The makeup of madness

This post started out as a response of sorts to one written by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano over at The New Inquiry. She wrote some fascinating things about the gamification of beauty work (applying makeup, doing your hair, hair removal, etc), and the implications of that for feminism as a whole. I totally agree with everything she’s saying, and think it’s a fascinating insight, but I felt a little bit of disconnect from the whole thing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why at first, but it just didn’t feel like it applied to me and my relationship with makeup.

So I went and had a fiddle with the app she mentioned, and got bored SO quickly. Like, lightning speed. I thought I would enjoy fooling around with it for at least a little while, but practically before the picture was traced I was bored. This was pretty confusing, considering how much I enjoy putting on makeup.

Then it hit me – it’s not about the end result for me. Some women I know love the process of buying makeup – trying things, searching out something they like, considering all the options. I find this part unbearably tedious. This is why I have so many eyeshadow palettes – the idea of putting the time into choosing separate eyeshadow shades just seems totally dull to me. I don’t really go makeup shopping as such – if I decide I need a product, I’ll look around online for reviews, and then go buy it. The makeup floor in a department store holds no joy for me, just overwhelming confusion which rapidly dissolves into disassociation and boredom. And I got the same feeling from this makeover app. I realised the reason I like makeup is the action of putting on makeup itself. It’s the process itself I find comforting, soothing, and confidence building. The feel of the cream on my fingertips, the mascara wand between my lashes. It’s these tactile, tangible elements that make makeup worthwhile for me. So fooling with an app is just…meh. It’s totally without meaning for me.

Image from

I’ve suffered depression and anxiety to varying levels most of my adult life. Because of this, leaving the house has varied from difficult to impossible. I’ve literally lost jobs over my inability to leave the house. When I first wake up, as soon as I open my eyes, on the bad days my anxiety and depression is right there is my ear, telling me everything that’s wrong with me and my life. It reminds me my house is small, and not very nice, and that even though I’m being paid relatively well I still end every fortnight with just enough money. It tells me I’m pathetic, that there’s no point getting up because I’ll just fuck my already fucked up life further. If I stay in bed, at least things can’t get worse. But if I get up, lord knows what could happen! 

For someone with my brain this train of thought can form a crushing weight, that makes it utterly impossible to move.

The only way I’ve found to work past my difficulty with getting up and about is to set up a little routine, that I’ve done so many times I can complete it without thinking. So long as I can muster the will to push myself out of bed and towards the kitchen, I’ve ground the grooves of my routine so firmly into my psyche that I can continue along the track once started like a clockwork doll, no matter what my brain is telling me. Coffee is naturally part of this. So is taking my meds. I have this routine so down pat I often have to struggle to recall later whether I did actually take my meds or not, and count them out only to find that I did. It’s just that my conscious brain was busy beating me up, while my subconscious brain trundled me around the house and got the pills out and took them. Nowadays, putting on makeup for work has become as much a part of this routine as any other.

It’s not really about how I look at the end. I know makeup won’t make me thinner, or younger, or even really that much more visually appealing – not the amount I have time to do first thing in the morning anyway. It’s about keeping my body moving, giving myself tasks to do that require enough concentration that I can drown out (or at least distract from) the discouraging monologue in the back of my head. It’s about power, and taking control of my physical form. It’s about saying to myself, “Yes, I have to go to this job when I would much rather stay home and play with the cat and paint my nails. But I can choose my makeup. I can choose to wear this necklace given to me by a dear friend. I can choose this dress. I can put myself together into an image of someone who wants to be at work, and by crawling inside that image, I can become it.” It’s about erasing the physical indicators of my madness – the sweaty hair from nightmare soaked sleep, the puffiness from the pills I take to make sure I get any sleep at all – and creating the image of the sane, capable person I need to be.

The soothing power of the ritual of makeup and beauty work in general was best summed up by Anaïs Nin, in her marvelous book A Spy In The House of Love. If you haven’t read it, you really really should. Nin has the ability to capture certain aspects of being a woman so much more clearly than any writer I know. Also, A Spy In The House Of Love is pretty short, so you’ve got no excuse.

“Slowly what she composed with the new day was her own focus, to bring together body and mind. This was made with an effort, as if all the dissolutions and dispersions of her self the night before were difficult to reassemble.  She was like an actress who must compose a face, an attitude to meet the day.

The eyebrow pencil was no mere charcoal emphasis on blond eyebrows, but a design necessary to balance a chaotic asymmetry. Make up and powder were not simply applied to heighten a porcelain texture, to efface the uneven swellings caused by sleep, but to smooth out the sharp furrows designed by nightmares, to reform the contours and blurred surfaces of the cheeks, to erase the contradictions and conflicts which strained the clarity of the face’s lines, disturbing the purity of its forms.

She must redesign the face, smooth the anxious brows, separate the crushed eyelashes, wash off the traces of secret interior tears, accentuate the mouth as upon a canvas, so it will hold its luxuriant smile.

Inner chaos, like those secret volcanoes which suddenly lift the neat furrows of a peacefully ploughed field, awaited behind all disorders of face, hair, and costume, for a fissure through which to explode.

What she saw in the mirror now was a flushed, clear-eyed face, smiling, smooth, beautiful.  The multiple acts of composure and artifice had merely dissolved her anxieties; now that she felt prepared to meet the day, her true beauty emerged which had been frayed and marred by anxiety.”

God, she’s just so good. Just so good it makes me sick. Since any words I try to conjure will seem hollow next to hers, I decided to take some pictures to illustrate just how clearly you can see this process of smoothing, calming and straightening she talks about on my face.

Sure, the second one has kinder lighting and a better pose, but I think that helps make the point. The first is the face only my boy (and you now, I suppose) see. The second is the face I show outside. I don’t even use that much makeup – eyeshadow, mascara, a swipe of lip stain and a teeny smudge of BB cream under my eyes. It’s mostly the process that puts me together – the brush through my hair, smoothing my fringe, patting my face. I discovered this morning while I was actually paying attention to the process that I even stand up straighter once I feel sufficiently “put together”.

I’ve heard other women talk about learning this association of makeup with comfort, and control from watching their mothers put on makeup. But my mother hardly ever wore makeup, and certainly didn’t seem to get any pleasure out of it when she did. I think these associations, for me, largely came about due to my time working as a receptionist in the sex industry.

I’d been told I was supposed to wear makeup whenever I was on shift, but at first I took this rule pretty lightly. I was far too busy to be fucking around with adjusting my lipstick at four in the morning, and the boss could go fuck himself if he thought otherwise.

However, the thing about managing a brothel or massage parlour is that you have to appear in control as much as possible. When you’re managing between five and ten workers, and however many dozens of clients come through, there are just too many moving parts for you to come across like you don’t have things under control. Workers get scared, clients get pushy, and suddenly your workers safety can be at risk. This was a big responsibility for someone as naturally anxious as me. There were times I was coming in to a ten hour shift on five hours sleep, and not only was I not in control at all, my lack of confidence and control was absolutely clear to everyone who saw me. I was letting my co-workers down.

So I started watching the workers more closely, to see how they coped. They were in an even more complex situation than I was – all I had to do was take the clients money, make sure they knew the rules, and strongly encourage them to follow them. It was the workers who had to enforce the rules once they were in the room – all I could do was kick them out if they broke them. So I watched the workers, hoping to learn their secrets. I watched them trailing in at the start of a shift, in track pants or jeans, hair piled loosely on their heads. I watched them unpack their tools, and with makeup and hair tongs transform themselves. I watched them come in with their outside faces, and put on a new one, a face just for inside our walls – one that was perfect, beautiful, and in charge. I decided if this ritual of mascara and lotions and perfume could help them become so in control, maybe it could help me.

Happily, my co-workers were happy to teach me. They told me what to buy, what not to buy, how to use it all, and eventually I was pulling my tools out with them at the start of a shift. Sometimes I would do my makeup before I got there, but I always preferred to do it with them. It felt like we were a team, a gorgeous, confident team ready to handle anything the shift threw at us.

I don’t care that it was dumb as a post, I loved this movie

How I left the sex industry is a long story, but the relevant part is that even now I’m just getting ready to go to an office where no one cares if I wear lip gloss or not, the association remains. I remember what the sex workers I have known taught me, and when putting on a slick of lipstick I remember the pressure I was under at those jobs, the things I handled. I remember what I’m capable of. Even for someone with a brain as determined to get in the way as mine, when I compare dealing with a coked up asshole waving a broken bottle at me to organising a visa on short notice, getting out the door and dealing with the day doesn’t seem so hard anymore.

What are your morning rituals to put yourself together? Do they involve makeup, or coffee, or perhaps your cat? I’d love to hear about your experience.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

A rough and tumble former tomboy. just trying to figure out how to combine kicking ass, looking pretty, and taking names.

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