear makeup and draw attention to what is not an imperfection, but our own personal, unique perfection and self-expression. Just as others do not need to hide behind layers of foundation, we should not need to hide behind a feigned disregard for our appearance. Everyone should be allowed to feel confident and beautiful without it being an indictment of “superficial” character.
Some say that a tertiary institution is a place for learning so it is inappropriate to wear makeup. That being said, it is also a time of exploration and personal development, including learning who you are and how you want to express yourself. As someone who is illiterate in all other art forms, heavier makeup is an important outlet for my creative expression. I am comfortable enough with how I look naturally to not feel the need to don an illusion of airbrushed “natural” perfection.
Some say how they look really doesn’t matter to them because it doesn’t say anything about them. I have always been acutely aware of how my appearance elicits certain expectations and assumptions without my explicit and conscious action. My appearance is a first act of communication and it is a part of who I am. It doesn’t need to be a defining part, or even my proudest part for that matter, but it is a part of me nonetheless.
Everyone expresses themselves in different ways and for me, makeup is an important mechanism. I know it is an important way for others too. Let’s make Yale-NUS a safe place to explore and appreciate all forms of self-expression.