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IU student decides to go makeup-free for a year

Aug. 7, 2014

You might have seen her story featured on Good Morning America, The Huffington Post and Self Magazine’s website. When Annie Garau, a 20-year-old IU Bloomington student, decided to spend an entire year makeup-free, she found herself at the center of a media frenzy. This is Garau's take on her empowering experiment.

Like most women in this country, I don't consider myself beautiful.

I, like many other women, have looked in the mirror and hurled mental insults at what I saw: love handles; weird nose; pale, squinty eyes; thin lips.

Annie Garau

Annie Garau | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Makeup helped.

With my trusty concealer, I could mask any blemish. Eye-liner, mascara and eye shadow downplayed the squinty-ness. A touch of bronzer and blush made my pale winter skin look less like that of a corpse. Add a bit of lip-liner, lipstick and lip gloss, and bam! I had visible lips.

As my makeup collection grew and my self-esteem continued to shrink, I wondered: Did the makeup help?

It might seem a trivial debate: To bronze or not to bronze? But I began to think that makeup was just a small piece of a much larger problem in our society.

When 90 percent of women report feeling unhappy with their appearance, a study commissioned by Dove said, and less than 19 percent of our representatives in Congress are female, you have to wonder if there's a connection.

Makeup is only part of today's beauty culture, but it is especially relevant because it is used almost exclusively by women.

I decided to conduct an experiment.

I allowed myself one more glamorous, long-lashed, red-lipped night out for New Year's Eve. Then, beginning Jan. 1, I put away my bag of cosmetics for a year.

Saturday was day 200, and it has been an interesting seven months.

A whole year?

My friends sometimes asked me if I really had to go clean-faced for a whole year. As I sat on a bed watching a row of girls purse their lips, stretch their eyelids and blot their chins under the harsh lights of a giant mirror, it was hard not to feel weird or left out. They told me that I could wear it for a few nights out and no one would notice. At least I could put on some cover-up to hide that awful zit.

I was often tempted to quit. As a 20-year-old college student at Indiana University, I spent many weekends at fraternity parties surrounded by intimidatingly beautiful young women. My friends were right that no one would really know if I cheated. Even if they did, they probably wouldn't care.

I felt uncomfortable, undesirable and embarrassed when we went to these parties or when I saw myself in photos. I felt as if people were treating me differently, and according to research I read about in Nancy Etcoff's book, "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty," I might have been right.

Studies have found that people can look at a face for only 150 milliseconds and rate its beauty. Conventionally attractive children typically get better grades in school (although their advantage disappeared on standardized tests). Even babies have been shown to stare at beautiful faces longer than at less good-looking ones.

Fewer guys talked to me at these parties, and when they did, the short-lived conversations felt awkward. I was less outgoing when meeting new people, and I didn't like to dance or draw attention to myself. I started leaving earlier, eventually avoiding large fraternity parties altogether.

I found that most guys thought that they preferred women without makeup, but subconsciously, they were attracted to those who had used makeup in a subtle way.

They enjoyed the idea that a woman was naturally beautiful, but they didn't realize the extent to which makeup enhanced that beauty.

Femininity 'is our power'

As the days went by, I didn't exactly become happier with my appearance, but I did spend less time thinking about it.

Margaret McGladery, the assistant dean for research at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, said the time and energy women spend on their appearances can be a waste of potential.

"I've seen so many of my friends and coworkers, brilliant women, spend so much of their lives and time and money maintaining this ideal," she said. "When we're using these beauty practices, we're essentially draining women's ability to fully participate in political, work and social life. It's a brain drain for girls who are distracted from things that might be more fulfilling."

Don't misunderstand; McGladery loves makeup. She also is a fashion enthusiast who has had a Vogue subscription since age 11. What she doesn't love is when women feel overly stressed about their appearance or think they have to wear makeup or conform to society's idea of beauty to be accepted.

"Our femininity is our first right. It is our power, it is our treasure, and we have the right to employ it however we see fit," she said. "Beauty practices are important to modern feminism because they do provide us with a vehicle for a full range of self-expression.

"As long as we don't feel that we have to embody these beauty practices to feel valuable in this world, then they can be empowering."

Read the rest of Garau’s story on The Lexington Herald-Leader's website.

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