The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alicia Keys isn’t brave for taking makeup off. For most of us, putting it on is braver.

Going barefaced to make a statement sends the wrong message.

Here's what you missed from the 2016 VMAs. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

When Alicia Keys published an essay in May about her decision to quit wearing makeup, the Internet sat up for a moment, then returned to Brexit and Elon Musk. When she followed through by showing up at the VMAs on Sunday barefaced, the commentary got more critical. A handful of social media detractors said predictably nasty things, most commenters cheered her on, and without saying a word about it onstage, her #nomakeup stance became a bigger story than the award she was presenting. And women like me — a longtime makeup-wearer whose relationship to cosmetics is varied, complex and committed — were left applauding Keys’s choice but unsure how applicable it really was to our own lives.

Keys has made it clear that her switch was about reaching for deeper authenticity: “I was finally uncovering just how much I censored myself, and it scared me,” she wrote in Lenny Letter. “Who was I anyway? Did I even know HOW to be brutally honest anymore?” There is power in a woman showing the world her naked face, and part of that power comes from announcing that she is setting the bar exactly where she wants it to be: her presence, unadorned, stripped of the slashes of color that we’ve come to expect on the female face. Vulnerability of this sort is appealing — particularly to women, nearly all of whom have had to make not just a choice but a series of choices about makeup throughout our lives.

But there’s also power — and extraordinary vulnerability — in showing the world your most made-up, lacquered self. Makeup announces that you are trying. And where you try, you can fail. To me, that’s the greater risk. We as a culture respect hard work, but not when it comes to women’s appearances: By and large, we still value female beauty the most when it appears effortless; we woke up like this, flawless. Instead of challenging the effortlessness of beauty, the no-makeup stance enhances that valuation, turning the #nomakeup creed into yet another standard that women are asked to meet.

Women wear makeup for all sorts of reasons — reasons that overlap, and sometimes run counter to each other. And not all of them have to do with shame. We might wear it to conceal flaws, to play up the flecks of gold in one’s eyes, to give ourselves nine minutes of uninterrupted self-care, to put a veil between ourselves and the urban hustle, to look more awake, to feel more awake, to perform a ritual, to make our lips so red that you can’t help but look at them (and maybe you’ll listen to what comes out of them, too). Shame may be one part of the equation for some women, and those whose personal scales tip in that direction may be well advised to investigate what life is like without makeup — without shame. But when we treat shame as the baseline cause of beauty work, we not only ignore the diverse ways women use cosmetics, we reinforce the expectation that women hate their own looks. In expecting women to feel bad about their looks, we also normalize the condition — which is exactly what #nomakeup proponents hope to avoid.

Alicia Keys is a musician, not a model; we’ve put her in the spotlight for her talents, not her looks. But let’s not pretend that we’re so eager to reward talent that we don’t require our entertainers to be knockouts, too. I don’t mean to pick on Keys for her good looks — after all, the astute premise underneath her decision is that women are judged by our looks no matter what we do, and I’m not eager to replicate that dynamic. That said, for someone with regular features, unblemished skin and classic bone structure — that is, virtually every female entertainer in America — to shun makeup is less complicated than it would be for someone without those genetic gifts.

Keys has taken pains to make it clear that she’s not against makeup in general; she’s just against it for herself. Still, the public discussion around her choice frames #nomakeup as brave — “This is a seriously brave move for Alicia,” wrote Daniela Morosini in Cosmopolitan; “Alicia is brave to make a statement with her stance on no make-up,” echoed Gina Clarke in the Independent — which suggests, by definition, that those who wear cosmetics are cowards. I worry about what that says to the teenager with acne, the woman with eyes so deep-set she fears nobody actually sees their beauty, the girl with a port-wine birthmark who accepts herself but doesn’t want to accept the bullying that comes her way. If the end goal of shunning makeup is confidence, we’d be well-served to examine the ways various people arrive at that station — which, for many, includes makeup. A 2008 study of 140 women showed that makeup actually lowered signs of physiological stress, and numerous other studies demonstrate that women report feeling more confident when wearing makeup. Challenging that paradigm is a worthy goal, but it needn’t be everyone’s goal.

It will take all sorts of voices and experiences to help us lessen the beauty imperative for all women, and Keys’s declaration has helped jump-start these conversations. In her appearance at the VMAs — which fell on the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — Keys explicitly intertwined the struggles for racial equality, international peace and women’s parity. It was her words, not the lack of makeup on her face, that best outlined the next step we should collectively take in the makeup conversation. It’s easy to frame beauty rituals as stemming from insecurity, vanity and frivolity because we still paint women as insecure, vain and frivolous. Dabbing concealer on the root problem here isn’t enough. What we need instead is a makeover. We know what the “before” looks like, and Keys’s position is one frame of many that depicts the transformation. What about the “after”?