Recently I went to a party as a panda. It wasn't fancy dress—I just put on too much of a new, smudgy eyeliner that I'd never used before. Special occasions prompt us to want to look our best, and make-up, like clothes, offers the chance to choose what that might be. But where on the spectrum from natural to mask-like artificiality do we want to sit? And even if we know, how do we achieve it when there are acres of products on the shelves and we have less than a square foot of face on which to put it?
After the panda incident, I decided to get to grips with make-up, in theory and in practice. While I wear moisturiser daily, eyeliner often and lipstick sometimes, I have never made the transition to foundation or any sort of whole-face make-up. It always seemed odd: as a child you're told to keep your face clean, then suddenly as a grown-up you're encouraged to put dirt on it. I hate the feeling of having my face covered in gunk which gets on my clothes and my phone, and I dislike planting a kiss on a cheek clammy with what the industry calls "product". The occasional quick swish of compact powder on a sponge moistened with water is as far as I go.
There are lots of ways to learn how to apply dirt to your face. The internet is full of make-up tutorials, posted both by big companies such as L'Oréal and by individual women who just adore make-up and treat it with a high seriousness (see our feature on YouTube). Online, I discovered how to find my eye's "outer V"—it starts at the corner, heads for the outer edge of the brow, then turns inwards when it meets the eyelid fold—and also that dabbing on eyeshadow is better than swiping it, which removes as much colour as it applies. Offline, I went for a lesson at a department store. Hoping to avoid any more party make-up malfunctions, I chose the one called "smokey eye": in fashion-speak, eyes, like shoes and trousers, go into the singular. I picked up some tips, such as using the side of an eyeliner brush to get close to my lashes, and how to do a flick in the corner of the eye (rather than go freehand, you continue an imaginary line upwards from the lower lid). But after two coats of mascara, which I don't normally wear, my eyelids felt they were weight-lifting. I went home, heard the verdict—"too much" (son); "it makes you look old" (husband)—then ran upstairs, took it all off, and felt like myself again. It is not a coincidence that "made up" means pretend.
Why wear make-up in the first place? The urge to paint ourselves is millennia old: the ancient Egyptians had kohl, the ancient Britons woad. Jezebel is on record in the Old Testament as making up her eyelids; Elizabeth I and the Kabuki dancers of Japan slathered their faces with white lead; native Americans and other tribal cultures decorated themselves with bands of colour before a battle. Today it is part of our culture to paint ourselves before a different sort of encounter: a social one. The expression "war paint" is an apt one.
In her fascinating book "Bodies" (Profile Books), Susie Orbach describes how the culture we live in determines the marks we make—or "inscribe"— on ourselves. The world we live in is literally written on our bodies. The objective of make-up nowadays seems to be to mimic the smooth, even-toned skin of youth, and, to quote make-up artists and shop assistants, to "open up the eye" (singular). They all talk about opening up the eye; this is not a surgical procedure, thank goodness, but seems to mean making it look brighter and above all bigger. No one could tell me why that should be so desirable. Then I read that the distance between eyeball and eyebrow is a key factor in gender perception, and is much greater in women than men. To enlarge that distance is to exaggerate your femininity. And when the eye itself is widened it is a sign of submission, so opening up the eye makes us kittenishly vulnerable.
No wonder early feminists went bare-faced. Narrowing my eyes, I picked up a book on body language. "The use of lipstick", it read, "is a technique thousands of years old that is intended to mimic the reddened genitals of the sexually aroused female." Was ever a sentence more likely to give you pause before whipping a stick of Chanel’s Rouge Allure out of your handbag? We might just want to reflect a moment on these things before we hand over the contents of our wallets to the billion-dollar cosmetic industry, and slap our purchases, in the name of improvement, onto our party-going faces.