How Concealer Covers Up Women's Labor

Many women’s magazines promise to show readers how to fake eight hours of sleep with the help of the neutral paste, and an arsenal of highlighters, lash curlers, and other tools.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

I started stippling concealer beneath my eyes around middle school. That was also when I began suffering from insomnia, which wrote itself across my face in half-moons the color of storm clouds.

I bought little plastic tubes with built-in applicators, and as I brushed the wands across that crevice between my lids and cheekbones, I imagined that I was restoring my face to some baseline state.

The hallmark of a good concealer is that it hides itself. Unlike lipstick, which announces its presence with a shriek, concealer aspires to muteness. It cloaks “blemishes,” then disappears into the skin. So as I dabbed it on, I imagined that I was vanishing the trace of sleepless nights, returning myself to neutral.

This was some 50 years after Max Factor debuted the first concealer stick, a little gold tube called Erace. Early on, the packaging seemed to speak in a conspiratorial whisper, hailing the product as “the secret cover-up.” It promised to “blend perfectly with your complexion,” leaving no trace of itself.

Centuries before mass-manufactured concealer, women were hunting for DIY ways to look more awake. They consulted Victorian-era beauty manuals, which championed a liberal dollop of face creams laden with arsenic and lead. A wide-eyed look was also achieved with squirts of citrus juice.

The language of obfuscation and erasure still stripes beauty writing and advertisements. Many women’s magazines promise to show readers how to “fake” eight hours of sleep with the help of concealer and an arsenal of highlighters, lash curlers, and other tools. The artillery “neutralizes” the enemies: red eyes and dark shadows. If you can’t feel rested, the logic goes, the least you can do is lie about it convincingly.

There’s some basis for doing so. In a study published in the journal BMJ, Swedish researchers found that observers perceived temporarily sleep-deprived participants to be “less healthy and less attractive” than their better-rested counterparts. In a social situation, visual cues of sleepiness were a strike against them.

Concealer isn’t just about vanity for me, either; it’s about self-preservation. In high school and college, I started sleeping better. I could drift off anywhere and sleep uninterrupted. I felt fairly rested, and the gray-blue puddles below my eyes didn’t seem so deep. But by then, the habit was ingrained: I kept wearing concealer anyway.

But upon college graduation, I was walloped with a rapid succession of swift and severe illnesses: a kidney infection that turned septic, chronic autoimmune disease, a tumor at the base of my brain that jolted my hormones out of whack. I spent much of my early- and mid-20s in doctors’ offices—or, more rarely, hospitals—and I stopped sleeping well. Pain kept me twitching late into the night and then it jolted me awake. My shoulders and elbows seized with spasms and my hands often trembled. It was tricky to maneuver a hairbrush, let alone one of the little concealer wands. Yet, I had never been so eager to conceal the traces of fatigue.

I have a photo of a myself and a friend in October 2011, snapped soon after one of my hospital stays. I had spent days hooked up to IV antibiotics and catheters; this jaunt to a community garden was my first outing in nearly a week. The stroll was carefully plotted so that I wouldn’t have to walk uphill. Home was just a few blocks away, in case the trip depleted me. In the photo, my friend and I are standing, arms draped across each others’ shoulders, in front a mural of blue moons—gibbons, crescents—hanging low over brownstone buildings. I can zoom in on my face and see the puffy, gray slivers I had tried to conceal. I didn’t want my face to betray the rest of my body. Even faced with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, I wanted my eyes to signal that everything was fine.

On the few occasions that I have ventured out without concealer on, at least one person—without fail—has asked me if I am sick. It was a question that I didn’t quite know how to answer. Often, I wasn’t acutely ill—I wasn’t necessarily coughing or running a fever—but a flare-up was never far away. To a casual acquaintance, my chronic illness was invisible, but it hobbled me in ways I downplayed because I equated them with weakness. I pancaked my face with makeup in an attempt to obscure not only the collateral damage of sickness—the dark crescents, the red patches—but to bury the illness itself.

My concealer of choice is CoverGirl’s “Ready, Set, Gorgeous.” The text is rendered in loopy, swoopy pink lettering. It took me a while to register that the phrase is a command. It’s playful, but it’s also an instruction to gird myself for the day, to buck up and get on with it. I hope, someday, to cut myself the same slack I grant other people. For now, I’m still preoccupied with smudging vulnerability away.

A lot of effort goes in to making something look easy, or to keep things chugging along. When your body is a rogue agent, you’re constantly trying to correct course. Being sick—and trying to get healthy—demanded observation and calibration: quiet, regular work, in the form of specialist visits, physical therapy, and scans that I tried to keep as unobtrusive and invisible as possible. I got a job and started graduate school and tried to keep illness sequestered from the rest of my life. I imagined them as two parallel lines that would never converge. I thought about the invisible labor that women perform: restocking a threadbare fridge, remembering kids’ dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences. When performed expertly, this work is almost imperceptible—thoroughly concealed.

Even though, intellectually, I want to push back against the idea that things should look easy, I find myself buying into it, complicit in hiding the traces. I would like to be able to look tired after a long week without worrying that someone will think I’m on the brink of burnout. There’s pressure from myself and others to lean in further and further without ever seeming to wobble.

Now, at night, after work, I go to graduate school. One day last semester, as we neared finals week, another grad student and I studied our reflections in the elevator’s mirrored walls. We were kind of nuts to do this whole thing, we agreed. We were tired.

“You don’t look tired,” my classmate told me.

I think she meant it as a compliment—hey, you don’t look like crap, an off-handed nicety traded to propel me across the semester’s finish line.

“I’m exhausted,” I told her. “It’s just the makeup.”