Bare-faced cheek

It's the latest celebrity fad: the 'brave' act of going without make-up. Holly Williams, who had to ditch the mascara for a year, reports on our complex relationship with cosmetics

There are many actions we might reasonably term 'brave'. It's brave to risk your own life to save someone else's; it's brave to stand up to bullies and injustice and people wielding power. You can put on a brave face – being stoic, if you or someone you love is sick or sad.

But, if you believe recent, increasingly breathless coverage in the press, one of the bravest things you can do is leave the house without any make-up on – if you're a woman, of course (sorry chaps, you're going to have to keep on saving puppies from floods). 'Famous celebrity bravely steps out without make-up!' 'Brave actress nips to the shop without war paint!' shriek weekly glossies and the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame. A brave face, it would seem, is actually just being seen as nature intended.

Last month, a raft of 'slebs' went make-up free for charity – the likes of Heidi Klum, Louise Redknapp, Jodie Kidd, Julia Bradbury, Lulu and Abbey Clancy were all photographed 'bear-faced' by fashion photographer Rankin as a fundraiser for Children in Need (Pudsey bear… get it?). That's right: seeing these women – most of whom, let's face it, hit the genetic jackpot anyway – without make-up was actually deemed worthy of sponsorship. The public were encouraged to follow suit; Kidd hoped the shoot would inspire women "to be brave"; Lulu wanted us to "dare to bare"; Redknapp, Klum and Bradbury all banged on about – groan – "empowerment". Actually, the message seemed to be: looking yourself, ladies, is as much a novelty as getting into a bath of baked beans or as demanding as running a marathon.

The natural reaction to this is surely to weep your mascara into twin raging black waterfalls. How is it newsworthy when a female risks appearing without a full mask of make-up? The cross feminist in me starts muttering "Women are always judged by their appearance", "This is an equality issue", and "Up yours, Pudsey/patriarchy" (delete as you prefer).

And yet… it's more complicated than that. Talk to most women, and it becomes clear make-up is a highly personal, high-stakes issue. Going without make-up is not, in any real sense, brave, and yet it can feel like it. People wear all sorts of slap for all sorts of reasons – from peacocking dramatic looks for the sheer joy of it to subtle shading and lightening in order to look like themselves, only more so. Many of us wear make-up every single day. There's a reason it's referred to as war paint; it can be a shield, a defence. It can make you feel more ready to go out and face the world, more confident. And, after all, it's nice to look nice. Even if we know full well no one should be judged on their appearance alone – God, who doesn't want to look as pretty as they can?

This was how I always felt: never exactly a full-face-'o-slap kinda girl, I nevertheless was much happier with a lick of eyeliner, a smudge of eyeshadow. Yet, for the past year, I've been entirely make-up free.

It wasn't in the name of journalistic research, a charity fundraiser or an experiment in gender politics – I'm not about to come over all righteous. I wouldn't have done it if I had a choice. My eyelids were afflicted by chalazions: cysts which aren't harmful, but are unsightly. They've hung around, despite several, practically medieval, operations involving metal clamps and slicing. I was advised to ditch the make-up to give them a better chance of clearing up, and it's amazing how the threat of scalpel to the inside of your eyelid makes the desire to wield a mascara wand shrivel up.

But at first, it really wasn't easy. I had to ditch the contact lenses, too, and felt positively nerdy, plain-faced and be-spectacled, like I was in a romcom about the geek who turns out to be a stunner, only without any chance of that transformation. I was convinced I looked tired all of the time (I often was tired, but previously a bit of make-up helped to perk me up). And I suddenly found myself having to confront a reality I'd usually managed to ignore: I'm quite vain. Deprived of make-up, I realised how much I liked it.

I liked the routine, particularly when getting ready to go out dancing or to parties. I liked the element of transformation. I liked playing with how I looked. I liked the camaraderie – screw those people who tell you it's unhygienic to share, I liked a good rummage in a friend's make-up bag. And I liked looking in the mirror and thinking that I looked good – or better, at least.

But it was amazing how quickly my perspective changed. I realised that other people take a lot less notice than you'd think. This should maybe be no surprise, for if we all worried as much about how everyone else looks as we do about ourselves, we'd do nothing except sit around frowning at the shape of each other's eyebrows. The most salutary lesson came early on. I whinged about my make-up detox to two female friends. The first remarked, "Oh, I hadn't realised you weren't wearing any". The second – in an entirely different conversation – remarked, "Oh, but you don't wear make-up anyway". Perhaps my chums were particularly unobservant, or being nice, but I think it's more that, actually, we neither notice nor care as much as we think we do about how other people look.

However, being honest, I expect it would have been more difficult if I'd been single – the bare-faced, non-routine began almost at the same time as I got together with my boyfriend. It was agonising on early dates, but also kind of encouraging – after all, if someone still finds you attractive when you have a lumpy eye to rival Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, you know they're keen. I suspect I'd have been a good deal more petulant, and self-conscious, had I remained on the cruel merry-go-round of first dates and random snogs.

With the Christmas party season upon us, I'm unlikely to be one of the girls fugging up the office loos for hours, getting glitter in the sinks and hogging the mirror. I did try branching out – having never gone in for lipstick much, it became the one way to play, and I love it for nights out now. I flirted with extra skin lighteners, brighteners, and highlighters… but I find I mostly can't be bothered with them, or the lippy, on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the medical excuse has allowed my natural laziness to flourish. Or perhaps I've just got more used to seeing myself as I actually look, flaws and all.

Not that I'm asking for a medal for this. While I'm quite pleased about caring less, I would never suggest that we should all burn our blushers. I'm looking forward to sharpening my eyeliner again if I ever get an all-clear on the eyes. But this year of make-up-less living has also made me notice what a deeply odd battleground the coverage of our faces has become.

For there is a whiff of sanctimonious smuggery around going make-up free. As various commentators pointed out with the Pudsey shoot, it's not so very brave for models to be shot sans slap, by a fashion photographer, with great lightning. Hosts of a US chat show, The Talk, launched their new series in September without so much as a squirt of foundation between them – but Sharon Osbourne later admitted she'd had her eyebrows dyed in advance.

Going bare-faced has become the ultimate humblebrag. Celebrities have taken to Twitter, posting pictures of themselves first thing in the morning or ready for bed, apparently all au naturel: Miley Cyrus, Holly Willoughby, Demi Moore, and even Lady Gaga have uploaded snaps. Of course, they all look radiant.

Suddenly, daring to bare is another way of showing off: 'I look great even when I just woke up!'. This seems to be the new version of 'Oh, but I eat loads of chocolate' – the celebrity myth that they're naturally fabulous. It can feel like another stick to beat us normal creatures with: not only should we look incredible, we should do it without any help, first thing in the morning, when most of us more closely resemble a half-baked croissant – doughy, flaky, pasty or puffy.

Of course, the cosmetics industry is wise to the appeal of appearing naturally flawless – most brands offer barely-there beauty looks, even if they do involve shelling out very tangible wads of cash. Many are also attempting to move beyond the 'spend money – apply make-up – look fit' rubric. Bobbi Brown's mission statement is: "I believe that all women are pretty without make-up – but with the right make-up [they] can be pretty powerful", as if buying £34 tinted moisturising balm will suddenly land you a job at the UN. Bare Escentuals claim to have chosen brand ambassadors by personality, not looks, for their Force of Beauty campaign. 'Pretty is not enough. Pretty is nice… but beauty can change the world', trumpets the marketing material. But if you want to be Gandhi, it helps to buy their £49 bareMinerals starter kit, what with their products being handily 'designed to bring out your true beauty'…

The new fresh-faced, dewy standard of 'natural' beauty makes me feel as queasy as the demand that all ladies, to be truly feminine, should have cherry-red lips and dark lashes. Surely the only 'should' we need is that you should do what you like: no make-up, a bit of make-up, so much make-up you'd plaster a wall if you face-planted into it… If you like it, it's all good. Turning the decision to go make-up free into a sponsor- worthy act of bravery, or an ideal of true beauty, are both equally unnerving responses.

However, being forced to go entirely without for a while has had its benefits. I do dare to bare now – indeed, it doesn't feel daring at all. It feels completely, well, natural. And I can't help thinking that would be a better base line: you're fine as you are, but if you want to add a bit of eyeshadow, or cover up an outbreak of spots, or completely transform your whole face, that's fine too.

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