Why I Don’t Wear Makeup to the Gym

#NoMakeup to the gym for me

Illustration by Breanna Cooke

Grammy winner Alicia Keys didn’t wear makeup to the MTV Video Music Awards last month. The Twittersphere nearly imploded. World comes to an end. #Bam. The cause of the chaos? Cosmetics. Or lack thereof. #NoMakeup.

How dare a celebrity show up on the red carpet with a naked face, lacking the typical two hours of professional prep time? The result: insanely gorgeous. Keys looks beautiful – comfortable in her own skin. Yet people have the audacity to criticize and tell her she “needs” to cake on the war paint, almost as if it’s a requirement. Of what? Being a woman? I’m not sure which is more disturbing — this coming from the women or the men.

So if someone like Keys, who’s also an actress, author and entrepreneur – all probably before lunch – is willing to ditch a $50 lipstick, what’s that mean for the cosmetic industry, which is dominated by U.S. sales. Which, by the way, are expected to hit $62 billion this year. Too bad we can’t just point to corporate greed as being the source of the #NoMakeup hype, but that’s not the case, at least not here in Texas.

The message seems to be beauty over brains, how it makes a lady. It confuses the hell out of me. After two decades of living in the Lone Star State, I still struggle to understand the importance of female appearance in the South.

#NoMakeup to the Gym?!

Oblivion isn’t bliss in my case. I just feel like I’m missing my girl gene.
I recently was caught off guard when I had to face my own #NoMakeup questioning, at the gym of all places. Apparently this is a thing. At least in Texas. Putting on makeup just to sweat it off. Repeat.

“Your skin looks so great,” one of my favorite female trainers gushed.
Given my bumpy past with my complexion, I’m a total sucker for a skin compliment. I’ve walked around for much of my life with a face resembling a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza you’d get at the mall food court. Nearly three decades later, I still feel like the teen dubbed “grease face” from the excessive oil pooling in my acne dents.

No amount of makeup helped heal it or worked to cover it up. It just looked like I was trying to hide something – in plain sight.

While I still break out in acne, now it’s accompanied by gray hair. Aging it a bitch. It also hasn’t curbed acne like I was told it would. Instead it required two rounds of the aggressive drug Accutane to kick it into submission. The oil also hasn’t prevented the aging I was told it would prevent. Please see my wrinkles and Botox bills.

As someone still struggling to accept myself, my appearance – or lack thereof – has played a starring role. When it comes to cosmetics, I’m never sure whether makeup helps or hinders me – and women in general – from being accepted in the world as we really are. The same probably could be said for my obsession with weight loss and my anti-aging regimen.

Keys has been open about ditching cosmetics, writing about it in in Lenny Letter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. She showed up for a photo shoot straight from the gym, hair and makeup done. Instead, photographer Paola Kudacki encouraged her to be most real, beautiful self sans-makeup. How awesome is that? Would a male photographer have made such a suggestion?

Keys made clear she’s not anti-cosmetics in her #NoMakeup backstory or against the handful of multinational conglomerates that dominate the industry. It’s just not her thing. Keys has her supporters. A morning talk show host takes off her makeup on-air in support. The horror! In June, Keys showed up to the BET Awards au natural. But it was her VMA appearance that hit a cultural nerve.

Acne & Gray Hair

I’d love to say we as a society should have been able to advance beyond simply focusing on appearance, but I’d be a hypocrite – I can’t even do it for myself. For me, my appearance is a struggle, laced with insecurities and decades of emotional scars.
I am still often uncomfortable in my own skin, squirming on the inside, hoping to get out. I’m never quite sure if my actions – from filler plumping up my face to the statement made by the color of my lipstick — are about how I want to see myself or more how I want others to see me.

Amidst my own insecurity is a continuous questioning – what am I doing wrong?

Today my face looks a hell of a lot better, but nicer skin doesn’t come easily or cheaply. I work at it. Well, sort of. Products and professionals work at it. I use the treatments and show up for appointments. I’ve become intimately familiar with the benefits of a monthly chemical peel. I pile on products morning and night, now a mix of acne banishing and the age-fighting variety.

Basking in my own glow doesn’t last.

“Wait a minute,” she says, moving closer, inspecting my face with intensity. “Are you not wearing any makeup?”

“No, of course I’m not wearing makeup,” I reply, confused.

“Not even foundation?” she asks. I shake my head no and ask her the same. “Are you wearing makeup?” My question is no different than a “how are you?” after you’ve been asked. You don’t expect them to tell you they just ran over the cat. Similarly, I’m not anticipating her response.

“Yes, I absolutely have on makeup. I always put on foundation and usually contouring powder. I also do my eyes and sometimes put some color on my lips.”

My brain spins. “Wait. You wear makeup to the gym? What about when you’re just working out — and not here working with clients?”

“It’s always on,” she tells me with a glossed smile. We’ve been in the same hot yoga classes, doing down dog in our own sweat pools. The thought of putting on a fresh coat of makeup beforehand never entered my mind.

I’m uncomfortable, like finding out everyone is talking about me because I don’t wear underwear to the gym. Which I don’t. But still.

“Most women here have on makeup,” she says, pointing her chin at groups of women around the training floor. “Oh my gosh, I just can’t believe you’re not wearing makeup.”
Nothing like a compliment that stirs my own insecurities. My anxiety spikes. Yet again, I feel like I’m not getting it “right” as a woman. I hate being caught off guard by these things “women do” that, as a woman, I feel I should be aware of.

As a way of trying to understand what doesn’t come instinctively to me, I do what I’ve always done — go to school. Good grades were my sole source of confidence when I was younger. I start paying more attention at the gym, looking for clues like an anthropologist. I am surprised and dismayed to realize most of the women at the gym have on what appears to be an actual fresh coat of makeup, not even the “day old variety for those of us too lazy to take it off at night” look.

I don’t have a sister, but I did live in a Sorority house with 40 other girls during college. I thought I’d seen it all. Religious skin care regimens, even while drunk. Spending time on hair and makeup for a fraternity party that got instantly ruined when we bundled up to brace the Chicago winter. Even “no baby” group chants in the shared bathroom, hoping our birth control worked so we wouldn’t have to be “that girl” who got pregnant.

Maybe that was life in places other than the South? Or simply my college or just a different life two decades ago? We didn’t wear makeup to class. Football games were for fun — not dresses and dates. We drank beer, slept it off, and hit the library at night to study. Then went to the parties. Maybe.

The Scene at the Gym

None of it prepared me for what I witnessed in the Women’s Locker Room in Dallas, where the smacking sound of lips distributing fresh product echoes as I approach from the hallway.

  • The nude lip. Not to be tried by the uninitiated. Careful apply lip liner, outlining slightly above the top lip to accent the heart shape. Fill. Line the lower lip, slightly outside of the actual lip line to accentuate a ripe appearance, like a peach. Apply lipstick coat one. Blot. Coat two. Blot. Coat three. Add gloss – but only to the middle section of the upper and lower lip. Tap lips together — three times. Check teeth to make sure they are lipstick free.
  • Teeth. Each looks like a piece of Chiclets Chewing Gum, whitened within a millimeter of crumbling.
  • The expertly created eye. Three different colors of eyeshadow are painstakingly applied to each lid. A perfect cat eye is constructed from a variety of tools. Mascara. Coat after coat. I lose count.
  • The perfect ponytail. Retied as many times as necessary. Bumps not allowed. Try again. The goal is the proper perkiness without looking like its waiting for a fat satin ribbon on the head of a child.
  • The preview. Twirling in front of the mirror. Front view. Right side. Left side. Backside. Adjustments are applied throughout – tugs, yanks and repositioning to perfection. Repeat.
  • The boob tug. Bending forward at the waist to reposition each boob and adjust it higher above the push-up cup. Wait — that’s me. Others have new boobs to display.
  • The dismount. Now! We’re ready to be seen by the workout world. I’m expecting to see some ass slaps in preparation, but that might undo some of the painstaking work that just took place.

And here I thought I was making progress when I stopped wearing my pumpkin pants to the grocery store. OK. They aren’t really pants. They are pajama bottoms – white flannel, with bright orange pumpkins all over. Two sizes too big, so they slip down easily if I’m not careful. I find it particularly funny to wear them during the non-pumpkin seasons. Like summer.

I run into Heather. We have surprisingly honest conversations sweating next to each other and have formed a friendship of sorts.

“So, I’ve started noticing that a lot of the women here are wearing makeup,” I push out between air gasps. “Do you think they put it on, just to come to the gym, maybe hoping to meet someone here to date?”

I realize my mistake as soon as the words dribble out of my lips. My eyes see her perfectly coifed pixie cut. Her hello always comes from bright cotton-candy pink lips. Her eyelashes, coated in blackest black mascara. Perfection.

“I’m married – I’m not here looking to meet anyone,” she said, waving her sparkling diamond in the air. “But I still always want to look my best.”

Her response is filled with kindness. She wants to help me. For me to understand she does this for herself – not anyone else. But it isn’t resonating. It hits me. Her words are eerily reminiscent of the speeches I receive from my mother when I show up at her house for a meal.

“I can’t believe you leave the house looking like that,” she says. It’s never clear what she’s referring to: makeup, clothing, my hair or something else. I’ve learned not to ask. “You know you’re never going to meet anyone looking like that.”

Ding. Ding. Ding. My mother. Never married and mostly single, she attributes it to my appearance. It’s a one-side dialogue on her part that’s been going on for decades. Go under the knife as a teen for a boob job because my “proportions are off?” Or what about the time I had sinus surgery. The first thing she said to me when I woke up in the recovery room was “why didn’t you have the bump on your nose fixed?” I didn’t even know I had a bump.

I know her focus on appearance forced me to turn a blind eye. What choice did I have? With her constantly pointing out that I didn’t look right, I simply stopped looking. But that didn’t mean I was confident in my appearance. Only that I had to disconnect.

I know there are women who can’t leave the house without makeup. Hell, even my own mother won’t walk the dog without a fresh coat of lipstick. But that doesn’t mean I understand it.

Is it because it seems like such a waste of expensive products, putting it on only to sweat it off? Like the one art class I took in college. The professor told me I was the only student who actually got progressively worse during the semester. I think it was because I never used enough paint, fearful I’d have to replace the tiny expensive tubes with money I didn’t have. Do I have a similar fear when it comes to makeup?

Fearful that my mother may be right – at least partly – I think about a dear friend. Her appearance is very important to her, in that it gives her strength and makes her feel good about herself. I decide an experiment is in order. I’m going to try wearing makeup to the gym. See how it makes me feel. It if improves my life. Shakes things up. I start small – lipstick — a product I never run out of. I have dozens, especially of colors that look bad on me. Who every actually uses an entire tube of lipstick? I’m more likely to break it in half or drop it on a surface that’s hard to clean.

I start with a coat of Bare Minerals lip gloss called Wild Honey. It’s a gold-pearl pink shine, their description, not mine. It’s ok on top of lipstick. I apply the product in the car, not yet ready to do so in front of others. It’s goopy. In no time, I’ve managed to push my meant-to-be luscious yet subtle lip color all over my face. Without lipstick to keep it in place, it doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance. Of course I don’t realize this until I go into the bathroom to shower and happen to glance in a mirror. I look like I was trying to clean off the gloss brush with my face.

Next up is a Burt’s Bees lip crayon called Napa Vineyard. It’s red – not at all subtle – and matte. It seems to stay put, so I think I may have better luck. It got everywhere, quite visibly. On my white towel and across the mouth piece of my water bottle, making the water taste like those wax lips we used to be so intrigued by as kids.

The other women look fresh, like someone on a reality TV show. They cry and their makeup does not move! In this case, the gym girls sweat and it merely adds to the glow they’ve painstakingly achieved – they are true cosmetic creations. It’s magic. They have truly nailed the Bobbi Brown “we’re going to look like our makeup isn’t there even though it took 30 minutes to put on” sorta way that I’ve read about.
Me? I look – and feel – ridiculous.

The VMA conversation continues. I overhear a group of women discussing it at a bar. I’m a good eavesdropper. I also can read stuff upside down.

Keys takes to Twitter, urging all of us to “Do You.”

I realize she’s onto something. Do you — whoever “you” happens to be. I’ve been too busy letting other people define me, even to the point of empowering their opinions over my own.

I’ve been ignoring what feels right – and wrong – for me. Thank you, Alicia! I’m taking your advice. I’m going to go to the gym with a naked face. It’s why I don’t wear makeup to the gym. Look out girls!

It’s time – and I’m ready — to do me. #NoMakeup

This article originally appeared in the Glen Rose Reporter.
  1. Great piece, Rani! Question – Have you shared this essay with your mother? She plays prominently into the situation, and I would be curious as to her reaction.

  2. Great piece, Rani! Question – Have you shared this essay with your mother? She figures prominently into the story here, and I would be curious as to her thoughts.

  3. Great piece, Rani! Question – Have you shared this essay with your mother? She figures prominently into the story, and I would be curious as to her thoughts.