Cosmetics Helped Me Realise There’s No Shame In Femininity

The first time I properly applied makeup, I was about to appear on TV. Terrified of looking splotchy and oily, I called my younger sister for advice. She had jumped on the beauty train early and, as such, has always been very good with a lip brush or an eye brush or a primer brush and, most importantly, knows the difference between all of them. She gave me some supplies and a few tips and I did an okay job.

I was 24, which seems late for this sort of thing, but I’ve always been what the books call a “late bloomer”. Since then, my make-up regime has been growing in experimentation and audaciousness.

But makeup, and a wider interest in fashion in general, became part of my identity later in life than most. I was a tomboy for most of my youth, well into my adolescence; wearing baggy t-shirts to hide my developing body and having a deep-seated fear of my burgeoning femininity.

At the crossroads of my high school life (Year Nine, where most personalities are shaped, I believe), I shied away from turning into a “teenybopper” and turned Punk. Well, Pop-Punk. My favourites band was Good Charlotte; I was proud of my nest of long, unbrushed hair and crooked teeth; I wore cargo shorts with paint stains and ripped-up tank tops and big Doc Martens. Hardcore, right? Well, too hardcore, apparently, for lippies and glosses.

High school life is tough and you have to survive any way you can. You had to categorise yourself, and stick with others like you, and not mix with conflicting groups. You had to act and dress and talk according to your prescribed group. Makeup (or lack thereof) was a powerful barometer that determined what group you slotted into.

Even though I enjoyed being a ‘grungy bitch’ (a term we happily accepted and, honestly, still would) in high school, it was hard to shake off after I had left and attempted to mature. I spent a couple of years stuck in that ‘us vs. them’ mindset; that “teenyboppers” were just conformist sheep with no minds of their own; that make-up and girly clothing and pop music were somehow tools of great evil and allegiance to some blonde, white-toothed god that would devour us all. If my sixteen year-old self could see me now, she’d surely think I’d been devoured myself, poor poppet.

In 2012, some six years after I left high school, Nicki Minaj teamed up with nail polish heavyweights OPI for her Pink Friday collection, and I was in hog heaven.The babydoll pink polish they released was a thing of pure beauty. It was the first time I felt real passion for beauty products; I wanted it more than I had wanted the new Good Charlotte album back in 2007.

So what changed?

Embracing cosmetics came from an acknowledgement of it as a creative tool, or just something fun, which helped my feminist leanings of the time. I was a baby femmo at the time, still learning the basic ropes, and I had a whole lot of internalised misogyny and female competitiveness to unlearn. Seeing young women on Tumblr passionately- and yet effortlessly- apply their contouring helped me to realise how little it all had to do with men.

I suppose, if I had to psychoanalyse myself, I was so afraid of not fitting in with the pack that I decided to hate the pack. I resented a society that forced ideas into our heads; I hated my body because it didn’t look like what the magazines told me it was supposed to look like. I accepted my flaws and tried to make this acceptance a part of some “non-conformist special snowflake” personality, but I should have known better than to build my identity around hating other people’s’.

I pushed away ideas of femininity and anything that the “proper girls” at school did because I felt it was a million miles away from what I hoped to be, so why bother? I rejected pink and clean hair and those Mariah Carey cutoff-waist jeans and dancing because they were representative of the kind of woman I didn’t think I would ever grow up to be, and that it would just be embarrassing to try.

The point being, no matter how much men want to rally against women “covering their natural beauty” or “lying”, it isn’t for them. I wear Chi Chi Valley Doll because I love it; I experiment with blush upon my cheeks for my own benefit, not for that of some hypothetical invisible man that might nod in approval. It took me a long time and a hell of a lot of self-doubt and analysis to get to the seemingly simple point where I could wear a burgundy lipstick with confidence, and I don’t intend to waste yet more effort and bother adhering to some weird floating patriarchal rule book, and neither should you.

An ex-boyfriend once asked me- so gingerly, so sincerely, poor duck- why I bothered with make-up. He didn’t understand why I would want to “cover” my face and natural features; he didn’t understand the fascination with beauty products or why anyone should feel any interest or passion toward them. I went easy on him, since I had had the same thoughts some years before (luckily we stopped talking about it before he might have said something really stupid, like “I just like the natural look on women!” and I would have had to throw some garbage on him), but it is evidence of the — usually male — attitude towards cosmetics and clothing as something women use to impress others, or to attract men.

I felt myself looking directly at the person I had, myself, been back in high school. Though my ex was never as callous towards women, or immature, as I had been when I was sixteen, there were similar qualities: often-incorrect assumptions based on society’s sexist rules for women. Although, to be honest, even if I was wearing makeup to impress a bloke, that’s my business and I wouldn’t much care what anyone else made of it.

I tried valiantly to compare cosmetics with any other form of personal expression. I compared my much-loved fuchsia matte lipstick to his favourite blue flannelette shirt: both were items that we wore proudly, looked good on us and made us feel better in our skin. The difference being, I noted with annoyance, that most things made for female consumption are seen as frivolous and shallow, whereas a man is given a medal of bravery if he gets a haircut once a year.

I don’t mean to tell you how to run your life, babes, but I can’t tell you how much happier I was once I stopped accepting the bizarre societal expectations and shame around how women are meant to act, and how much femininity they are allowed to have. The very strict and narrow guidelines for how a “typical” woman should be are so arbitrary and confusing that it’s better to just make your own rules instead. If you want to wear pink and green eyeshadow, or black lipstick, or dye your hair neon orange, or have six-inch-long blood-red nails, do it! In the end, who’s gonna stop you?