"Seeing [models] without make up has zero impact on how I look at my own face."
Recently, there’s been some discussion about body image campaigns which involve women not just embracing their bare, brave faces but sharing them with the rest of the world so that they too can embrace them in all their brave braveness. This August 30, The Butterfly Foundation’s Makeup Free Me campaign asks women not just to bin the slap but to seek sponsorship for it. The aim is to raise funds for an organisation that supports Australians experiencing eating disorder - an honourable endeavour, no questions.
Except for this one: what benefit can it possibly serve for women’s self esteem to replace one beauty standard for another even less achievable one?
When I was at university, I went through a brief period of dressing sans brassiere. I'd just discovered feminism and while I wasn't quite embracing the idea of an ideological uniform, I did find myself attracted to the devil-may-care brazenness of stepping out without a chest sling. I'd like to say it was driven by a desire to reject your oppressive feminine constraints man, but the truth is much less political than that. Rather, it was the possibility that someone might see my freewheeling breasts and confuse me for a sexually adventurous sophisticate. That girl isn't wearing a bra! I imagined them thinking. How marvellously free-spirited she must be. I shall attempt to have sex with her immediately.
A bare-faced Megan Gale took to Twitter in support of the make-up free movement this month. Photo: Megan Gale/Twitter
I've felt the same way every time I've attempted to grow out my armpit hair, swapping the New York ingenue aesthetic for the French. I admire those who sport little tufts under their arms that can best be described as 'cheeky’. My own grows like weeds over a large unkempt garden. It is neither cute nor coquettish, but messy and (I think) unattractive. Gazing on it doesn't give one the imagined whiff of recently dishevelled bedsheets but of a woman who's lost the will to bathe. In my attempts to emulate the former, I've occasionally resorted to the trickery of growing a thatch in the middle and shaving around the outside - but like all beauty regimes, it ended up seeming like a lot of work that was also vaguely embarrassing in its subterfuge. Over time, I've questioned if my desire to cultivate small gardens beneath the shade of my arms is a statement that I want to make about the freedom of all women's bodies or just the freedom of my own. If it's not politics that leads me to want to embrace the hair on my body, what is it?
The short answer must be pure, unbridled vanity. I want to appear to stand before the world having overtly rejected all its expectations - the hair removal, the corsets, even the make up - and revel in the knowledge that in its barest state, my body won't betray me with its untidy flaws but glow like one blessed from birth. Oh, you're so beautiful without make up! So perky, so fresh! Your hair is so fine that you don't even need to shave! Stripped of sanctioned artifice, I could stand there, unshaven but still smooth. Unmade up but still pretty. Unshackled but still winsome, my pert breasts bouncing beneath a figure hugging tee shirt declaring THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.
Far easier to turn your back on the tropes of femininity when you know that what lurks underneath conforms already.
Alas, like many women, my body doesn't conform to these ideals. And so I shave and choose appropriate underwear. I wear make up (although general laziness means it's the kind that takes less than two minutes to apply). I style my hair and attempt to wear flattering clothes. And while doing these things sometimes makes me feel better about myself, more confident and vivacious, I don't really think that not doing them makes me feel significantly worse. I’m at a loss to understand how a body image campaign, however well intentioned it might be, can tackle the complex issue of women’s relationships with their appearance by asking women to focus on their appearance - particularly when it just creates another standard of comparison between those participating.
Having experienced some form of an eating disorder for the past 20 years, I know that the issues of esteem and body image are far more complicated than airbrushed photos of models or the advertising for beauty products. Neither of those things are what inspire me to sometimes stand before the mirror, pinching and groaning and yearning for a body that isn’t mine. Seeing Megan Gale with or without make up has zero impact on how I look at my own face, which is with a mixture of familiarity, occasional satisfaction and sometimes merely boredom.
I empathise with women who struggle to accept themselves, because I know what it feels like. But there has to be a better, sounder, more intelligent way to move beyond these essentially vanity driven, privilege ridden exercises and prioritise a value in ourselves that has nothing at all to do with how we look.
In the end, perhaps what we’re all trying to do is figure out a way to be liberated from our very selves. To take up as little space as possible, both physically and visually. To exist unshackled from the burden of the body, whether it’s primped and preened to within an inch of its life or alternatively allowed to grow like wild like a bramble bush. Although they surely do no great harm, the exhaustion of thinking about ourselves all the time cannot be solved by hosting make-up free days or campaigns that focus on rejecting beauty regimes. The problems we might have with ourselves burrow far deeper than the outer epidermis of our skin, and we will not be unburdened of this weight simply by wiping our faces clean.