I can still smell the sweet, plasticky peach lipstick from Collection 2000 that came free with a magazine (probably Shout) and thought was going to change my life at 11. Instead, it gathered in the corners of my mouth and the cracks in my lips and smeared across my chin. As I turned 12, I sneaked into my mum’s room, opened her top drawer where she kept her make-up and found a well-loved eye shadow palette. It was a fragrant trio of neutral tones (it was the mid-nineties) and despite my later taste in vivid brights, I could only bring myself to try the pearlescent cream shade. I swiped it over my eyelids and I was convinced that I looked like a completely different person. THIS was the answer to all of my problems. This cream eye shadow was going to make me popular, interesting and attractive. But how was I going to sneak into my mum’s room every day to use it and become the person that I was destined to be? I didn’t and I just settled for clear mascara and white pearl nail polish which was the only makeup I was allowed to wear.
Over the next couple of years, I started a love affair with Rimmel’s Sugar Plum and Heather Shimmer lipsticks and brown mascara. You weren’t supposed to look like you were wearing a lot of makeup in 1995. Then at 13, I discovered Kenickie shortly followed by riot grrrl. The glitter! Oh, the glitter! I swiftly discarded Heather Shimmer for a deep, passionate affair with Rimmel’s Black Cherries on the advice of Lauren Laverne in a Just 17 interview. I rubbed cheap glitter gels around my eyes and failed to reapply my lipstick when all I had left was a dark purple-red lip line. I felt like I had a new identity and people could finally see who I was. They certainly couldn’t miss me when I got my hands on a glitter encrusted purple lipstick by Miners that made my lips feel like sandpaper and left me struggling to talk properly. But I was visible. I didn’t look at magazines and adverts and want to look like the models advertising the latest way to wear sheer lip gloss. No, I wanted to emulate the audacious women who strode across stages and sweat their makeup off under blinding stage lights.
But Black Cherries did not stand a chance when I finally bought my first red lipstick at 14. It was in the sale at Accessorize and it was beautiful: slightly creamy and bluish toned in a sleek silver tube. Red lipstick made me feel like the warrior riot grrrl that I dreamed to be. It made sure that everyone could see me. It made me feel visible and invincible. What followed was a lifelong quest for the perfect red lipstick to make me look like Courtney Love and then, a few years later, Gwen Stefani. I tried all of the high street brands and remained faithful to Max Factor’s Firebrand for a few years after identifying with Carole Morin’s obsession with the shade in Dead Glamorous. As my hair got lighter, my lipstick got bolder. I stopped pairing it with turquoise eye shadow and glitter and mastered winged eyeliner. I plucked my eyebrows nearly bare and started penciling them in and learnt how to use blusher. After years of trying, I had started to piece together my mask.
Before a trip to New York for my 21st birthday, I had been hearing whispers about the holy grail of red lipsticks: Ruby Woo by Mac. I marched up to the counter in Bloomingdale’s and bought my first of many Ruby Woos. Blue-toned, velvet matte with incredible staying power. I was never going to wear anything else. My makeup bag became my most valued and valuable possession as I replaced everything in it with Mac products. I would not leave the house without a perfectly made up porcelain matte base, penciled eyebrows, black winged eyeliner and ruby-red lips. The only difference between a ‘day’ and a ‘night’ look for me was a set of false eyelashes. It was my mask, my armour, my war paint. Without it, I did not exist.
I have previously written about the excessive control over my appearance stemming from a lack of control and/or confidence so I won’t go over it again. It’s amazing what having no time, not enough sleep, ageing and greater priorities does for your self-esteem. As I reached my thirties, I found that I just didn’t have the time to paint my face and style my hair every day. I found myself leaving the house with no makeup on regularly and guess what? Nothing happened. The world did not end and people could still see me. As a teacher, I valued that extra 15 minutes in bed and after cycling to work, I was glad that I wasn’t wearing any make up. I continued to wear my usual ‘face’ at weekends and I enjoyed not spending as much money on makeup as it just wasn’t getting used up. When I started to commute, I decided to start wearing it to work again as I would have time (I am literally a pro at putting on a full face of makeup on public transport). I started wearing BB cream and pink toned lipsticks which dissolved or rubbed off by morning play time. Who was I trying to kid with this natural make up? If I had the time, why was I not just wearing my normal make up? I now wear red lipstick to work most days, only these days, I wear it because I feel like me not because I’m trying to look like someone else. I no longer obsessively powder my nose every ten minutes and winged eyeliner has been relegated to special occasions.
But I am a feminist. One of the angry ones that will argue with your sexist grandfather at a family wedding. So what business do I have wearing makeup? I could now go into the beauty myth and berate myself for superficially changing my appearance to fit into the patriarchal idea of modern beauty but I won’t. My feminism has always been about choice and body autonomy. I wear makeup because I fucking love it. From the first time I wore that shimmery cream eye shadow to discovering how great I look in emerald-green liquid eyeliner just last week, I was finding myself. Makeup, along with clothing, music, films, friends and books, built this girl. When the eleven year old girls I work with want to talk to me about my makeup, we talk about it. I tell them it is great fun and if you want to wear it when you’re old enough, play around with it but always remember that it is there to enhance your mood, not to create beauty.
At 34, I finally feel comfortable leaving the house, going to work, the pub and even having my photo taken without makeup. In fact, I’m finding that as I age, I generally look better in photos without makeup because my chosen makeup is quite harsh and I look softer without it. Does that mean I’m going to soften it as I am ageing? You’ll be wrenching the red lipstick and lash fibres out of my cold dead hands because I care more about it making me feel fabulous than look fabulous.
*I no longer buy Mac as they test on animals but can highly recommend Barry M’s Matte Me Up lip paint in Paparazzi!