Welcome to the Twilight Zone. We all live here now. My story is just one weird piece of this shelter-in-place world, and it's taught me an important lesson.
My story started with Lent this year. Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday when many Christians choose to abstain from something in order to focus more on faith. The abstention is often food-related, but can range from giving up alcohol to social media to Netflix to video games. How each person incorporates it into their faith, or doesn't, is a personal choice.
I chose to give up all my makeup for the 45 days of Lent this year -- and I'm still not wearing it.
It felt like a huge challenge. Turning 30 this year really dialed up my insecurities. Every day, sometimes twice a day, I would spend minutes in the mirror, touching up and perfecting my "look" before I would allow myself to be seen in public. My worries over my appearance were taking up too much space in my mind.
Born and raised in the Deep South, I've spent much (read: all) of my life being reminded of the importance of hospitality, small talk, dressing well, sitting up straight (turns out that's what the piano lessons were secretly for) and making sure your entire face and every strand of hair is perfectly styled and then generously shellacked with White Rain.
You never know who you might run into at the grocery store, they told me.
I wore dresses and heels nearly every day of high school, and I've slept in curlers so many times I think my skull might be misshapen. I learned nearly as soon as I could walk how to pose for a picture, and that having "good hair" should be on my list of long-term goals.
I should note here that I had a truly wonderful childhood, blessed by an incredibly loving mother who is equal parts beautiful and intelligent. But my mother knew being a successful woman often meant playing the beauty game, like it or not.
Here in 2020, I don't have glowing, smooth skin. I'm an average human, and that means I have imperfections. I had acne all the way into my 20s, and I have fine lines now. I washed my face on Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, moisturized and went to bed dreading the next day.
Taking the plunge was terrifying, but weirdly exciting. I tweeted about it, along with my very first make-up free selfie. I will not disclose how many I took before I felt OK with that one. It was too many. Still, I was feeling empowered by the "no turning back now" commitment of a sent tweet.
But soon, my mind started racing about an upcoming trade show. What would my industry contacts and co-workers think of this plain-faced journalist? What would the YouTube comments say if I needed to make a video for CNET? These were real questions I asked myself. After all, I'd been shown the way by a generation of hard-working women who in the 1970s and '80s were all too often considered an accessory rather than an asset for their offices. I worried I could sabotage my career.
Those worries aren't unfounded. There's plenty of research out there proving women are judged by their appearance. One study even found that more than two-thirds of employers admitted they would hesitate to hire a woman who didn't wear makeup. Another found that a person's initial estimate of a woman's trustworthiness, likability and competence were all higher when the woman wore makeup. I'm not job hunting, but I certainly don't want anyone questioning their decision to make me part of their team or include me in their project.
I had personal worries, too. In addition to my professional commitments, I had a 10-day vacation to Japan planned for the middle of March. Would I look back years later at stunning photographs of ancient temples only to be horrified by my jet-lagged, oily, blemished face ruining the whole scene?
I successfully made it through the first two weeks of work and appointments around town sans cosmetics. The first day was hard. I wanted to hide everywhere. Even the first time I saw some family members was difficult. I've worn makeup nearly every day of my life since 7th grade. It was a covering I never removed even in my closest relationships.
Slowly, the days became easier, and I was more comfortable with what I saw in the mirror. Little did I know, the Easter Sunday end of my 45-day Lenten practice would be in the midst of a pandemic. There would be no trade shows. There would be no vacation.
On March 12, I found myself working from home indefinitely when our offices closed. With nowhere to be and no one around, the whole makeup challenge seemed like it would be a breeze.
"Man, I picked the right year for this one," I thought to myself, feeling a smidge guilty about getting off the hook so easily.
Then Zoom came around. Slowly, but surely, video meetings popped up on my calendar. Team meetings, happy hours, one-on-one chats with my editor. Now, people were staring at my face under what felt like a digital microscope.
I had little tricks that made me feel better, like adding large, distracting earrings to my outfit or resting my head in my hands to hide blemishes around my chin. A giant coffee cup is also great for hiding half your face (a wine glass works, too).
All the time I wondered, "Does this make me unprofessional? Do people think I'm not trying anymore?" I've never been a slob, and the idea of being categorized that way bothered me. I care about my job, and I keep my house tidy. I'm responsible and dedicated, but what if my face in its natural state says otherwise?
I turned on Zoom's "touch up my appearance" feature faster than anyone in the history of the world. It definitely helped, and it is perfectly subtle. Still, I felt weird about it. Like touching up your appearance in a photo or using a beauty filter, it can seem a little icky if you think too hard about why you feel compelled to put that out there as a representation of yourself.
As with so many things in life, time slowly shifted my perspective. After that first week and a half in our physical office, I realized no one treated me differently. I was still asked for my opinion in meetings and included in delightful debates and silly jokes. Not once did I hear the dreaded, "You look tired," or, "Are you feeling OK?"
That's likely because I have the world's best co-workers and they wouldn't say something like that no matter how rough I looked, unless I brought it up. To say they're good people is an understatement.
It's also because the world doesn't revolve around me. I'm a millennial and an only child, so this point is particularly hard to process, even at 30. Whether or not I'm wearing eyeliner is probably not going to register on anyone's radar. It shouldn't. We have so many more important things to think about, discuss and accomplish in a day. In fact, I was feeling more focused than ever when it came to getting things done at work and at home.
That realization stuck with me when I left the office to work at home, and now on day 73 (27 days after Easter), I'm still makeup-free and considering making the change permanent. (Here's a bonus: You can rub your tired eyes as much as you want without worrying about smearing your mascara, eyeliner and eyeshadow.)
Then again, I might not. I may show up to our first day back in the office with plumped lips of T-Swift red and eyelashes a foot long just for fun. I still believe there's nothing wrong with enjoying makeup and feeling your best by looking your best, whatever that means to you.
Makeup was never the problem; my dependence on it was.
I don't know yet where I'll land on the issue in our new normal. What I do know is that Lent and a global pandemic gave me a new perspective on what's important in myself, my relationships and my work.
Giving up something so integral to my routine was a daily reminder of my faith, an inspection of where I believe my worth comes from and nearly a half hour I got back (women spend an average of 21 minutes applying makeup each morning) to spend time in meditation on more important things.
The experience helped me calibrate the amount of importance I put on my appearance, that's true. But it also reminded me of what a lovely network of friends, family and colleagues I have and how wonderful is it to be valued by more than my looks -- something I was genuinely afraid might not happen given, you know, the history of the world.
In a time when it feels like so much is missing, I'm humbled by the reminder of all that I have.
Our new reality now that coronavirus has sent the world online