What Should We Teach Girls About Makeup?

I stayed with a family friend in Switzerland who had a young daughter.  This girl wasn’t even four years old, but she decided that we were going to be best friends as soon as she saw me.  

She spoke about as many words in English as I did in German (read: almost none), so our friendship usually involved me pointing at objects and asking, “Was ist das?” (“What is this?”) in a horrible Californian accent.  She would tell me the name, and then launch into a very involved story in Swiss German that I couldn’t understand a word of.  I made sure to listen very closely, and smile and nod encouragingly a lot.

She followed me into the bathroom one morning to watch me put on my makeup.  For the very first time since we had met, she was silent.  She watched me with huge eyes that I swear never blinked.  Only when she saw that she had my complete attention did she point at the mascara wand I had just used.  “Was ist das?” she asked.  Her accent was much better than mine.

We went through my entire makeup collection by name.  She was fascinated.  She wanted to know what each thing was, what it did.

It was beyond adorable.  I, however, found myself feeling very uncomfortable, even guilty.  Was makeup something that was appropriate for a small child?  

The questions got harder, too.  She wanted to know why I used each thing, not just what it was.

Well, shit.  I was stuck.  I couldn’t tell her that makeup made me prettier.  It was a simple answer, but if she thought I didn’t like how I looked, what was she going to think about herself when she grew up?  On the other hand, I couldn’t think of a good reason to tell her why I wore makeup.  I mean, what practical use does mascara have?

Her questions made me think about why I wear makeup in the first place.  At first, I just liked looking more like my professional photographs in day-to-day life.  But at some point, putting on makeup every morning had become a system, a routine that required a dozen different products and twenty minutes of my time.  And I didn’t even remember when I started--it just somehow became the norm.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman or a girl wearing makeup for any reason.  That’s their form of self-expression: they get to do whatever they want.  And if what they want to do is wear lots of makeup, or none at all, that’s fine by me.  

I’m just not comfortable with implying to girls that they should change their appearance because that’s the normal thing to do.  If she wants to be like you when she grows up (and trust me, she does), she’s going to think that she needs makeup, too.  She’ll think there’s something wrong with her face without it—after all, it’s not like yours.

I wish I could have told her to wear makeup, but only if she wants to.

I wish I could have told her to wear makeup, but only if she wants to.  Don’t listen to me, or anyone else.  Do what makes you happy with yourself. 

That, however, is far too complicated to explain to a toddler.  Especially when I don’t speak German.  I instead dotted some foundation on the tip of her nose and chased her around the room. 

She squealed with delight, too distracted to ask any more questions.  Which was good, because I wasn’t sure I had any answers for her.  I realize that—whether I wanted to or not—I had just taught that little girl a lesson about self-esteem and her appearance, and what she should do as a woman. 

I just hope the lesson was a good enough one.