Why Do You Wear Makeup, Mommy?

A simple question with a complex answer.
Brittany Stone
Different occasions call for different looks. Mom and writer Brittany Stone with her daughter.

As a woman, I am acutely aware of the messages that cascade down from media and society, telling women that they are not beautiful enough. Everywhere, it seems, there are messages that reinforce the premise that beauty is necessary — a prerequisite for success or acceptability, a barometer for worth, a goal to achieve.

Despite being both bought in and well versed in body positivity, I still require an hour before leaving the house. I rarely go the day without at least a little bit of makeup. If nothing else, I usually still dab a bit of concealer under my eyes to brighten up those dark circles. Why?

My daughter sat in the bathroom one day, carefully watching me apply mascara, and she asked me a question I knew I’d have to answer one day: “Momma, why are you putting that on?”

Some women feel an obligation to not leave the house “looking like this,” where this is code for myself. In other words: makeup as a favor to everyone else. Other women have internalized all of the things that are supposedly wrong with them — my skin is too this, my eyes are too that — and makeup can cover up what they don’t like. Makeup to hide “ugliness.”

There are also women who use makeup as a tool of empowerment and transformation. Just as a selfie allows a woman to be in control of her own image and present herself to the world without anyone else’s filter but her own, makeup also allows a woman to articulate her own vision for who she is.

So the simple act of applying makeup can have wildly different motives ranging from the problematic to the empowering. And the truth is: In many ways, I am all of these women. But this answer is a little too complex for an 8-year-old.

In that very brief moment before answering, I recognized that I had a big responsibility. My answer needed to be honest without perpetuating any of the gross stuff.

“Well, there are some parts of my face that I really like and think are beautiful. And when I put certain colors on in certain ways, it makes it easier for everyone else to see them,” I said.

“OK. Can we play a family game tonight?” And just like that, she had moved on.

Months went by before either of us brought it up again. Then, a childhood friend of mine was in town a few weeks ago hosting a comedy showcase called Eyes Up Here. I threw on a hat, black Jordans, and some purple lipstick, and tossed some snacks in a bag, before running out the door to get everyone where they needed to go on time and at least sort of fed.

As we were hurrying to the car, my daughter paused and stared at me.

“I like that lipstick, Momma. You’re right; it made me want to look right at your pretty lips.” Months later, she had remembered our short conversation together in the bathroom, which felt vaguely like a win.

This morning, she came down the stairs and into the kitchen with a thin layer of clear lip gloss and the timid confidence of growing up.

“I get my lips from you; right, Mom?”

“You do.”

“I think they’re pretty like yours, so I made them a little shiny this morning.”

“And how do you feel?” I asked.

“I feel great!”

Though with time and adolescence her self-image is sure to evolve, she’s starting from a place where she isn’t covering up some imagined deficiency.

So this morning I am reminded that, sometimes, our most important job as parents is to answer big questions asked in small moments, because they really are listening.

Brittany Stone is a linguist. Fan of book smell, hip hop, her backpack, and democracy. Freelance thinker. Beyoncé enthusiast.