Thanks to Aubrie Cox for contributing our first Skirt the Issue guest essay.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about makeup.
On one of the last days AWP, after struggling with my eyeliner and polishing off some lip gloss, I leaned back and thought to myself, There, now I don’t look so tired.
This gave me pause. One of the very few visible indicators of my invisible illness is my fatigue. Of course, anyone can look tired, but in the proceeding months, I had been making a conscious effort to not just pass as able-bodied, to be more public and vocal about my fibromyalgia and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. In a panel about invisible and chronic illnesses, I would later talk about how I felt it was important to be more visible for my students, current and former, who had similar conditions to know that they were not alone. In doing so, I could be an advocate for them; I could show them that it was possible to have a good life.
If all that was true, was covering up my fatigue another way of masking and passing?
I only started wearing makeup about eight months ago. Aside from some occasional lip color and a brief middle school obsession with peacock eye shadow, it’d had little appeal to me. Older foundations and lipsticks felt heavy on my oversensitive skin; they looked caked on and unnatural. But as I’ve started figuring out what my real adult style looks like (with help from my fashionable fiancé), I’ve become increasingly interested in accessorizing. Makeup felt like the next logical step.
It started with winged eyeliner—others’ selfies made it look so fun and it would complement my hot rod red Ray-Bans. After a few YouTube tutorials and lots of a practice, I found my rhythm. Then came the eye shadow, then the blush, then a lot more lipsticks and glosses that brought out the best in my hair and skin tone. Even now it takes me a long time to “put on my face,” but I enjoy the final product. More often than not, it makes me feel good about myself.
In this sense, I feel like I have a mostly healthy relationship with makeup. It’s for me first and foremost (though the fiancé enjoys it, too). It’s helped with my self-confidence and body image; I feel like I’m settling into a more put together me. Sometimes I opt for just eyeliner and lipgloss, sometimes it’s foundation, blush, everything. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
That being said, this recent question has certainly complicates my feelings about it. When I think back to the beginning of the year, I would make myself sit down and put on my makeup regardless how I felt, I wonder if that defeated the purpose of self-care. I was aiming for the attitude of “look good, feel good,” but there were times I definitely didn’t feel good, and looking good didn’t always help. It may have just made it harder for others to see that I didn’t feel good (when I may have needed them to because asking for help was difficult).
But as I think about friends who also dress themselves up when they feel at their worst, I realize makeup can also be warpaint. My eyeliner can take me up to twenty-plus minutes to do, but there is a feeling of victory to it. Fatigue and inflamed finger joints couldn’t keep from being put together. I can still do some of these things that help me feel like a whole person. Or, as one of my friends wrote the other day, “If I’m going to hurt at least I look fancy.” And yes, they looked fierce as fuck.
While I still have conflicted feelings, I’m more mindful about my intentions. In the highest moments of anxiety about my disability it’s easy to slip into normative expectations of “this is what I should do, because this is what adult, women do, and that this is what successful, normal women look like.” Which, if I’m honest, is a slippery slope for even able-bodied women. Especially when it’s been shown that women who wear makeup to an interview are more likely to be hired. Rather than being a tool of empowerment, it’s become the universal symbol of, “I’m making an effort and I care.”
As per usual, it comes down to being kinder to myself.
I don’t need warpaint every day, but sometimes I do. Sometimes I feel good and want to look good. Sometimes I’m in pain and need to focus on the basics. Sometimes I just want to feel fancy.