Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Putting my face on

2010 . 09 . 23 - Comments / Commentaires (23)

I don’t wear make-up. The only times I have were when I was on stage doing theater, and, even then, I had to have one of my castmates do it for me before every performance. I have no aptitude for painting faces (not like that anyway).

I can’t say for sure how the make-up meme skipped me, but I suspect it has something to do with my feet.

I wear a size 11.5 or 12. By the time I started high school, my shoe size was beyond the offerings of most women’s departments.  The girly footwear that did fit me looked clownish at best and boat-like at worst, so I stuck with Converse and Birkenstock. With that aesthetic, shaved legs seemed superfluous and maybe even a bit incongruous. From there, it wasn’t hard to rule out cosmetics.  Before I knew it I was bonafide 1990s grunge-hippy-punk teenage tomboy.

Though I eventually embraced a more feminine look, I never learned to apply make-up or shave my legs, and I’ve never gone to the “drag queen store” to find girly heels—though it’s surprising how often I’ve had that suggested to me. By the time I was interested in dressing like a woman, my comfortable shoes, natural legs, and clean face had become too much a part of my personal style and my personality to give up. 

Ever since my feet got big enough, my appearance has had a way of threatening a certain demographic. Male and female alike, there are people who have told me that I’m less feminine, less attractive, less professional, and less appropriate because of my feet, legs, and face. And that kind of feedback has only reinforced the feminist in me: tell me I can’t look a certain way and still be a woman and successful, and I will make certain that I prove you wrong.

portrait painting in acrylic on canvas

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas
33 x 28 inches

When I was little, I remember my mother putting her face on. It was something she always did before leaving the house.  And I get it. After all, it’s not like I leave my house without putting a face on too. My version doesn’t happen to require the application of cosmetics, but it’s the same concept.

- I’ll tell you something that makes me unhappy about my body‚Ķ
- The small but effective act of rebellion
- The 1960s radical separatist feminist in my head

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(23) Comments / Commentaires: Putting my face on

-- joshua -- 2010 . 09 . 23 --

Maybe It’s our puritanical protestant backgrounds that makes us wealthy americans the most relaxed and undecorative people in the world. My wife was raised in total poverty in mexico and yet she always managed to dress and look her best when in public i.e. to dress up and put everything flambouant on. She does the same here with our relative poverty. Theres nothing valiant and rebelious in a hippyish aesthetic. Its the essence of Portland. Its Quaker churches and minimilism.
We are so moral and afraid of beuty here in Portland (maybe America).
It’s no suprise we love conceptual art, relational aesthetics and read so much.
And my wife has no views on feminism besides the fact that she tries to look nice and lets her personality “define” her. Forget the clothes etc. “Let the wearer shine.” John Updike

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-- David -- 2010 . 09 . 24 --

What are you saying?

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 09 . 24 --

Good question.  Joshua, what are you saying?

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-- Jeanne -- 2010 . 09 . 25 --


Great post for No Make-Up Week! 

In a society too often obsessed with or fixated on looks (particularly where women are concerned), I realize by choosing not to wear cosmetics I am in the minority of women.

Whether to wear cosmetics or not is a personal choice.  There are numerous reasons a woman might elect not to wear makeup.  Everything from personal preference/comfort to safety can be factors.  (While the general public tends to be unaware of it, personal care products are unregulated and many contain various chemicals/fragrances that can be harmful to human health (such as endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, and carcinogens). 

I don’t believe any woman should feel pressured into wearing makeup to fit societal norms (or please the pockets of those who run the companies that make enormous amounts of money from these products). 

The notion that one must wear make-up to look nice is a fallacy.


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-- Amanda -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

I was talking to a friend about this recently… I never used to wear make-up out of fear: fear of putting it on wrong and fear of looking silly. In my own skin I knew I looked ok, because that was how I was meant to look.

My friend puts make-up on even if she’s going nowhere, because she fears being seen without it. She helped me find some make-up I liked, and when I first started wearing some to work so many people commented on how much bigger it made my eyes I began to think it was quite fun (Incidentally, people already commented on my eyes, I have had more than one complete stranger stop me to comment on my eyes… which is slightly weird, but nice!).

I still fear make-up slightly, to the extent I have drafted in my friend to help me on my wedding day, so that I can capture the “natural glow” I want. I could go bare-faced, but with the amount of spots and redness I have had recently thanks to stress and raging hormones, I feel a little bit of cover-up might be a good idea for the photos I will treasure ;o) (otherwise my “natural glow” might be more beetroot than skin toned!!

But I don’t wear it everyday, I don’t even wear it to go out. I like being able to put make-up on for special occasions, to make me *feel* like I have done something special *for me*... if I am making an effort to put on prettier clothes, why not wear my hair slightly differently and put on a bit of eyeliner or shadow to draw a bit of extra attention to the feature I love the most? Wearing make-up on such occasions feels ok to me… but wearing it regularly makes me feel like I am trying to be something I am not, so I don’t generally do it.

And unlike many of my friends who wear it more when they feel insecure, I wear it more when I feel at my best, when I want to attract attention to myself. I don’t feel make-up covers my insecurities, but rather draws attention to them… if I’m feeling insecure, I want to blend in, not stand out. I sometimes feel I am alone in thinking this, as most of my friends think in exactly the opposite way.

I guess, for me (and after all this rambling), putting on make-up is like my way of saying “I feel good about myself today, good enough to want people to notice me”, and as I generally focus on my eyes, it is my way of saying “I feel secure enough to let you see past this, right through to the inner part of me”. I don’t *need* make-up to do this, but sometimes it is nice for a change…

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-- cjy -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

I can appreciate what Joshua says and I think I feel like Amanda does. Watching Mad Men has intensified my longing for the days when people looked really put together - not just with make-up and hair, but with beautifully tailored and neatly pressed clothes. Someone said that in the US these days - “everyone looks like they are dressed for a yoga class.” It is pretty ironic for me to care considering I was referred to as a “ragamuffin” back when I was in my 20’s. I had some friends steal my army green bag pants (which I wore almost everyday to art school)and throw them in a dumpster. Even so I would go out of my way to dress up, often flamboyantly - and I always wore make-up. Now that I am older and have other priorities I just don’t put that much energy into my appearance. However, like Amanda, when I am secure and in a more celebratory mood, make up and accoutrement have there place.

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-- David -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

What I want to know is why men don’t wear makeup. Men are starting to shave their whole bodies. Makeup for men must be next. What woman wouldn’t want their man to bring our his eyes with some mascara, accentuate his lips with some lipstick or add a little redness to his otherwise pale cheeks? Rock stars did it in the 80s. Why not makeup for the business men of today? America is too puritanical, that’s why. Men of today look just like Quakers from centuries past. It’s time we step into the modern day and lead the way for cosmetic equality!

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-- Jeanne -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

David, you raise an excellent point.  I have no doubt that the cosmetics companies wouldn’t mind expanding their profit base!  Just look at the expansion of fragrance marketing.  (Did you hear about the 12 year old boy in the UK who died after inhaling the fumes of his deodorant?)

Never mind that there are large numbers of toxic synthetic chemicals in many modern fragrances or that those fragrances are making millions of people very ill.

On a health note for cosmetics:

I would encourage everyone, be they male or female, to check out Environmental Working Group’s excellent database called SKIN DEEP cosmetic safety database

There one can check the relative safety of personal care products (including daily staples such as shampoo and soap) and make informed choices.


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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

Riffing off of David’s comment and in his own words (literally), I give you this video.  Originally part of a conference on sustainable product design, David’s talk starts off being about what most men do every day to put their faces on and goes to all the dark places that our unnatural ideals of beauty can take us. 

It also makes me interested to trace the history of cosmetics in a similar way…

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-- Jeanne -- 2010 . 09 . 26 --

Awesome video by David!


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-- cjy -- 2010 . 09 . 27 --

Fabulous video - very funny and insightful.

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-- joshua -- 2010 . 09 . 27 --

I was trying to connect your personal aesthetic (which, I said, in portland is not as much of a battle as you think) with the theme of this site, art.
It’s a question of aesthetics. My argument is that many americans and esspeccially portlanders are deadly suspect of beauty.
I only wish we were more “fixated on looks” ( Jeanne).
Most of us are fixated on causes and Ideas. Thats how you get the conceptual art I was talking about.
Jeanne sums all this up. She’s got her mini-cause and probably doesn’t even wear deodarant.
(“Damn right I dont! Its merely another societal norm pushed on us by ad agencies to force women into absorbing harmful toxins into there pits”)

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-- Jeanne -- 2010 . 09 . 27 --

Wow, Joshua.  You sound kind of angry.  Sharing your opinions is one thing.  Jumping all over people who don’t share your perspective is another. 

My belief that people in this society have a tendency to be too fixated on looks is just that: my belief.  You have every right to believe differently.  That doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to go around making snide remarks just because someone’s views aren’t in lockstep with yours.

You don’t know anything about me.  My taking an opportunity to share information with people about toxic products is no need for a comment like your last one. 

By the way, your assumption that I do not wear deodorant is incorrect.  Not that my personal hygiene is any of your business.  It is not any of your business at all.  I just find it amusing that you feel qualified to make assumptions about whether a stranger like me wears deodorant or not.  Wow.   


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-- David -- 2010 . 09 . 27 --

joshua, for someone so concerned with beauty you sure can paint an ugly picture with your words.

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 09 . 27 --


I have answered your questions repeatedly when you have emailed me about starting your portrait business. 

I have been friendly to you when you have had day-after regrets about certain comments you have posted on my blog. 

I have welcomed you and your often negative remarks in the spirit of open discussion.  That said, it’s one thing to disagree with someone’s opinions and to express that here, but it’s quite another to make personal remarks about the person you disagree with. 

People who choose not to dress in a way that you consider pleasing are still making choices about their appearance.  Even the “hippy” aesthetic which you lament is dressing up in the sense that it is saying something about the person who does it…if only you would care to unravel what it is saying. 

In this thread you have made remarks which reveal a deep sexism—a mentality that I find offensive. 

For all these reasons, I don’t wish to hear from you anymore and I certainly don’t wish to be associated with you.


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-- cjy -- 2010 . 10 . 01 --

Yikes! Can I take back my appreciation of Joshua’s first comment? Although I stand by my fascination and love for all out put-togetherness - I reiterate that it is something I rarely achieve myself or expect of others. My take on it is very different from his.

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-- Celia -- 2014 . 02 . 13 --

At this point makeup is so much a part of my identity that I feel naked - in the raw, bare, exposed sense - without it.  In adolescence I had the most horrific acne imaginable, which has thankfully passed, but along with the habit of foundation application came tinkering with eyebrow-plucking and drawing, mascara, lip color.  I honestly find makeup imprisoning, in the sense that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to attend to each morning but then I feel “less me” without it as I interface with the World At Large.  Shrug.  My boyfriend has even said to me tenderly after a shower, “You don’t need makeup, you’re a beautiful woman,” etcetcetc, and while one might think this would let me off the hook—cosmetics are to enhance one’s appearance, driven in part by the fundamental drive to impress a mate—it hasn’t.  I wear makeup for me, not him, and yes, it is in a certain sense a crutch for self-confidence (as my corporeal appearance is concerned).

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-- Jessica -- 2014 . 02 . 13 --

I remember reading this post right after it was first published and totally not “getting” the comments. I was also confronted with my own sexist (toward my own gender, even!) viewpoints and that made me uncomfortable.

Three years onward, I finally get it. Allow me to preach to the choir here:

Most women wear makeup, some don’t. Most men do *not* wear makeup, some do. Why this opposite proportion? Because society influences us. My niece, when she was 2.5 years old, came up to me and my husband on the couch. I shave my legs about twice a year. My niece put her hand on my leg and said “Your legs are hairy. You’ll probably shave them soon.” And she put her hand on my husband’s leg and said “Your legs are hairy. You won’t shave them, though.” I told her that I could shave my legs if I wanted to, but I could also not shave them, and that the same went for Casey. She said “But you will probably shave them, Jessica. Casey won’t, though, no, he won’t.” 2.5 years old! These messages start so young.

There is nothing wrong with shaving or not shaving your legs, wearing makeup or not wearing makeup. But it’s important to understand that most of what we feel are our “preferences” are actually deeply encoded societal mores and norms. It’s absurd and arbitrary when you think about why women are expected to do something and men are not. I’ve always been fascinated over how something as simple as hair, when located in different parts of the body, can have different expectations. Thick hair on your head is desired, hair on your face/armpits/back/legs/genitals must be completely eliminated, but eyebrow hair needs to be *just right*! If someone shaved off their eyebrows we would think them strange. When a woman has unshaven legs, most people think “Ew!” but when they see a man with unshaven legs, they think nothing of it.

My husband shaved his head bald, and people said “Nice look!” I buzzed my hair down to almost nothing and people thought I had cancer (including my own grandmother). I don’t judge them for their thoughts on that because again, society, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition. A man shaves his head because he doesn’t want the maintenance, or just likes the look. But the only reason a woman would give up her hair would be unwillingly, that is, because a disease or treatment for a disease is about to take it from her.

If an alien landed on Earth, he/she would surely possess their own societally-influenced beliefs. But I think such an advanced civilization would also likely find the arbitrary “beauty” rules and hygiene practices for males and females on Earth just that: arbitrary. Thanks for the forum, Gwenn!

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 02 . 13 --

@Ceila: I think we all have crutches like that—I know I do!  For one thing, over the years, I’ve realized how particular I am about my hair.  Psychologically speaking, I have a lot invested in how it looks.  Recently, I decided to challenge myself to wean myself off of shampoo—it’s part of a larger desire to use less chemicals and listen to my body more.  Let’s just say: it’s been hard!  I think my mood has been low for the past two weeks because my hair is oilier than I’d like.  Still, I think I’m starting to come to the other side of this whole venture, and I’m glad I did it—I think.  For me, checking in with my crutches once I recognize them is helpful, and it sounds like you’re doing just that.  Whether or not you stop wearing make-up, I hope it at least feels good to acknowledge its place in your life.  Bon courage!

@Jessica: Preach it, sister!  I loved every minute of that.  Also, the story about your niece is FASCINATING.  Have you talked to her about this stuff more recently?

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-- Jessica -- 2014 . 02 . 13 --

I haven’t had a chance to talk to her about it more recently (her family moved out of state), but I look forward to the opportunity, especially since she just turned 4 years old.

I used no shampoo for awhile (water-only and a lot of scrubbing with my fingertips) but eventually switched back to using it again. It took so much water and I had to clean with water every. single. day. I’m now a few weeks into washing it with shampoo every third day instead and I like this routine much better. To extend the oily times, I recently made my own dry shampoo. I have brown hair, so I mix cornstarch with a bit of cocoa powder, then use an old makeup brush to apply it to my roots. I let it sit for a few minutes then run a brush through. It’s really amazing how it makes me hair look clean again.

In regards to chemicals and makeup, I only ever wore shimmery nude eye shadow (mineral kind) and a bit of mascara. I had to stop even that because my eyes were so irritated by it, even though it was all “natural.” Same with lip gloss: any time I put anything at all on my lips, including chapstick, olive oil, or coconut oil, they start peeling like crazy. I have a theory now that chapped lips in most climates are a sign of dehydration, and that using chapstick makes you dependent on more chapstick. It also keeps me from listening to my body. If my lips feel dry, I drink more water. I haven’t had chapped lips in five years, except for a four day trip to Chicago last December. Hard to get away from the biting wind there.

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-- maya -- 2016 . 07 . 05 --

hot topic!
I guess because its about very basic instincts.

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-- Gwenn -- 2016 . 07 . 06 --

@Maya: Yes! I wrote the post as a response to a “no make-up challenge” that was floating around the Internet, and I’m glad I did, because it helped me to see my own story more clearly. Do you ever wear make-up?

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-- Gwenn -- 2016 . 07 . 06 --

@Maya: I didn’t mean “ever” in a weird way. I meant because I’ve never seen you in it (that I could tell). smile

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