How Wearing Makeup Helped Me Recover From a Religious Cult

I’m not especially vain, but I pay to have my eyebrows chiseled into for hours. My brow bones are numbed, but I can still feel the scrape of the tiny knife. It’s a procedure called microblading and, in the end, my white-blonde eyebrows are temporarily tattooed with light brown ink.

Every three weeks I impatiently lay utterly still, eyes closed, while the technician meticulously affixes three black eyelashes onto each of my blonde lashes. These procedures may sound indulgent, but for me, they are profound acts of feminism and my statement against patriarchal religion.

I grew up in Jasper, IN, as a member of the fundamentalist church the Worldwide Church of God, which was obsessed with the certainty that the world was ending and, as a result, so was I. It was up to the church members to pray enough, tithe enough, and be obedient enough to ensure that Jesus would return.

“It was hard to imagine that if I didn’t stop wearing Bonne Bell lip gloss, I would single-handedly prevent Jesus from returning and my family from being saved.”

When I was 19 and a sophomore at Indiana University, I returned home one weekend and went to church with my parents to discover that the church’s founder, Herbert Armstrong, decided that the reason Jesus hadn’t returned was that women were wearing makeup. “Makeup is an abomination. Throw it out!” the minister screamed in a blistering sermon. “If you let makeup come between you and God,” the minister continued, “then you will not make it into the kingdom! Women, it’s because of you that Jesus cannot return.”

His words were incomprehensible, despite being blunt and clear. It was hard to imagine that if I didn’t stop wearing Bonne Bell lip gloss, I would single-handedly prevent Jesus from returning and my family from being saved.

In adolescence, I discovered the power of makeup to draw my fair features into definition. Mascara delineated my eyes. Eyebrow pencil and lipstick offered pops of color to my pale face. I’d been fed up with the church’s attitude toward women and their subservient roles growing up, but when I argued against it, my father explained that God created a role for everything in the universe, including men and women.

But my disillusionment grew with the church and their teachings that weekend. I wasn’t so willing to submit to church authority anymore. I didn’t want give up the one thing I had control over that was a symbol of my independence as a woman in a community dominated by men.

Questioning anything was understood to be “the sin of witchcraft,” according to 1 Samuel, one of the church’s favorite Biblical verses, but I couldn’t avoid questioning the pettiness of telling women that their CoverGirl powder was on Jesus’s radar. Once I started to question that, all of my concerns about the church’s sexist, racist, and homophobic doctrines that I’d been suppressing surfaced. If the church’s position on makeup was wrong, perhaps it was wrong about other things, as well.

I never gave up my makeup. In fact, it was one of the major catalysts for my departure from the Worldwide Church of God. I believed that what I did with my body and face was my choice and had no relevance to my loyalty or commitment to God.

Many years have passed and many things have changed. I am no longer Christian; I converted to Judaism many years ago. But when you see me with my eyelash extensions, my perfectly coiffed, dyed brows, and my glossed lips, don’t just dismiss me as a shallow woman who spends too much time on her appearance. Instead, consider the possibility that those luxurious black eyelashes were my way out of fundamentalist patriarchy and into a self-defined life.

Angela Himsel grew up in Jasper, IN, as a member of the doomsday Christian faith, the Worldwide Church of God, now a mainstream evangelical church known as Grace Communion International. Her lifelong search for salvation and understanding led her across the globe, ultimately bringing her to a very unexpected place: as a practicing Jew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Angela’s memoir, “A River Could Be a Tree,” recounts that journey. For more, visit visit angelahimsel.com or figtreebooks.net.

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