The Psychology of Cleaning

Some days, it is very hard to meditate.  My mind keeps thinking about this or that and I feel very irritated with everything and everyone.  When this is happening I realize it is not because of any one issue or person but it’s just my brain being irritated in general then running around from thought to thought trying to pin the cause onto something tangible.

During those times, what helps me is to start cleaning and bagging stuff up that I don’t need to take to Goodwill.  I believe that there is some truth in the expression, “A cluttered house is a cluttered mind.”  Our primitive brains may register piles of junk with anxiety.  Although our intellectual brains know that the pile of junk is not going to hurt us, the primitive brain cannot tell the difference between those piles of junk and piles of rocks that can topple over and kill us all. And that mound of laundry waiting to be put away?  Our primitive brain might be thinking that deadly insects could be hidden in the little crevices.  It will then releases stress chemicals until the laundry put away. The primitive brain is only trying to save us!

Should I Throw Away All My Makeup?

“I’m going to throw my makeup away.” This is me calling my best friend, Ly, on the phone.

“What do you mean?”

“I am literally going to throw every piece of makeup into the trash. Why do we feel the need to wear makeup anyway? It’s anti-feminist.”

“What! What about your Urban Decay Pallets?”

“Yes.  Even the Urban Decay Pallets. Especially the Urban Decay Pallets.” My voice is curiously even and calm. I am a cold-blooded, determined super-woman.

“What about the Mac?  The Mac! Allison! Are you there?” Ly’s voice is getting more and more panic-stricken. I start to feel my resolve waver.

“Oh right. The Mac.” I pause and look down at the rainbow of Mac eyeshadows in their individual disks spread out like little candies. “I’ll call you back.”

“Don’t hang up! Why are you doing this?”

“I danno…I’m trying to clean. I read this book…”

“Oh, you and your books again. Promise me you won’t throw anything away until you call me back. At least save the Mac….. and the Urban Decay.”

“Fine, fine. Ok bye.”  Ly lets me hang up the phone.  Gone is my super-woman resolve. It’s as if she just talked me down from jumping off a cliff.

In front of me is my entire makeup collection.  Every last lipstick and lonely single-serving sample has been fished out of drawers, purses, medicine cabinets, coat pockets, and glove compartments. It’s all here.

How did I get here? I read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s a housecleaning book about getting rid of massive amounts of stuff.  Kondo says that after doing the method herself her house is spotless all the time and she lives like a true minimalist. To decide if you should keep an object, hold it in your hands. If you feel a spark of joy, keep it, if not, discard it.  Kondo has minimalized to the point that she does not even own pants.

I was cleaning my bedroom and had gotten to dealing with my makeup.

First the easy stuff: I threw out some free samples of nearly-empty lip-glosses. I trashed some cheap eyeshadows that were not any good anyway. I chucked some brownish lipsticks that were majorly unflattering. All cuticle pushers, the toe separators, the lash brush and some brushes that are missing most of the bristle also go into the trash. Easy. Now I’m left with just the good stuff. I’m about to start organizing the rest when suddenly this overwhelming feeling takes over my body. My inner voice screams, “I don’t want any of this!”

What? How can I be thinking this?  I holding a purple Mac eyeshadow in my hands.  This is my favorite eyeshadow called “lilac ice.” I’ve worn it so many times this is my third time repurchasing this exact shade.  I try to read what I am feeling. What do I feel? Anxiety.

I think, “I should wear eyeshadow more. I should look up YouTube makeup tutorials and get good at it. I should wake up earlier in the morning to put makeup on before work on a daily basis.” So much to do! So much anxiety! How do I get rid of this anxiety? Should I throw Lilac Ice into the trash? But it’s my favorite!

How did I get here?

In junior high and high school, I looked at the other girls with envy. They got to wear glitter eyeshadow, black lipstick or paint their nails blue while my parents wouldn’t let me get away with anything more than cherry ChapsStick. It seemed that everyone got to wear makeup except me. Other than a 99-cent Wet and Wild brown lipstick that Ly and I shared in 6th grade, I wore zero makeup in junior high and high school.

I started wearing makeup at the riper age of 19. I went out of state to college got a job at Hooters. At Hooters, makeup is a requirement. The male manager explained how he wanted us to look: “Light blush, rosy, sun-kissed cheeks.”  The Hooters girl is the All-American, girl-next door. I immediately went to Victoria’s secret to get a makeup lesson.

The clerk explained, “This is how you shade. You don’t want to look like you got punched in the eye!” The lady was so nice and fun. I felt like I was going through a womanly rite-of-passage.

At first, putting on my Hooters Girl face took me 30 minutes. One slip of the fingers and I would accidentally smear something.  I had not yet mastered the subtle art of dabbing away mistakes with an oil-soaked make-up remover pad and Q-tips. More often than not, I would have to scrub everything off and reapply from scratch.

Day after day, swipe after swipe and muscle memory built up. After a month or so, I got to the point where I could apply in foundation, blush, concealer, several shades of eyeshadow and mascara in about 5 minutes flat. I could probably do it in the dark if need be. Muscle memory gave my hand a mind of its own.

With makeup I could make my eyes look huge and my skin flawless. My face became a piece of art.  Some people may think that Hooters Girls are hired for their appearance and not for their brains.  But creating that appearance takes a lot of brain power! At the time I liked to think of myself as an artist with my body being a walking and talking piece of art.

Eventually I left Hooters and became a nurse. My nurse face had to be kicked down a couple notches from my Hooter Girl face.  I would wake up 10 minutes earlier to apply powder, liquid concealer under the eyes, blush, and lipstick. Somedays days I would add eyeshadow and eyeliner. I had to cut out using mascara because it made my eyes bloodshot by the end of a 12 hour shift. Some days it was so bad that I have to use a syringe full of saline as an eyedropper to rinse my eyes.

We often hear the advice, “Just be yourself!” This is easier said than done. What if we don’t know who we are? What if we don’t know how to be? Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn phrases this “Just be yourself” advice in a more helpful way. In his book, Zen Keys, he states that the goal of spiritual practice is to “see into one’s true nature.” So to determine if one should do a certain action, like wear makeup, consider if that action allows you to better see your true nature.

Does putting on makeup allow me to better see my own nature or does it do the opposite? Looking at my face with makeup, I know that it is not my true face.  Instead, it’s an image of what I have seen on T.V, magazines, movies, and the internet of what beauty should be.  So, what is beauty? Is it colored eyelids, rosy cheeks and big eyes?  With that look I am trying to say to the world that I am young, fresh, and beautiful. I am trying to be those things on the inside so isn’t it okay to say that on the outside with makeup?

Let’s take a deeper look. What are the real elements of that look? I know that sometimes makeup means red eyes and saline syringes after a 12 hour shift. Makeup is money and time spent shopping. It is loss of sleep waking up early to apply makeup. It’s skin issues such as acne and blackheads from wearing makeup for hours on an everyday basis.  It’s having to buy facials, masks, pores strips, washes and creams to remedy those skin issues and the time and money for those things. It is makeup stinging the eyes when you sweat and not wanting to touch your own eyes and face. Is pushing your husband away with irritation when he wants to kiss you and mess up your lipstick. It is sometimes feeling insecure and ugly without makeup. It’s the sense that when I’m wearing makeup and someone looks at me they are not really seeing me. Maybe sometimes I want to hide behind a makeup mask.  Maybe sometimes I want to be the prettiest girl in the room. Maybe sometimes I want people to feel jealous.  Facing the truth can be ugly sometimes.

Facing the truth about makeup-the ugliness, the sadness, the grease, the grit- I put Lilac Ice and my remaining makeup in a shoebox. I consider throwing everything away but something is still holding me back. I put the shoebox on a high shelf in my closet and try not to think about it for now.

Weeks pass. I let my makeup-less face show to the world. Slowly the sense of guilt, obligation, and apology fades away. Someday I feel like my natural freshness and beauty are shining through. Other days I feel tired and older. I think about the shoe box. Maybe if I throw it away it will make me feel better about myself. Maybe I will feel free.

One day I take the box down and hold the makeup in my hands to see if they will spark joy or anxiety.  Thoughts come into my mind.

Makeup is also that kind lady who helped me at Victoria’s Secret.  It’s Ly and I trying on brown wet-and wild lipstick in 6th grade, giggling and thinking we were so cool. It’s putting makeup on for my wedding day.

Attachment to the body and thinking it is our true self is one of the errors of being human and one of the goals of spiritual practice. In any case, the physical body-with or without makeup- is not really our true self.

Fast forward to now. I put makeup on maybe once a month when I want to dress up and go out with friends or my husband for a fancy meal.

If you put makeup on with joy and love- love for yourself, love for others, love for the world- and you do it with mindfulness and kindness to your physical body and emotions then, in that case, you are also putting makeup on your soul. So I kept my makeup.  For my soul.