school

"I wore makeup everyday when I was in high school. Here's what I wish the teachers knew."

There’s something I did at 15 years old that I’ve never told anyone.

Standing in front of my bathroom mirror, I lifted my fringe from my forehead and stared, horrified, at the bumps that covered it.

The day before, I’d been sitting in the playground when I noticed a friend was staring at me. With the same tone as one might remark upon the weather, she said, “Ew. Bumpy.”

So, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror I thought, “maybe I could cut them all off.”

I retrieved a knife from the top draw, and tried, as gently as I could, to cut the lumps that I believed had disfigured my face.

I didn’t just have pimples. What I saw in the mirror that night was ugliness. I was disgusting.

The shame I feel about that night comes, in part, from the stupidity of thinking a knife could carve off the pimples that now lived on my forehead. But to a greater degree, the shame comes from the feeling that, most of the time, lies dormant now in my gut.

Utter revulsion. That 15 year old girl hated nothing in the world more than she hated the face staring back at her.

This week, the story surfaced of a high school in Victoria where teachers ‘forced’ students to remove their false eyelashes (there’s some question over whether they were permanent extensions or not, though, I don’t think it particularly matters) before their school photos.

The school policy is no make up. My high school stated the same rule – as most Catholic, semi-private and private schools do.

The rule itself makes sense. Both my parents are teachers. I get it. Makeup is not part of the school uniform. Neither are high heels. Or green hair. Or big, bulky, gold chains.

This isn’t simply an attempt to suppress individualism. It’s mostly about democratising the school experience. If everyone has to wear the same thing, then class lines are not drawn so rigidly. The rich and the poor sit next to each, without markers of where they’ve come from.

It’s also about adherence to authority. Sometimes you have to abide by rules simply because they are rules. The same thing happens in the workplace. You might think turning up to work at 9am is an arbitrary requirement. Your boss, however, doesn’t care.

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Rules have their place. Children and teenagers crave structure and authority. It’s good for them.

But something about makeup is different.

I wore makeup everyday to my conservative, Catholic school. I wore foundation to cover my pimples, and eyeliner and mascara to try and draw attention away from my skin. People had made fun of the ‘bags’ under my eyes. Makeup hid them, and eye makeup created a diversion.

When teachers looked at my face, and demanded I scrub it clean, I was humiliated. I wanted to say, “I don’t wear makeup to be beautiful. I wear it to be invisible.”

I wasn’t trying to be defiant. I desperately wanted to be able to go to school without it – but felt like I couldn’t.

At the same time I was being told to remove my makeup, I was being bullied in the playground for how I looked, hearing teachers make remarks about Sally’s beautiful hair, or asking Fiona if anyone had ever told her how beautiful her eyes were.

Just as an aside, they had.

The beautiful girls, I felt, were treated differently. They had more friends. They hung out with boys on the weekend. At 15, the entire world was telling me that there was nothing more important than being beautiful – and I wasn’t.

We spoke about the no makeup school rule on Wednesday’s episode of Mamamia Out Loud, and not all of us agreed. Post continues…

Looking back, the school knew what the world was yelling at us.

That’s why they were trying to clasp onto the only control they had. Perhaps enforcing their no makeup rule would mean there would be less of a focus on how people looked. They knew we had the rest of our lives to worry about our faces. Couldn’t school be an escape from all that?

But the damage had already been done.

And one teacher with a makeup wipe was powerless to undo it.

I wish rather than seeing makeup as the problem, that the adults around me had seen makeup as a symptom of the problem. If a 15 year old girl cannot leave her house without 30 minutes of application, then the issue goes far deeper than a swipe of eyeliner.

I wish someone had told that girl that they understood. That they were sorry I felt like that, and maybe that they’d asked if I were okay. I wish they’d told me all the ways in which my face didn’t matter; in the long run, people care far more about whether you’re kind or smart or funny or interesting.

Instead, I was punished for something that – in a way – was already a punishment.

I wish someone in my world had acknowledged that.

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