What I Learned From Shopping With No Makeup On

by Katie Hoffman

It can be tough being the girl who simultaneously loves beauty and fashion while still regularly leaving the house in a comfy, casual outfit. Free of makeup with her hair sticking out everywhere. The struggle never feels more real than when you’re this girl and you go to a cosmetics store. I am this girl, and I have been for years, so I’m speaking from experience, here.

Over time, I've noticed that when I go to a cosmetics chain or arrive at the makeup counter in a department store when my hair is in rushed ponytail and I have an airport’s worth of bags under my eyes, I get treated a lot differently than I do when I shop with curled hair and a swipe of gloss coating my lips. Now don’t get me wrong, there are people out there being profiled a lot more unfairly than me and my often unkempt appearance, but it’s interesting to see firsthand just how much our appearance and our own insecurities can impact the perceptions of other people along with ourselves.

So, I decided to go undercover. I wanted to visit my favorite cosmetic store when I looked very plain to see how employees and other shoppers reacted to me. Then, I planned to go back a few days later with my hair and makeup done to see if there was any difference. To be fair, this experiment can't be 100 percent accurate, because there are a lot of variables to consider (different employees and shoppers, different days of the week, etc.), but I was still pretty surprised by what I realized in the end.

My Makeup-Free Visit

After my Bootcamp class at the gym, I went straight to the mall to visit my longtime favorite beauty store wearing my sweaty gym clothes and no makeup whatsoever. Running errands looking this way is something I do pretty regularly. If that grosses you out, I completely understand, but it’s part of my process. Changing out of my gym clothes is symbolic. It means, “I have done my best, and I am officially giving up for the rest of the day.” Anyway, back to the mall. I’m ready to go in, and I look like the above.

As I cut through a department store to get to the mall proper, I don’t notice anyone recoiling in terror like I’m Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame trying to assimilate into the general population. To tell the truth, I feel the most confident and beautiful in the afterglow of a good workout, even if I’m sweaty and my baby hairs are standing on end. Yet, for some reason, that confidence disappears the closer I get to the cosmetics store. I couldn't tell you why. I don't have an embarrassing declined credit card story. I’ve shopped at this same location dozens of times, yet I always find myself getting increasingly nervous and insecure the closer I get to the entrance when I’m not wearing makeup. I feel like I don’t belong — like I’m a guy in a t-shirt and flip flops trying to get into a restaurant that requires gentlemen to wear jackets.

Sometimes, having an interest in beauty feels like a club with specific membership requirements. Like you need to look like you just walked out of a magazine all the time in order to prove your loyalty. With my often un-manicured nails and wimpy eyelashes, I don't exactly fit the stereotypical "beauty addict" mold. It's enough to make me feel a little unworthy. These weird feelings of inferiority are at their most overwhelming when I'm in a store filled with beauty things that aren’t on my face or in my hair. It’s not quite like being a bull in a china shop; a more apt description would be feeling like a woman who just woke up being asked to compete in a beauty pageant with women who have had hours to doll themselves up.

Before stepping inside, I scan the carefully organized boxes of individual eyeshadows and color-coded lip gloss displays overshadowed in magnificence only by the huge, poster size images of perfect eyelashes and pouty pink lips that seemed to adorn every endcap. A uniformed employee is waiting to greet shoppers near the entrance as I walk in. “Hi there! Welcome in,” she says to me with the forced enthusiasm of retail employee obligation. Employee #1 has her hair in this cool braid that looks like a Pinterest tutorial that you’d have no hope of duplicating. Her makeup was old Hollywood dramatic, and at this hour, it screamed, “I can make myself look this good before my second cup of coffee.” I said my hellos and wandered over to the nail polish area; it feels like a safe zone — as if even someone who looks the way I look right now might be able to get away with browsing the nail polish. I can hear clicking behind me, and soon there’s a shadow looming over my shoulder while I play my own personal game of I-Spy searching for a lacquer color I don’t already have.

“Can I help you find something?”

It’s nothing we all haven’t been asked before, and right on cue I deliver the same old line that I’m “just looking,” but the way Employee #1 hovers a few seconds longer than the average employee would linger after being politely eschewed makes me feel like I’m under scrutiny — like she doesn’t believe me and thinks I’m too proud to ask for the help I so desperately need. Because I’m not wearing any makeup right now, I’m a stranger in a strange land. For all I know, Employee #1 may not be entirely sure that I speak the same language as her. By the looks of it, I’m a tourist coming face-to-face with beauty balms and foundation for the very first time. Eventually, Employee #1 takes a few steps outside the perimeter of my personal space, but she doesn’t totally leave. She’s facing the perfume wall now, arranging boxes, but I can see in my peripheral vision she’s glancing over her shoulder to keep an eye on me.

I suddenly feel embarrassed picking up bottles of nail polish and scrutinizing the pigments up close. I try to orchestrate my movements in a convincing, deliberate way to prove to Employee #1 that I belong — that I’ve shopped here many times before — but I feel inadequate and frankly, kind of angry. This is all so silly. Fundamentally, I don’t understand what Employee #1 thinks is going to happen. I mean, if I was going to shoplift a bunch of expensive cosmetics, would I have come in looking like the person who most superficially appears to be in need of cosmetics supplies? Does she think I’m going to break something? I don’t know what to think, so I pick out cobalt blue nail polish and decide to move on to the hair care area. As I move through the store, I'm acknowledged by every employee, but it feels like more than routine good service. Their polite questions and offers to help seem to come from a place of concern. Their demeanor feels like the embodiment of the "With Sympathy" section of the greeting card store. When I finally feel like I can't be left alone to browse in peace, I head to the checkout.

At the register, Employee #2 may have the best eyebrows of any human being I've ever seen. They were beyond fleek. Usually when I get to the cashier, I'm asked if I'm a member of the rewards program the store offers, but today Employee #2 said, "I'm not sure how often you shop here, but if you wanted to sign up for our rewards program, each dollar you spend..." Look, I'm not pretentious about where I buy my makeup, but what gives? Is it so improbable to assume that I might be a regular? Can a girl just buy some nail polish without makeup on? When I handed her my membership card and she saw how many points I had, she struggled to politely offer a conciliatory, "Oh! Looks like you already know all about it. Welcome back."

I came away from the store feeling embarrassed. You know those petty feelings of insecurity you feel pretty confident you'd finally left behind for good? Those are always the ones that come creeping back in moments like this. I felt like an outsider in a place I loved to shop, and it almost made me regret going at all.

My Makeup-Wearing Visit

When I came back to the same store a few days later, my hair was clean and freshly styled, my under-eye circles were camouflaged beneath a layer of concealer and my eyes were shadowed and lined. By most superficial measures, I assume most people would think I looked better than I did during my first trip. Admittedly, I also felt more confident about shopping for beauty products looking this way. Like, "Behold! I am capable of looking this way." The attention I'd given to my hair and makeup made me seem more legitimate and more feminine. I had no qualms about stepping inside the cosmetic shop this time, because looking the way I did was like flashing the secret hand sign or saying the right password. Based on my appearance alone, people could empirically observe that I belonged there in the beauty world.

This time, I proudly made eye contact with today's Employee #1. Her red hair was in a high ponytail and her bangs were perfect even at their semi-awkward length. Her eyes were bronze-y, and her salmon lip color was unexpected yet somehow perfect. Even though she looked gorgeous, I didn't feel as threatened by her. We exchange greetings like we're two girls chit-chatting while waiting in line for the bathroom at a bar. Like my previous visit, Employee #1 asks if I’m looking for anything in particular, and like before I tell her I’m just going to be looking around. “Well my name is Stacy if you need anything.” Nothing she says is particularly special or different than last time, but I just feel so much more welcome than I did before.

As I make my rounds, I pick out some new eyeliner that looks promising and peruse the eyeshadow palettes like I always do, and that’s where Stacy appeared again. I’m preparing to defend myself, to reiterate that I’m just looking and that I don’t need any help, but she comes bearing a shopping bag and a big smile.

“Here’s a basket for while you shop!”

It was an entirely different experience. I wasn’t a suspect or a tourist this time, but a valued guest. When I passed employees waiting around to assist shoppers, they gave me smiles that felt genuine instead of pitying. Other shoppers looked at me not to judge, but to assess the extent our obvious camaraderie. My checkout experience was similarly pleasant: The cashier complimented my nails — which were still the same color since I last visited — and gave me a handful of free samples that I didn’t receive the last time I had been there.

The Truth About Shopping For Makeup With No Makeup On

So what gives? Are all cosmetic store employees really this discriminatory with their hospitality? Was I perhaps dealing with a disgruntled crew during my first visit? It had to be more than a coincidence. I may have gone undercover for the purposes of this article, but the phenomenon is something I’ve noticed for years, primarily in the smaller and pricier cosmetic shops. It’s entirely possible that there are some employees who treat women who truly woke up looking the way they look differently than those who spent time getting ready, but it occurred to me that the one constant in this equation was me. My experience may have objectively been more negative during my makeup-free visit than it was on my second trip, but I think my feelings of inadequacy stem from my own perceptions and insecurities popping up when I least expect them.

Even though most days I’m fully confident being out and about with no makeup on and a side of frizz, I'm reduced to my nervous, over-accomodating middle school self when I go into a place where I know there will be women expertly done up with lipstick and blush. I feel inherently inferior to them because I'm the barefaced sheep amid all those beautiful swans. I find myself wishing I could put on a one-woman show and come with my makeup collection to prove I truly belong among them.

This is larger than the makeup vs. no makeup debate — this has to do with how we perceive women and beauty. Even though I often go without makeup, I do so knowing that the people I come across are making judgments about me. Maybe they think I'm lazy or that I just don't have any interest in the beauty world, when neither of those things are actually true. Most days I'm comfortable having that knowledge all to myself, but for some reason, being in a beauty store with no makeup on brings to mind all the untrue things I assume people think of me when I may not look the most "put together."

So, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I don't have any grand conclusions about how beauty stores are showing an intrusive bias toward their makeup-free shoppers. Even if they are biased, perhaps some of it is based the preconceived notions we're all battling. What I've personally realized is this: I don't fit any mold — be it a "real" one or an imaginary one hewn by my lingering insecurities.

When you see me on the street or in a beauty store, you may not always think, "Wow! That girl clearly has a passion for beauty," and that's okay. A little mystery never hurt anybody. Slowly but surely, I'm getting to place where I don't need anyone to cosign my appearance or give legitimacy to my how I personally approach beauty or self-expression. When you're down on yourself, the world and everyone in it feels so much more negative.

On the other un-manicured hand, when you perceive yourself as the beautiful person you are — even when shopping for makeup with no makeup on — other people pick up on that and have a similar response. We all have an entity that makes us doubt ourselves, and whether it's something as seemingly trivial as a beauty store or as menacing as a societal norm, we can totally beat it if we're brave.

Images: Author; Giphy