I know better than to pay attention to the tabloids lined up at the checkout line. They’re exploitive, 99% fictitious, and mostly downright mean. But sometimes, I can’t help myself: it’s not the “Can you believe he cheated?!” or “She’s finally pregnant… with twins!” headlines that draw me in. What catches my eye are the covers depicting celebrities, caught unaware, stripped down and bare — not their bodies of course, but their faces. In a world of Spanx, hair extensions, and airbrushed foundation, it’s one of the rare times I see celebrities who look just like me.

I am a woman in my mid-30s and I don’t wear any makeup. My daily beauty routine consists of washing my face, rubbing in some coconut oil or face cream (with SPF!), plucking a stray eyebrow hair or two, and then heading out the door. The closest I come to wearing makeup is the tube of tinted lip balm that I keep in my purse, although I’m not so sure if Cherry Coke Lip Smacker really counts.

Avital Norman Nathman
Avital Norman Nathman

For me, not wearing makeup isn’t a point of pride or protest. I do think that our society focuses heavily on promoting certain forms of beauty. But I don’t believe that makeup and all its accoutrements are nothing more than tools of the patriarchy whose sole existence is to turn women into sexualized objects for the male gaze. No, my makeup-free existence isn’t that extreme.

See, I actually first started wearing makeup when I was eight-years-old and involved in dance. Back then, I’d rub some ruby red rouge on my cheeks, cover my eyelids in electric blue shadow and apply lipstick that made it appear I’d been downing Kool-Aid all afternoon. In high school, I experimented with makeup in the same way I experimented with hair color: lots of bright colors with the occasional exaggerated white or black rimmed cat eye that felt more akin to the stage makeup I sported as a dancer than the everyday type I saw around me. I played around with my look to feel unique, as much as to have fun.

I stopped wearing makeup in college, mostly out of convenience (I’d rather sleep in than put on concealer), but also because my then-boyfriend (now husband) honestly didn’t care whether I wore it or not. The reasons to stop wearing makeup just seemed to add up:  I discovered that most brands seem to make my sensitive skin itch, and eye makeup bothers my contacts.

Itchiness and apathy basically boiled down to living a makeup-free life and I’m truly fine with that. When I look at myself in the mirror and in pictures, I think I look fine … great even. I don’t begrudge those who have the time and skill to wear makeup, and occasionally I’ll even toy with trying it again … though that usually lasts a day or two before I give up again.

Years after giving up makeup, it doesn’t escape my attention each time I walk past those magazine racks, headlines screaming at me “Nearly Unrecognizable! 20 Shocking Photos of Stars Without Makeup!”

Everything about these covers makes it seem like a big coup for the magazine, as if they’ve “caught” these celebs without their professionally done makeup, and worse yet, that there’s something wrong and mockable about it. I admit to feeling a twinge of shame, when before I was confident and comfortable in my own non-celebrity skin. After all, if super stunners like Tyra Banks, Sofia Vergara and Kate Hudson, are being called out for daring to leave the house sans makeup, what does that say about me? Have I been deluding myself with how I look in a naked face?

I asked Andi Zeisler, co-founder and creative/editorial director of Bitch Magazine, which critiques media through a feminist lens, why these makeup-free tabloid spreads have such a strong appeal. “There’s always, always been a strong cultural urge toward invoking punishment and shame for women who don’t do a good enough job of keeping up their facades, and for celebrities that’s compounded by the ongoing tabloid drive to ‘expose’ stars as not being as perfect or as special as they seem,” Zeisler told me. “And now there is an economic incentive for this kind of gotcha-focused journalism — a photographer who gets a picture of the world’s biggest female celebrity unwittingly looking hideous can make enough to live on for a year.”

It would be helpful if celebrites made a point to show themselves without makeup more often — for instance, on social media, where women like Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow have already been known to post makeup-free pics. While I wish I felt some sort of solidarity with these plain-faced” starlettes, we are so many worlds apart that I just can’t muster it up: these women are being caught unaware, not intentionally defying societal expectations by showing up to an event makeup free. One rare exception is “The Fault In Our Stars” actress Shailene Woodley, who is public about wearing little to no makeup on the red carpet and looks quite lovely while doing it.

I still plan to keep rocking my beloved (and tasty!) lip balm and not much else. But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop, sigh, and shake my head the next time I see a tabloid trotting out a makeup-free Jennifer Aniston in the hopes of selling a few more covers. If some of the world’s most conventionally beautiful women are being called out for their “fresh” faces, what hope do the rest of us have?