The thing that forced me into considering my stance on makeup – who I wore it for, why I wore it – was an old boyfriend.
He lent against the kitchen doorframe one evening, enquiring into my face. “You’ve done that thing with make-up with your eyes,” he said, clumsily.
Fear and a touch of disdain was mixed into his voice. The words came out accusingly: you have purposefully altered yourself, to try and make yourself more appealing.
For who? Was the unspoken question in his voice. For him, hopefully. For another man,maybe.
Except I hadn’t. Men were not on my mind when I’d worked a soft black pencil into my lashes that day, flicking it out at the end, softening the line with my fingers. I wasn’t thinking, consciously at least, about the effect it could have on others. I rarely did, and I’d felt frustrated, misunderstood, at his reading of my intent.
Make-up, for him, had a sense of deceit, of smoke and mirrors, of an inaccessible world. A secret art, which girls are inducted in to as they become women, and only the bravest of men try out.
Make-up transforms, for sure. It pinkens, darkens, flushes. It emboldens and thickens. And so the hint of sex is always there. It’s subversive, wayward. It shrinks and exaggerates features, softens or throws the planes of the face into sharp relief.
It changes you, renders you unpredictable. Which is perhaps why “I prefer you natural!” is the cry of a thousand lovers.
A bare face is the known, it is unaltered. I like natural too. Most of the time, actually. But I also like choice. Sometimes I also like to be glittering of eye, candy pink of cheek. Maybe I’ve caught a whisp of Friday night glee and feel like building up a cat eye Nefertiti would be proud of.
Perhaps I want to try, for the hundredth time, to recreate the makeup on the cover of British ELLE’s January 2002 cover. (It was Liv Tyler, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since).
Sometimes I need to paint on matte, raspberry lipstick on a dank morning, just to shake myself out of a bleak mood.
These are my magical, transfigurative abilities. They please and they calm me. It is performance, ritual, self-care.
Maybe that’s the thing: make-up scares an insecure partner sometimes because the drivers behind it are so primal, so instinctive. If what Wikipedia says is true, and witchcraft is “skills and abilities performed by designated social groups with esoteric secret knowledge”, then I think make-up artistry qualifies. Sign me up, I’ll practice that witchcraft. If it threatens boys, then so be it.
My reasons for loving makeup, I wanted to say to him, have nothing to do with attracting a man. It’s a lot of other things.
Some people smoke to steady their nerves; it’s something real to do with your hands, a process. In the same way, makeup’s physicality and its processes calm me. In a world of constant digital stimulation, mixing, smearing and blending is a grounding, tactile act. The pleasure lies in pots of colour, ground metals and powders. It’s the slick click of a lipstick case, the clunk of a weighty compact as it snaps shut in the palm. The rumble of so many boxes and compacts when I sift through my stuff.
I feel very aware that not every woman derives this kind of straightforward, literal enjoyment from cosmetics. I feel conflicted arguing that its appeal is uncomplicated, unalloyed.
There’s a lot of cosmetic companies out there making money from women’s insecurities about their skin tone, their hair, promoting the erasure rather than the celebration of difference.
When I watch YouTube tutorials multiplying, mushroom-like, of teenage girls contouring themselves, I’m not sure whether it’s creativity, or young women getting blended (quite literally) into cartoon caricatures of femininity.
Make-up industry marketing mines the semantic field of youth, of happiness in a way that probably does more harm than good. Transform! Seduce! Revive! Restore!
There’s no bottle that can turn back the clock, or truly seduce. And it’s so unnecessary – who really needs bloody primer? Who would die without blusher? – yet there’s the nub. For all my talk of physicality, makeup does wonders for my mind, my imagination too.
It might not save the world, but playing with a lipstick might gird my spirits, temporarily, on a sad day. It’s a frivolity, and God knows hearts and minds need a shot of frivolity from time to time.
I do think makeup can be transformative, sometimes, and its magic is best cast inwards, for your own benefit. So there’s my party line on make-up.
I never did tell the (now long-lost) boyfriend that I did that thing with makeup with my eyes for me. To work with and respect what was already there, in my thoughts and on my body. In the pots and pans of colour, of potential. To turn these things into something new, and different, maybe even beautiful.