In a society in which women are expected to nurture and care for others, it is a radical act to take time to care for yourself. To be able to spend money on self-care. To prioritize your emotional needs. I know that to be able to do so is a privilege not every woman has. During 2020, I began to reassess my relationship with make-up. As someone who is a self-professed feminist, I found myself wondering if my relationship with make-up was healthy—if I was really using make-up as a way to nurture myself, or if I was using it as a tool of self-hatred. The answer I found was complicated.
Ruth Ozeki, in her short book The Face: A Time Code details the profound discomfort of observing her own face in minute detail. She says,
“When I look myself in the eye, it’s hard to look away. Eyes define a face. If we were not such visual creatures, if we received our sensory input some other way, maybe we would not need faces.” (Ozeki, 2016)
Why is it so uncomfortable for us to look ourselves in the eye? When we spend too much time looking at ourselves in the mirror, women are labelled vain, conceited, self-obsessed, and yet so many of us, if asked, I am sure would say that we don’t like what we see. There’s something misogynistic about the way that women who take time to care for themselves, to show themselves a little kindness, are demonised.
The beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry which profits from the fact that women don’t feel good about themselves. My own relationship with make-up goes back to high school, when I can vividly recall a girl I didn’t talk to much telling me that I ‘actually looked kind of pretty’ backstage at a play. Later, I got a job at a jewellery store, where my job was to literally sell ‘romance’, a.k.a. one of the thousand-dollar diamond engagement rings that we had to lock in the safe every night, which I managed to do once. Over the course of a few years, I went from only wearing make-up on special occasions to wearing it every single day.
I never really stopped to think about why I was wearing it, but I do know that I enjoyed wearing it, once upon a time. I have, over the years, developed some moderate skills in applying my own make-up, which largely involve the ability to lean my elbows on the tapware in my bathroom in order to draw on my eyeliner evenly. I’ve gone from being the teenager who wore too much eyeliner pencil on her lower lash line and whatever expired half price K-mart mascara she could find, to being the kind of woman who tries her best to wear ethical, cruelty free make up. And here’s the biggest, dirtiest secret of them all. When I wear make-up, I think I look good.
In early 2020, when things began to slow down at work, I decided to take some time off for my mental health. I have a tendency to push myself too hard, and 2019 was a big year. I published my debut book of short stories, Well-Behaved Women, and for the first time in my life, I lived alone as my partner followed a work opportunity to the other side of the country. In the space of twelve months, I travelled to Melbourne three times. All the while, I was pursuing my Masters in Information Science. When my place of work closed to the public, I decided it was time to take a break… from that, at least. I took six weeks off and told myself that I was going to write a novel. I’m a planner. I wrote up a daily timetable, and every day, I would get up, get dressed and do my make-up.
That is, until about a week in, when I suddenly got eczema all over my eyelid. It was itchy and very noticeable, and my eye was swollen and red. It wouldn’t go away. I took myself to the pharmacy and was given an ointment, and it was as I was asking the chemist if it was okay for me to wear make-up while I was healing that I realised how out of hand things had gotten.
Even writing this, I feel shallow. But it’s true. I’d become so dependent on make-up, I had started to believe that I couldn’t be confident, or professional, or achieve things without it. I wonder now if I have been falsely equating wearing make-up with feeling like the confident version of myself for the past decade. It’s certainly possible.
When had it happened? Without make-up, I had begun to hate looking at my unmade face. I hated how small my eyes looked, I hated the darker spots and scarring on my cheeks from the acne I used to get. Somewhere along the line, make-up had gone from being a way I expressed myself to being a mask to hide behind, and it wasn’t fun anymore. As strange as it was not to be able to wear make up for those few weeks, I think the break was good for me. It was like hitting the reset button. I had to relearn my own appearance.
I keep thinking about something the legendary RuPaul said to one of the contestants on Drag Race as I write this. Ru explained that in creating her drag persona, she discovered her power—and discovered how to access it even when she wasn’t in drag. There’s something in that which can be learned by anyone. That person that I found when I learned to express myself through make-up—that’s still me. The things I achieve when I’m dolled up? My achievements. I’m not a sad, scared, failure hiding behind a mask of paint and eyeliner. I’m Batgirl, suiting up in the Batcave and heading out to fight crime.
When I put on make-up, it’s an act of love to myself. An act of self-devotion. I am caring for myself, choosing to spend my time on doing something that makes me feel good. Make-up is a creative outlet which allows me to tap into my reserves of self-confidence, and choose how I want to express myself. Even if that’s just moisturiser. Because I’m actually worth it.
Ozeki, R, (2016.) The Face. LitHub. http://lithub.com/the-face/
Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian from Perth. She is the author of Well-Behaved Women(Margaret River Press, 2019), a collection of short stories exploring and re-evaluating the expectations of women in Australia today. She is currently working on a historical novel. When she’s not writing, Emily can almost always be found with her nose in a book.