What Is Beauty?

A Las Vegas photographer braves age-old questions about the masks women wear

Note on photography: Each set of photos shows No Makeup Project participants bare-faced (primary photos) and made-up (from separate boudoir shoots).

Only a few of the 20 or so women at Stacie Frazier’s house knew that the party would culminate in some of them taking off their clothes and being photographed nude. Frazier, who would take the pictures, her bevy of assistants and a reality TV producer shooting footage for a webisode had all managed to keep their plan a secret.

But even if the photo subjects had known that around 10 p.m. they’d be asked if they wanted to strip naked and pose on Frazier’s white leather couch in a supermodel-inspired cluster—naughty bits artfully concealed—some of them would have been less nervous about that than what was to come before it that afternoon and was the real reason they were there: to take off their makeup and, one by one, subject their faces to the camera, au naturel.

The day was one phase of Frazier’s yearlong No Makeup Project, a photographic exploration of feminine beauty that she says was conceived to liberate her clients from social expectation and help them find comfort in their own skin. When all’s said and done, though, nobody will have benefited more from the work than Frazier herself.

The art of the mask

Lest you think being photographed makeup-free is trivial, put yourself or a woman you know in this scenario: You’re taking a trip, traveling light, so there’s no makeup bag in your carry-on. You arrive at your destination to find the airline has lost your luggage, including toiletries and cosmetics. How do you feel?

“Panic and horror. I would run and get new makeup as soon as possible, before I had to wash my face.”

That’s Frazier’s reply, and it’s hard to believe, coming from a pretty redhead with ocean-green eyes and a laugh that lightens the hearts of everyone in earshot.

Frazier’s No Makeup Project is part of a wider social trend. Earlier this year, in the Facebook group she created for shoot participants, she shared a video that she says resonates deeply with her own mission. Produced by Dove soap and titled “Are You Your Own Worst Beauty Critic?” the video shows a series of women describing themselves to a sketch artist, who can’t see them but draws what he hears. The artist then sketches the same women based on descriptions given by people who just met them. A side-by-side comparison of the sketches demonstrates how women sell themselves short: All the strangers’ descriptions render more attractive portraits than the self-descriptions do. And the video goes further, delving into the causes and effects of this nasty self-critique habit.

“I should be more grateful for my natural beauty,” says Florence, one of the women sketched, after contemplating her ugly self-image next to the prettier and more accurate illustration. “It impacts the choices in the friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. … It couldn’t be more critical to our happiness.”

The video is part of Dove’s broader social mission targeting women’s and girls’ self-esteem, and the soap company isn’t a lone crusader. Lately, the public discourse has echoed with similar inquiries, such as The Huffington Post’s March article, “Porn Stars Without Makeup: Before and After Pictures”; and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary exploring depictions of women in the media.

Girls in Tech Las Vegas screened the film at a public event this spring, and during a panel discussion that followed, audience members raised questions about the specific pressures placed on Las Vegas women. For performers and waitresses especially, looks directly determine professional success—and the heavily made-up showgirl typifies Strip beauty.

“At the end of the day, when our faces are scrubbed and we’re in our pajamas, we don’t look that different,” said panelist April Mastroluca, a national PTA executive and former Nevada Assemblywoman, at the Miss Representation screening. Indeed, Frazier’s No Makeup shoots invite subjects to wash their faces clean and wear either nothing or their favorite nighttime outfit.

The idea was born a year and a half ago, when a librarian from out of town hired her to do a boudoir shoot. Frazier’s company, Haute Shots, takes a highly stylized approach to these pinup-style photo sessions. Costumes, lighting and heavy grooming help achieve a glamorous look for everyday women. In this setting, the librarian told Frazier about a challenge she does each year with a group of girls from her school. Together, they abstain from makeup for a week, talking and writing about the experience as they go.

It sparked an epiphany for Frazier, who had been looking for a personal project to work out the self-image and -esteem issues she frequently encounters during Haute Shots sessions. Women come to her saying they want the photos for their significant others, but often, she finds, they’re really doing it for themselves—to convince themselves they’re sexy and beautiful. Seeing her clients both adorned and naked, in all their insecurity, Frazier began cultivating an eye for the beauty that radiates from within.

“I’ve always wanted to do something that’s the opposite of what boudoir is supposed to be. I even thought of [photographing] girls crying,” she says. “I usually have such an intricate setup, and I wanted to strip that away.”

Frazier is stripping away more than she may realize, says Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist at the Renfrew Center, a residential eating-disorder treatment facility that does its own makeup-free challenge each year, called Bare Faced & Beautiful, Without & Within.

Makeup, Ressler says, has many layers of meaning to the women who wear it. It may be part of their professional persona, something they don—like an expensive suit—to signal standing. It may be an artistic enhancement of their features, a creative expression of femininity. Or it may be a mask they hide behind, a false self that deflects attention from painful, unresolved issues.

Projects like Frazier’s help women to question their relationship with makeup, gauge their dependence on it, Ressler says. This alone is a worthwhile exercise, but it’s even more fruitful if they can also identify the source of their anxiety about going makeup free.

When this happens, they reveal more than their individual hang-ups. They question social norms and constructs that may be holding them back.

The beholder’s eye

It’s a crisp, late-autumn day in 1993, and West Point cadet Leslie Stein is jazzed. The 18-year-old, slightly overweight brunette with bright chestnut eyes is standing and cheering in the traditional cordon formed to rally the Army football team for its annual clash with its archrival, Navy. As part of the sendoff, school groups parade down the cordon, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Suddenly, some physical education professors appear. They’re wearing sweats that are two or three sizes too big and stuffed with pillows—impromptu fat suits—and messily stuffing their faces with junk food as they prance by. Their chests are emblazoned with the letters “CWMP”—cadet weight management program.

“I was mortified; I wanted to die,” recalls Stein, now 38 and preparing for her No Makeup shoot with Frazier. At the time of the cordon, she was in the CWMP program—and sure everybody knew it. “I realized that’s how people saw me,” she says.

Although she’s recently slimmed down to 135 pounds and raced in her first triathlon, the 5-foot-6 Stein used to average 155. She thought that was normal until joining the Army, where she was repeatedly referred to weigh-ins.

“It was a brutal environment,” she says. “They would mock you, belittle you. They were constantly yelling at me for being too slow.” On the other hand, she adds, there was no nutritional or psychological guidance for losing weight in a healthy way.

Experiences like these, Ressler says, have a profound, lasting impact. And although people may think of body image as being neck-down, it plays out dramatically on the face, too.

“I saw a woman in treatment [for eating disorders] who said she grew up in a household where her mom got up an hour before her father so she could put on her makeup before her husband saw her,” she says. The client was terrified to go to the grocery store without her face completely made up.

“When I’m at my heaviest, but my face is pretty, I hope people will look at my face more than my body,” says April Holladay, another No Makeup shoot participant at Frazier’s house party. The voluptuous redhead had her eyelashes and brows dyed, and says she puts on tinted moisturizer to go to the gym, in order to smooth out her freckled complexion.

Stacie Frazier with no makeup. | Photo by Stacie Frazier

Stacie Frazier with no makeup. | Photo by Stacie Frazier

“When Stacie [Frazier] said ‘No makeup,’ that was a personal challenge for me,” Holladay says. “It shouldn’t be such a big deal, and I didn’t think it was until I got here, but it is.”

Perfect makeup is an integral part of the perfect woman, as she’s been conventionally depicted, explains Mary Pritchard, a psychology professor and body image expert at Boise State University who has studied the issue for 15 years.

“For many women I’ve talked to, the makeup is … the mask they put on to portray this vision they think society wants to see,” she says. “But more and more, I find, they’re getting tired of wearing this mask.”

Particularly in the past year, she says, she’s seen more women than ever embrace their blemishes and wrinkles as testaments to the lives they’ve lived, rather than hiding them as socially unacceptable flaws.

Not all flaws are embraced at Frazier’s shoot, however. At one point, Stein complains about waking up with a cold sore—“today of all days, when I’m being photographed with no makeup.” Laughing, Frazier tells her not to worry: “I said, ‘No makeup,’ not ‘No retouching!’”

Suddenly, the boundary-busting experiment feels like a lie. How can Frazier claim her photos show women in their natural state if she’s airbrushing them? The answer may lie in the difference between an artist’s craft and an ad agency’s deception. While some experts, such as Pritchard, decry Photoshop as the root cause for unattainable ideals of beauty, others, such as the Renfrew Center’s Ressler, see a big difference between shaving two inches off someone’s hips and concealing a pimple.

“The whole point is for these women to see themselves without makeup and like what they see,” Frazier says. “I don’t remove anyone’s wrinkles. If they have a blemish, something temporary, I remove it, but if it’s part of them everyday, I don’t.”

Taking it all off

Watching Frazier work with her subjects, it’s easy to believe she sees in each one of them an inner ember, and that it’s her job to coax it to a bright, outer glow. April Holladay, who is so nervous during her shoot that she has the room cleared of anyone unnecessary, visibly relaxes under Frazier’s soothing spell.

“That’s so gorgeous,” the photographer coos, as Holladay turns to one side and tosses her red mane down her back. “Oh my gosh! I love it.” Frazier puts Holladay so at ease, that the modest subject drops her robe down around her shoulders.

After her shoot, Holladay brings up the role of attitude in the way we are perceived and perceive others. She takes the No Makeup Project as a good reminder of what her Christian faith teaches about appearance. “I’m not making beauty my top priority, but it’s part of who we are as a culture,” she says. “I think God’s grace goes far beyond that. He cares about the heart.”

Both she and Leslie Stein say taking off their makeup for the camera is exhilarating. Stein even hangs around for the surprise group photo at the end of the evening. Frazier asks for five volunteers, then tells them that, to take the No Makeup Project to its extreme, she wants to shoot them together, completely naked. After several hours of bonding, the women need little convincing. They go into an adjacent room, disrobe and come out covered with large pieces of cloth provided by Frazier’s assistants. The cloth stays in place until everyone is positioned for a bit of strategic concealment, and then the assistants remove it. Frazier takes a dozen or so pictures, only slightly altering the composition and lighting of the shot, and the swaths of cover are returned to the models.

“It was a shock,” Stein says afterward. “I had two almost instantaneous thoughts: One, my mother will kill me; and, two, how much I love all the Dove Real Beauty videos, and how great I think women of all shapes and sizes are when they strip down to their skivvies and go without makeup. If I admire them, but I’m not willing to do the same thing myself, how much of a hypocrite am I?”

Weeks later, reflecting on the shoot, she says it helped her clear some mental hurdles and come a step closer to full self-acceptance. Holladay, likewise, feels taking such a risk allowed her to grow.

For the woman behind the camera, the project has been equally challenging—and rewarding. An only child raised in an all-female home by a glamorous mother and grandmother, Frazier says she spent her childhood playing with makeup and longing for the day when she could wear it for real. Her mother moved every few years in an ongoing effort to improve their lot, but it caused her daughter to feel she never fit in anywhere.

That sentiment persists and is manifest in Frazier’s attitude toward her appearance. “My features all disappear when I have no makeup on,” she says. “I feel weird, invisible.” To explore that feeling—and share the experience of clients who have participated in her No Makeup Project—Frazier took a shot of herself, fresh out of the shower, using a camera timer. For a couple of months, the photo served as her Facebook identity (and it’s the cover of this issue).

As a professional photographer, she says, it’s scary to put the image out there for anyone to judge. At the same time, she found herself thinking: “This is me … like it or not.”

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