“Make-up isn’t trivial – and nor are we who love it”

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Lucy Mangan
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Lucy Mangan used to think that having fun with make-up wasn’t for women like her – but now, she finds real joy in beauty rituals. What changed? 

“Why,” she said, with the kind of withering scorn that flows freely through the veins of a certain type of girl when at adolescence, “are YOU bothering?”

I put down the lipgloss that I was attempting to apply, standing next to her at the toilet sink before the school disco, and slunk away. It was the final confirmation of a message that I had been hearing for some time already – from frenemies and from a family that considered anything more than a weekly hair wash and scrubdown with carbolic as dangerous decadence – that make-up (and fancy unguents, and all the tempting, luscious rest of it) weren’t for the likes of me.

Why not? There are many reasons. First of all – and your mileage may vary, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some variant of this going on in all of our teenage years – there was a strict social allocation of the right to make-up; it was only to be used by those who were already attractive. And I wasn’t. It was for those who already were – or who were clearly going to be – sexy. And I wasn’t.

It was an award, of sorts – an informal recognition that you had, genetically speaking, passed some sort of test of femininity and earned the key to the armoury of stores with which to weaponise it. The unspoken logic seemed to be that there was no point wasting it on those who were never going to be able to shoot straight.

“My love of make-up flowered late, but it’s been so ardent and such fun that it’s almost been worth the wait”

Second, I was bookish and did good at exams. I wasn’t supposed to be interested in things like my appearance. This was my first intimation that people aren’t really allowed to be more than one Thing. Especially not A Serious Thing and A Not Serious Thing. Unless you were a boy, of course. I noticed they could like, say, history and football. But then it was complicated, because the things that boys liked were automatically a bit more serious than the things girls liked, anyway. Football was featured in respected bits of the newspapers and got loads of special programmes on the telly. Make-up didn’t. 

I absorbed these polarised and polarising messages as fully and unthinkingly as a sponge, along with all of their even more toxic implications. Being what some would call genetically unblessed, I quite agreed: I didn’t deserve to have fun with make-up. I would never be attractive, no one would ever find me sexy; that was my lot in life. Make-up was trivial, and those who indulged were trivial people. And the point of life is to stay in your box, safe from ridicule. Don’t get above your station.

Adult life has largely been a matter of becoming conscious of these messages, among many others internalised in youth, and learning to reject them. My love of make-up flowered late, but it’s been so ardent and such fun that it’s almost been worth the wait. I can chart my freedom in beauty products. Volumising shampoos, once I realised it wasn’t a sin to try and make the best instead of the worst of yourself, and that my fine, flat hair was a good place to start. A dismal collection of brown eyeshadows giving way to palettes of colour and sparkle as I came to feel, well, more colourful and sparkly. Nude lipsticks replaced by pinks replaced by every hue under the sun.

The choice of different faces to present to the world every day gives me joy. Not because it disguises who I am, but because it reflects that we all contain multitudes. That is, now, why I bother.

This article originally appeared in Stylist’s 2018 Beauty Issue, out 26 June. To see more from the issue, click here.

Images: Getty Images / Pexels