Less is more with new bare-face beauty trend

The sans-make-up trend is in the spotlight, with more Singapore women rocking the look

Alicia Keys no longer wears make-up.

Not while filming episodes of musical reality show The Voice.

Not for last Sunday's live televised Video Music Awards (VMAs) in New York City.

Never again, she has vowed.

The singer-songwriter, who hid her freckles under layers of make-up for years, says she does not want to cover up anymore.

"Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing," she wrote in a letter in May to explain the move.

While going make-up-free is by no means a new phenomenon, the trend has resurfaced in magazines and on Instagram, where a search for the #nomakeup hashtag pulls up more than 12 million posts.

Among the "I woke up like this" selfie shots are those of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Adele, Cindy Crawford, Lady Gaga and Beyonce.

Reaction to Keys' stance has been mixed.

In the days following the VMAs, the 35-year-old was bombarded by tweets of encouragement, but was also chided for not painting her face for the red carpet.

Business analyst Leyna Chiong, 45, who admits that she rarely ventures out without wearing make-up, has mixed feelings about Key's decision.

"While I applaud the stance that Alicia Keys has taken, for many regular women, putting on make-up is a way to feel empowered and feel like the best version of themselves," she says.

"The truth of the matter is that not all of us look like Alicia Keys without make-up on. If we did, then perhaps more women would be willing to go without make-up."

According to advocates of the make-up-free lifestyle, such as Dr Georgia Lee, aesthetic doctor of TLC Lifestyle Practice, the focus should be on health, rather than societal expectations.

The 47-year-old says she does not wear make-up to work. She says: "Covering the skin with powder and concealer is not good for the skin because it clogs and reduces the transdermal oxygen transfer.

"Going without make-up should be more a matter of getting used to going bare, working on having naturally clear skin and being confident about it - rather than surprising those who see you without make-up for the first time."

For Ms Pauline Ng, founder and managing director of Porcelain, The Face Spa, going bare-faced is a matter of being confident in one's skin.

The 29-year-old says of her company's policy to have all staff and therapists go foundation-free: "Most people here use make-up less to enhance and more to conceal, especially when they have problematic skin. Going foundation-free is our way of countering that. It might be difficult in the beginning, but it is the best way to get healthy skin from the inside out."

Still, battling the social and professional expectations that a made-up face equates to "good grooming" continues to be a challenge that women have to face.

Then there is the double standard that Deborah L. Rhode, Stanford Law professor and author of The Beauty Bias, speaks about in her book. In it, she points to how men can rise to the top of Silicon Valley in a T-shirt, but women walk a tight line with make-up - wearing too much is considered "vain", but nixing it entirely is "letting ourselves go".

For women here, that gendered dichotomy continues to be a difficult one to traverse.

Ms Chiong, for one, recalls how her previous job at a boutique management consultancy firm here subtly stipulated the use of make- up in her contract.

"Women were expected to wear make-up and look presentable when meeting clients, but no such superficial obligations about hairstyles or facial hair were included for men," she says.

Finance executive Maggie Tan, 29, who dealt with a four-month bout of problematic skin this year, recalls being concerned about public judgment when she went bare-faced.

Ms Tan says of that period of unease: "Long term use of foundation had severely clogged my pores and I knew I had to avoid wearing make-up if I wanted my skin to get better. Initially, I was not used to going out without using foundation and would wear a cap when I was out.

"It was difficult because I had become used to seeing myself with an even skin tone in the mirror."

Still, despite the difficulty, it does seem that more Singaporean women are willing to take on the bare-face challenge.

For host and entrepreneur Teh May Wan, 35, frequently appearing sans make-up on Instagram is her way of setting an example for her two daughters, aged six and five.

The Norwegian-Chinese former model says: "People have seen my freckles on Instagram and left comments saying I have too much hyper pigmentation. But I just shrug off stuff like that. I was born like this and thankfully grew up with a confident mother who encouraged me to love my skin. I want my girls to know that make-up should not define them."

Home-grown actresses such as Fann Wong, Joanne Peh and Felicia Chin have also been doing their part to advocate sparing make-up.

Chin, 31, who has many a make-up-free selfie on Instagram and gamely went on the cover of 8 Days magazine in 2011 sans make-up, says: "I feel like, in my own small way, I give rise to such societal standards due to my line of work. But as much as I don't want to look tired on camera, I try and strike a balance when I go out, so I can put forth the most honest representation of myself whenever I can."

Peh, 33, who wrote a column in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao last month on her decision to wear less make-up, admits that turning down magazines and clients who force heavy make-up looks on her might have made her an unpopular choice to work with.

"It is the cost of speaking my mind", she says.

The new mother admits she has no qualms about rocking a more natural look. "People say I look sick and pale because they are so used to seeing me with heavy make-up. When they see me with a bare face, they cannot accept it.

"I don't understand this obsession with flawless beauty or why I need to hide behind a heavily painted face that doesn't flatter me."

Despite all the positive talk, going bare-faced is undoubtedly an uphill battle - one that involves slowly changing the mindsets and stereotypes that are associated with going make-up-free.

For Keys, who felt massive social pressure to wear make-up for years, the change happened only after a photographer took pictures of her after a gym session.

The photoshoot - which gave the world the first glimpse of the sprinkling of freckles across Keys' nose and cheeks - turned out to be, in Keys' words, the "strongest, most empowered, most free and most honestly beautiful" that she has felt.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline Less is more with new bare-face beauty trend. Subscribe