What is your natural state? I’m thinking just-got-out-of-bed, flatmates-are-all-away, no-chance-of-seeing-anyone-for-hours-(maybe-days)-natural state. Your lazy, effortless, easy-peasy, bare-bones basics. And how much does that differ from when you actually leave the house, or facetime someone important, when you get dressed and do your hair and decide how you’re going to present yourself to the world that day? And in which state do you feel more like yourself?
I did a little experiment over lockdown. When we weren’t seeing anyone, weren’t going out, when it was just me in the middle of the countryside, with my family and my dogs, I stopped putting on makeup, stopped doing my hair, stopped wearing anything other than old jeans and trackies. I wanted to see whether this mattered at all, whether I genuinely enjoyed all the extras and additions included in getting dressed, or whether I was only putting on makeup to wash it off at the end of the day, whether I was putting in earrings just for them to come with me around the house, unseen, and then be taken off before I fell asleep, whether it was all pretty but pointless. The answer was surprising – I felt lost without it all. For about a month, I made absolutely no effort to dress up like me; I rocked up everyday to breakfast in the exact same state as when I went to bed. (Except of course I kept brushing my teeth, because I’m not an animal, and I obviously did my skincare routine, because I will continue to wash my face, apply serum and moisturise even if I’m running for my life from a true zombie apocalypse). And it made me feel weird. What I found, essentially, is that the me that I feel most me as is dependent on how I have chosen to present myself. I found that through stopping all of what I had been seeing as performative actions made me lose skills. Some of my ear piercings closed up through lack of use. I still have not remastered the skill of winged eyeliner. For me personally, I am most myself when I am wearing the clothes I have chosen, when I have the hair colour I picked out in Boots, in the style I feel like that morning, when I have applied the pretty basic makeup I wear most days, when I have put on the very basic jewellery I wear every day, and when my stupidly expensive nails look their best. While that may not be my most ‘natural’ appearance, it is my most ‘authentic Honor’ appearance.
I want to take a lot of makeup wearers back to the first time they made their forays into the world of beauty products. I think everyone’s journey follows a roughly similar trajectory. You rocked up at Boots, or Superdrug, and drifted around the aisles, touching literally everything, until you stumbled upon Maybelline, where you picked up the Dream Matte Mousse and some WaterProof Mascara (always Waterproof – I don’t know what ordeals we thought we’d be going through to constantly warrant this). Then you drifted slowly, but irrevocably, towards the bright green eyeshadow, and the blue mascara. It was garish, it was colourful, and your dad definitely made a joke about someone giving you a black eye when you came downstairs wearing it for the first time (I’d like to be clear; I am basing this experience completely on starting wearing makeup in the UK, between roughly 2009 and 2013). After this initial foray, of which there are a limited number of (secretly treasured) photos, you grew up a bit, learnt some skills, and started going for the ‘no-makeup makeup’ look, where you try to look both as pretty as possible, and as if you have put in as minimum effort as possible. A ‘natural’ look. And then, after a couple of months, or years, of this, you again began to experiment with makeup, after becoming comfortable with your ‘natural’ base. The culmination – you have found your own style. Hurrah. Living the dream. Expressing yourself. Feeling your best everyday. I’m proud of you, babe.
If you have followed this trajectory, you will have noticed that a no-makeup makeup look, supposedly ‘natural’, rather than being a reversion to your most basic state, is actually just a step in a process. I am not at all interested in discussing how a glorified ‘natural’ image is damaging to young people, who think that everybody wakes up looking exactly like models – this is obviously a ‘Bad Thing’, but I’m not trying to work out when you feel like you’re closest to a beauty standard. I’m trying to work out when you all feel most like yourself. To me, this is the concept of ‘authenticity’ – whether being ‘natural’ is the same as being ‘authentic’, whether you have to lean towards one at the cost of the other, or whether they work together to produce you.
As far as I can tell – after thinking about this on and off for a couple of months – is that no matter how far an individual varies from what is considered ‘natural’ in appearance, the more choice they have in how they present themselves, the closer their outer appearance is to their inner character and self. However, it would seem that when somebody tries to control their appearance, or alter it, without taking into account subconscious biases, beauty expectations, repressed aspects of their identities – all the things we hate – both the authentic and natural are lost. You need to know why you want to present yourself in a certain way – is it because of what makes you able to be most yourself? Is it what hides the aspects of yourself, your body, your character, that you find most displeasing? Is it what makes it easiest for those around you to be nice to you? If you don’t figure these things out, then you might just be masking yourself with the identity you wish you had, which in the long term would not be that fun of a game to play.
A different dimension of the balance between natural and authentic must also be understood in terms of the base you begin with – there is always a limit. There’s only so much you can control. And there’s only so much you should control. And there’s also only so much that you know how to control.
I have found that, in general, men are often more limited by how they can present themselves than womxn – if they want to keep inside of what is considered the ‘norm’. While it would seem to me that each day womxn can and do appear as various versions of themselves, each day appearing closer or further away from their ‘normal’ appearance in a myriad of variations, men are saddled with a more static image. Men often have less access to tools for subtly changing their appearance and the way they present themselves than womxn. I would say that they are also encouraged to do so far less frequently. This could be taken as a greater acceptance of ‘natural’ men than natural womxn, or as a parameter for self-expression and authenticity. While I am mainly thinking of quite heteronormative men with this very generalised statement, I have been told that there are certain categories of gay men, each with a ‘look’, and that the pressures to fit into certain visual stereotypes of homosexuality are very present.
In writing this article, I have found myself thinking a lot about the tagline for WAH Nails, a nail salon that was huge a few years ago. ‘Fake hair, fake nails, real talk, WAH Nails.’ In a way, this kind of sums up what you’ve read today – fake hair, fake nails, real talk (we can cut the WAH promo). Fake looks do not equate to disingenuous conversation; an altered appearance does not negate authentic behaviour. I think that you need to find your personal balance between natural and authentic, and that the key to this is being in control of the way you present yourself to the world. This is not the be all and end all of self-expression or being yourself but, for me, it has its place in my list of priorities.