“No Makeup” by Sharon Olds

I don’t wear makeup. I’ve tried. But it didn’t really work. I’m not very good at applying it. In summertime in Florida (and by summertime, I basically mean all year), when I’m teaching Martial Arts classes it just melts off my face.

Sometimes I tell myself that it’s important for the young girls in my class to see an adult woman not wearing makeup, so I’m doing this on purpose. I like to pretend I’m making some kind of feminist statement or something, but mostly I just a little lazy.

I was mesmerized when I heard Sharon Olds read her poem “No Makeup” in her interview with Krista Tippets on the podcast, On Being.

Actually, the whole interview with Sharon Olds in On Being really spoke to me. Olds talks about writing poems about her children and submitting them for publication in Literary magazines in the 70s. The editors recommended she submit it to Ladies Home Journal because their magazines were publishing “Literature.”

Sharon Olds  kept writing poetry about being a woman, a mother – about her experience of being a person and won the Pulitzer prize in 2013 for her work Stags Leap (which I haven’t read, but think I’ll be checking out the next time I visit the library). I so appreciate the women who have come before me, who were willing to insist that their experience was worthy of being called “Literature,” who wrote poetry that I could find accessible.

So, here it is: “No Makeup”

“No Makeup”

Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.
If they’re close enough, they can see something is different with me,
something unnerving, as if I have no features,
I am embryonic, pre-eyebrows, pre-eyelids, pre-mouth,
I am like a water-bear talking to them,
or an amniotic traveler,
a vitreous floater on their own eyeball,
human ectoplasm risen on its hind legs to discourse with them.
And such a white white girl, such a sickly toadstool,
so pale, a visage of fog, a phiz of
mist above a graveyard, no magenta roses,
no floral tribute, no goddess, no grownup
woman, no acknowledgment
of the drama of secondary sexual characteristics, just the
gray matter of spirit talking,
the thin features of a gray girl in a gray graveyard—
granite, ash, chalk, dust.
I tried the paint, but I could feel it on my skin, I could
hardly move under the mask of my
desire to be seen as attractive in the female
way of 1957,
and I could not speak. And when the makeup came off I felt
actual as a small mammal in the woods
with a speaking countenance, or a basic
primate, having all the expressions
that evolved in us, to communicate.
If my teen-age acne had left scars,
if my skin were rough, instead of soft,
I probably couldn’t afford to hate makeup,
or to fear so much the beauty salon or the
very idea of beautyship.
And my mother was beautiful—did I say this?
In my small eyes, and my smooth withered skin,
you can see my heart, you can read my naked lips.

I always find poetry more accessible when I hear it read by the poet. So, I recommend clicking through to this New Yorker link if you’d like to hear Sharon Olds reading “No Makeup”


Also, I found her interview with Krista Tippets to be full of insight, wisdom and humor.


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