'It wasn't easy': A woman's challenge to give up makeup for Yom Kippur

People celebrating Yom Kippur can't eat, shower, wear leather shoes, or makeup. For Lisa Tognola, someone who wears makeup every day, that last one posed a real challenge.

Lisa Tognola says her attachment to makeup is 'vanity, but it's also insecurity.'

Writer and social worker Lisa Tognola wears makeup everyday so wanted to try going without it for Yom Kippur. (Kathryn Huang )

Lisa Tognola won't leave the house without makeup on, not even to go to the grocery store or while on vacation.

"It's such a big part of who I am," said Tognola.

But for this past Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday, she decided to go bare-faced for 25 hours.

"[People] were looking at me and it was awkward and uncomfortable," said Tognola, a social worker and author of the novel As Long As It's Perfect. "I felt super self-conscious and in other ways, it was actually very freeing."

'It was an expected norm'

Tognola grew up in the 1970s in California, with a mother who never left the house without makeup. She would say, "I have to put my face on first," Tongola recalled.

"She taught me to value wearing makeup and it was also part of our gender identity. It was an expected norm," said Tognola.

Even the synagogue Tognola attended when she was younger seemed to value makeup and physical appearances. She says that Yom Kippur — a day meant for avoiding the comforts of daily life — was seen as a time to dress up.

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"It was an occasion where women wore even more makeup than they normally did; it was an occasion to break out the high heels and wear pearls and red lipstick and really to look your best," said Tognola.

"It was only after attending my synagogue for many years that I started to understand that that's sort of missing the point of the holiday," she said.

An idea from the rabbi

Yom Kippur is the holiday where Jewish people are meant to reflect on the past year and atone for their sins by abstaining from, among other things, food, drinks, perfumes and makeup.

During the previous year's Yom Kippur services, Tognola's rabbi asked the congregants to challenge themselves for the next year.

"Here I am sitting there, my stomach is grumbling and I could swear she was looking directly at me, directly into my mascara-coated eyes," said Tongola. She was, of course, wearing makeup during Yom Kippur that year.

"Perhaps I had considered attending services without makeup but never had [the] courage to do that," she said.

Lisa Tognola attends a synagogue where few people wear much makeup, she says. (Amy Hand)

Taking steps … out of the house and with less makeup

Tognola started wondering if she could go without makeup as a way to become more observant. But it wasn't easy, she says.

"I had worried about it for weeks and I was agonizing and I couldn't decide whether I really wanted to reveal my true self, my non-made up self or not," said Tognola.

So she started taking steps — out of the house. She would go to the grocery store with less makeup on.

"I found myself so self-conscious that I'd be searching produce trying to select grapes with one eye on the fruit and one eye scoping the produce department to see if I would see anybody that I knew," said Tognola.

If she did, she says she would duck out and head to a different section of the store.

"That's how self-conscious I was. It sounds so ridiculous," she said.

'It's vanity but it's also insecurity'

Tognola decided to write down what she was feeling about Yom Kippur and her relationship to makeup — in an essay published in October.

"I really did a lot of deep thinking and searching... and realized how a lot of it is fear-based. It's vanity but it's also insecurity," said Tognola.

She said she was worried people would be looking at her wondering how pale her skin was, how big her pores were, how small her eyes were.

But it was more than that.

"I wondered if people would judge me as critically as I judge them," said Tognola. 

"And that was the hardest thing to admit," she said.

That admission — which she made public in her essay — made attending Yom Kippur services even more challenging.

"Not only was I showing up on Yom Kippur without any makeup but people had also learned that I secretly judge other people," said Tognola.

Yom Kippur without makeup

At the Yom Kippur service in October, Tognola says some congregants went out of their way to see her without makeup, like her kids' religious school teacher. Tognola says she was on the other side of the room and came running over. She grabbed Tognola's wrists and stared right into her face, saying, 'let me see, let me see.'

"And she says, 'Oh you look okay'. She says, 'if I ever went without makeup, I'd scare the kids away'," Tognola recalled.

"Others came up to me, and they were looking at me and it was awkward and uncomfortable," she said.

'We have to break out of our routine'

Tognola spoke with her rabbi about how uncomfortable she was without makeup. Her rabbi told her that's the point of Yom Kippur, you're not supposed to be comfortable.

"When we get used to doing certain things and we have to break out of our routine, it leaves us feeling kind of vulnerable and raw, and it gives us a different sort of inner awareness," Tognola said.

"It just makes us... more open in a way that allows us to focus inward and remember values of family and community and being better people and making the world a better place," said Tognola. And that's not supposed to be easy.

But will she go without makeup again?

"I think the challenge now is to be able to continue to not wear makeup but not obsess over it, so that I can feel less focused on my insecurity and how I appear and so that I'm able to focus more inward and reflect on my deeds and my misdeeds, because that's what's most important," said Tognola.