Sarah Ferrara, 24, lives on New York City's Lower East Side. She recently graduated from The King's College and now works at a policy think tank in Manhattan. In response to her pastor's challenge for the church to do a 40-day fast together, she decided to give up makeup. The fast ended a few weeks ago, so when we Skyped for this interview, she had a day's worth of eyeliner working it's way out from under her lashes, but plenty to say about how the fast challenged her beliefs about beauty, femininity, and what constitutes an acceptable public image.
Tell me more about what inspired you to do this challenge.
When I first became a Christian in high school, I gave up makeup as a symbol of freedom and the change that God had put inside me. I didn't need makeup as a form of control anymore. But somehow along the way I had lost that freedom as a part of my identity. I couldn't imagine leaving the house and didn't know how I looked without makeup on.
Why has makeup always been so important to you?
I grew up with the understanding that I was pretty, but when I turned 14, I had a spin-out. I started looking at teen magazines and didn't really understand who I was supposed to be. I was desperate for control, and learned in 8th grade that through makeup you can control your own feelings and what people think of you. It got to the point that as a teenager, whenever I felt nervous, I put on lipgloss.
That changed when you became a Christian?
Yes. Before, I had this idea that my lipgloss could somehow defend me from all my problems. But then I read Philippians 3:8. That verse saved me -- before I was trusting in lip gloss to help me through deep matters of the soul. Then I realized the only thing that could help me was to know God and be known by Him. Everything else is rubbish. I got rid of all my makeup. I realized it didn't matter anymore. I shed the coolness because I felt marked as an authentic individual who didn't care about what people thought about her. I cut my hair too. I was just free. I could look however I wanted and celebrate my own face. That marked my soul. It really changed me.
Let's fast forward ten years. You're sitting in church and you decide to do this fast. How did you feel when you walked out the door without mascara or concealer?
The first shock is that you're looking at yourself in the mirror and having to tell yourself: "That's it! Nothing comes next. Go forth!" (laughing) I felt masked actually. I felt like people couldn't see the real me. I was very afraid of losing the positive affirmation I usually got at work about my appearance. I prepared myself to hear comments like: "You look really tired are you okay? Are you not feeling well?" But I was also really encouraged when some upstanding men in my church told me what I was doing was a good thing. Other people at church who were fashion designers gave me some nice clothes, so that was great!
How did you notice your own behavior start to change?
I found myself looking down when people would talk to me. I was ashamed of what they would see. I also started getting hyper-aware of people wearing makeup. It's like when you do a food fast and see everyone eating carrots and suddenly you can't wait to get your hands on a carrot the moment the fast is over!
What were some hard moments?
I began to realize that I wasn't pretty. I got a little angry: Why was God making me do this fast? I asked Him, "Are you trying to prove that I'm not as pretty with makeup off? You win." I'm not as pretty without makeup. My eyes are small, I have acne scars. My lips aren't popping. I don't have dark eyes. My eyelids disappear into my eye sockets without eyeliner. I have no cheekbone definition. This whole time, I thought my eyes angle upward like Sophia Loren, and I realized my eyes don't do that. I thought my eyes were really captivating. That that were sweeping upwards and that's why someone would date me. But no, they're just green.
Did you find answers or resolution?
I thought I was doing a fast because God wanted to teach me to not to be vain. But then I realized you don't do a fast to fix something. The point of a fast is to create a space and invite the Holy Spirit into that space. I began to feel closer to God, and I said to myself, if this is what it takes to feel His heartbeat, then I'll give up makeup the rest of my life. I also had some personal breakthroughs: I started to like my face and see things I hadn't seen before. I also began to realize some deep wounds and some misunderstandings I had about sexuality, relationships, love, and marriage. I felt like this was a safe way to begin tackling these issues.
How did you end the fast?
During Hurricane Sandy, my roommates and I evacuated upstate to a lodge in the mountains. I wasn't ready for the fast to end. Someone asked me what I had learned and I realized I had fallen in love with my face. The day before I broke the fast, my roommate and I did glamour shots together without makeup. The next day we went out at night and she agreed to help me put makeup on. She reached for my face with the concealer, and I started crying. It was like I felt protective of this thing I had found.
After what sounds like such a freeing experience, why did you decide to start wearing makeup again?
Partly because I think it's okay to take joy in doing that. Partly because I didn't know what else to do. Partly because I wanted to wear makeup. But it comes from a different place now, a place of freedom and I don't feel obligated to it. You can't stay in that fast of intensity forever because there are more things to learn.
What were the most significant takeaways for you?
God healed my heart, and I saw where I was beautiful. I think I saw another side of reality that we're often blinded from. We're only given the side of reality that is smoothed over, with perfect lighting, and shareable. There was something wild about pushing people to accept me the way I am with acne scars and all these imperfections. I realized nothing has to be changed about me in order to be beautiful for God. I felt set free from obsessing about being beautiful.
What advice would you have given to your 8th grade self?
Let it go. Drop it. Drop it like its hot. Unclench your fists. There's more to be had and freedom is more important. You're too exciting and interesting to always look like an Instagram picture.