The exposed hour: taking off the makeup in therapy
Three years ago, when I was working for an inpatient treatment center, I facilitated a self-esteem and body image group for women. We were a cluster of complex and rich personalities- women of all different sizes and complexions and war stories, each carrying backpacks of pain, trauma, and mental illness.
Women face pressure throughout their lives to look, act, and simply be a certain way. They are expected to exude traits of sexuality, purity, spontaneity, resistance, charm, education, respect, beauty, mystery, wit, compassion, nurture, humility, confidence, and passion- all at the same time, without too much of any one trait.
We are expected, in a sense, to be everything and nothing, to be perfect in a way that objectively does not exist.
In this group, we explored the pervasive, cultural messages we feel mandated to follow. The women shared candidly about modern society and its influences, familial and relational expectations for beauty and presentation, and we pressed into the internal shame living deep within the bodies they loathed.
Most hated how they looked. Wished they could change everything. If you’re around a group of women long enough, this should not surprise you.
When I showed up one morning with makeup remover wipes and announced that we would all be taking off our makeup as an experiential group activity, some froze. Some panicked. And, some blatantly refused.
Makeup was their shield. And, as a woman, I understand this shield well. I wear makeup to work everyday. It makes me feel professional and attractive; it feels part of a complete outfit. By nature, I do not believe there is nothing fundamentally wrong with makeup. It it can be artistic, concealing, enhancing, expressive. It can create identity and individuation, and all of these options can foster empowerment and confidence.
And, yet, underneath the eyeliner and foundation and lipstick lies a different kind of rawness. An exposure, a vulnerability. Some are comfortable with this rawness, but many fear it. Rawness increases potential space for rejection and abandonment, for the ultimate terror of being unloved.
We don’t always need to be raw to be healthy, but we do need to know how to be raw when the time calls for it.
Taking off makeup in front of a group is incredibly hard. I know because I participate in the activity as well. Some cry, and others try and hide. Many feel ugly and ashamed.
I do this because, on the other end of the spectrum, on the side we rarely talk about, when rawness does not lead to rejection, it often leads to connection. Rawness levels us. It allows us to see the other person as they are- without layers and without shielding.
That is why therapy is powerful. Good therapy is built on emotional rawness, where the defenses get stripped and the excuses are challenged. Vulnerability is not only expected- it is cherished and embraced. This therapy activity is built on physical rawness and emotional rawness. It attacks from every angle. For some, it’s the equivalent of stripping off their clothes and sitting naked.
What happened in this group, as they revealed their blemishes, acne, pimples, scars, wrinkles, small eyes, big eyes, dark circles, sparse eyebrows, no eyebrows, large eyebrows, faint lips, freckles, moles, and all? In essence, closeness happened. A natural yearn for support and uplifting happened. The very thing these women feared most- rejection and criticism – was dispelled.
Instead, they received support and unconditional regard from a safe and loving environment. They were able to feel acceptance, and what feels better than that?
I’ve repeated this activity many times in groups, and it continues to yield the same beautiful power. Many people protest and resist, but once they lean into the process, they feel a sense of bravery and ownership. The group invariably becomes closer. The women invariably feel safer. A sense of organic empowerment happens. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s painful, but it’s raw. And when everyone is raw, we almost have no choice but to move closer. We almost have no choice but to relate, empathize, and nurture.
Even if we’re flawed and imperfect. Even if we’re completely exposed.