For the past two weeks, I decided to stop wearing makeup.
A friend recently suggested that this might be a good way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Wearing makeup is something I normally do without thinking about it much, a part of my routine I don’t really question. I do it because it makes me feel good, and on the whole I think there’s nothing wrong with putting effort into your appearance. But it was when I realised that I felt like I needed to be made up to feel attractive, that I realised it might be a good idea to try going without it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried giving something up that I normally take for granted - over the past few years I’ve experimented with giving various things up, mostly dietary changes. I’ve (temporarily) given up alcohol, caffeine, sugar and gone fully vegan.
Reflecting on these different experiences made me think about the benefits of “going without” something in general. It struck me that by pure coincidence this week marks the start of Lent - a time during which Christians typically fast or give up luxury items. But I also know many non-Christians who have, at one point or another, decided to give something up for Lent - who clearly are doing it for some reason other than out of respect for religious tradition. So why do we give things up, and what can we gain from doing so?
What’s the benefit of giving things up?
Often when we think about giving things up we think of trying to eliminate harmful activities from our lives - drinking, smoking, eating things that are bad for us. But I don’t think this needs to be the only motivation for going without. In every case where I have given something up, I have ended up reintroducing it into my life in one way or another. I don’t see this as a failure, so clearly my aim was something other than to completely avoid it.
So if giving things up doesn’t necessarily always mean eliminating harmful activities from our life, what’s the benefit?
Giving things up helps us to reflect on things we normally do without thinking. In doing so, this gives us the space to ask why we do that thing at all, whether we want to continue doing it, and under what circumstances.
Often it’s helpful to give something up not as a means to eliminating it from our life, but because it is something we do mindlessly and so we want to reassess our usage of it. Things that we do without thinking needn’t necessarily be bad for us - in most cases, they at least have some benefits to our lives - or we wouldn’t have started doing them in the first place! But by giving these things up for a period, we get the opportunity to think about why we started doing them at all, what downsides we might be unaware of, and how much we want to continue doing them in the future.
I didn’t stop wearing makeup because I thought it was bad for me and I wanted to stop doing it forever. I stopped because I realised that I was doing it without really thinking about whether I wanted to, why I was doing it, and when I wanted to wear makeup. At the end of the two weeks, I don’t feel like I never want to wear makeup again, but I feel like I have a better understanding of why I wear it when I do. This definitely makes me likely to wear less makeup and wear it less often, because I’ve realised that in many contexts I don’t really have the reason to wear it that I thought I did.
A similar thing happened when I gave up alcohol. I realised that I’d often been drinking at social events without even thinking about whether I wanted a drink - it had just become a default, a habitual action. Sometimes I’d have a few drinks and afterwards think - I didn’t even enjoy that, why did I do it? After not touching alcohol for 6 months during my undergraduate degree, I didn’t feel like I never wanted to drink again - but I did start to much more consciously reflect on whether I actually wanted a drink in any given situation, and why I was doing it overall.
Giving things up helps make us aware of any possible benefits of not having the thing, that we might have been oblivious to otherwise. When I gave up drinking, I was suddenly more aware of how great not feeling tired and hungover the day after a night out was - and how much money I saved. Not wearing makeup encouraged me to take even better care of my skin because I couldn’t hide spots or blemishes. Without caffeine my energy levels felt much more constant throughout the day. If I hadn’t thought about these things, I’d definitely have thought about these benefits less.
Giving things up tends to make us appreciate them more. This, I think, is related to the fact that when we give something up we reflect more on why we do it - and so reflect more on what benefits it brings us. It’s surprisingly easy to habituate to things, even those that bring us a lot of pleasure, to the extent that they become quite neutral. Because I was so used to putting makeup on every day, it had stopped feeling like a nice thing to do to make an effort. Equally, if you drink caffeine or alcohol more regularly, you quite literally adjust to their effects more. One of the nicest things about giving something up, I find, is how much more you appreciate it when you choose to have it again. Absence really does (tend to) make the heart grow fonder.
Giving things up often forces us to change our routine or habits in a way that opens us up to new possibilities. This is something I really like about experimenting with my diet, for example - I quite enjoy restricting my diet in various ways because it makes me think more imaginatively about what to cook, rather than sticking to the same recipes.
There’s also just something empowering about proving to yourself that you don’t need something. A big incentive for me giving up alcohol was that I wanted to prove to myself that I could still have fun and be sociable without drinking. I gave up caffeine because I wanted to know that I could get through the day with enough energy without a cup of coffee. I stopped wearing makeup because I wanted to show myself that I could feel attractive and good about myself without having to paint a face on every morning. None of this means that these things don’t still have benefits and I’m not going to use them sometimes. But I like knowing that I am choosing to use these things rather than feeling that I need them. Now if I have to drive to a party I know I can still have a great time without drinking. If I don’t have time for a coffee in the morning I’m not worried that the whole morning is going to be a struggle. If I stay at a friend’s house and forget my makeup it’s no big deal.
Giving something up that you ordinarily take for granted, or feel like you need, is actually a really good way to step outside of your comfort zone. Although it might not be the kind of thing you first think of when “going outside your comfort zone” is mentioned - it’s not public speaking, or bungee jumping, or embarrassing in any way - it means changing some part of your routine or life in a way that can feel a bit scary or uncomfortable. This can help you to rethink why you do the things you usually do without thinking, make more conscious decisions in future, and open you up to new possibilities.