An acid attack survivor, a trans activist, a woman who escaped domestic abuse and a cancer patient discuss the healing power of beauty products.
Critics of the beauty industry may dismiss it as frivolous or manipulative, but for these four women, make-up and skincare enabled them to live a better life.
“The minute I apply lipstick I have the armour to deal with the world”
Naomi Oni, 26, lives in east London. Six years ago, she was the victim of a senseless acid attack
“Four key things helped me recover. First: courage. Second: the love of family and friends. Third: an extraordinary NHS team. Fourth: serious make-up.
I didn’t know it was acid when it hit my face. I was on my way home from the beauty counter where I worked, and I wanted to eat my dinner in front of Gossip Girl, but suddenly my face was burning. The pain was so intense I passed out.
The acid was so corrosive it dissolved my right eyelid. My eyebrows came right off. My eyes were gunked up with pus and mucus so I couldn’t see. I had third-degree burns over my whole face that scarred the deepest dermal tissues and left me with raw, charred skin. My head was shaved for repeated skin grafts and surgeries that would save my life.
Nothing prepared me for the moment I looked in the mirror, a few days after the attack. I didn’t even understand what I saw. A face? My face? The shock and pain of that sight was worse than the attack itself. I was in hospital for two months. Six years later, my recovery is still ongoing.
Now, painting on my happy face starts with Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream. Honestly, that tube is nothing short of miraculous. Then I try to match my face to my neck – a challenge because my scars are so much darker than my complexion. I use a peachy colour corrector then layer foundation on top.
One day I’d like an eyebrow transplant so I have actual brow hair again. Until then, I use Benefit’s brush-on cream, Ka-Brow. I have particularly thick keloid scarring between my nose and lips, so I use lip liner to draw a cupid’s bow where I used to have full lips. The minute I apply lipstick, my face pops and I have the armour to deal with the world.
Before the attack, I was a 20-year-old who didn’t think she was pretty enough. I’ve learnt the hard way that life can change in an instant. It’s OK to have doubts and bad days but ultimately, know that you are a beautiful person. Through this horrific attack, I’ve learned to love my uniqueness and embrace my own kind of beauty. And it helps me see yours, too.”
Follow Naomi on Instagram @thenaomioni
“I wouldn’t be alive if make-up didn’t exist”
Charlie Craggs, 25, is an activist from Ladbroke Grove, west London
“Some people think beauty is trivial. As a trans woman, I believe it’s a privilege to feel that way; I’d happily swap with them. I would love not to spend an hour feminising my face every morning. Make-up is crucial to transition: it enables me to be seen how I see myself and how I want to be seen by society.
Beauty and make-up were the first ways I could outwardly express the femininity I felt inside. I knew as early as age four that I wanted to be a girl. Of course I didn’t know then that it was possible to transition. All I knew is how I felt. That’s testament to how pure and natural the feeling is.
Nails were my first step into beauty 10 years ago, when I was at a tough boys’ school and – thanks to puberty – was looking less and less how I wanted to. Nail polish made my hands look feminine. A mani was a subtle rebellion. I’d hide my hands if I saw boys I was scared of, but I could still feel feminine.
Feeling trapped in a man’s body got to the point where every day I would wake up wishing I was dead. I knew that if I didn’t change my life, I would take my life. My GP was supremely unhelpful, but make-up was there for me. When I first started transitioning three years ago, I got abuse every time I walked down the street. It was overwhelming.
Make-up has given me safety: now I’ve learnt the art of applying it, I can blend in as a woman. I can contour my boobs to create cleavage. I can cover my five o’clock shadow. Estée Lauder Double Wear is the holy grail of foundation for trans girls.
There are a lot of women – not just trans women – who need make-up not only for their own self-confidence, but because society can be really cruel to those who don’t look a certain way. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy with my appearance though, who is? But make-up is amazing for making me feel comfortable being myself.”
“Beauty is a luxury I’ll never take for granted again”
Angela*, 28, is an accountant from Manchester. Last year she spent four months living in a refuge
“Looking back, I took a lot for granted. But now I appreciate everything I have. My ex abused me for seven months. It was sporadic at first, then every day. I was too scared to go to the police. One day, I broke down with a friend and she called Women’s Aid. ‘Come now. Right now,’ said the head of the refuge.
I scrambled around for whatever clothes I could grab, my one-year-old daughter’s favourite toy, my phone, and we ran out the door. I left behind a house full of treasured photos, favourite shoes, everything. All I had was stuffed into two carrier bags.
Our room at the refuge was stark: bed, cot, kettle, TV. I remember the moment I shut the door and felt safe. I had a little cry then.
The only thing that bothered me was the communal bathroom. I wasn’t expecting a hotel suite and I knew that funding for refuges had been drastically cut, but it felt kind of punishing. The refuge gave me a bar of soap, a roll-on deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. I wish I’d brought my own products, but I ran out of my house so fast I didn’t think.
Fortunately I had my make-up in my handbag – it felt like the most precious thing I owned. My foundation was £30 a pop; I couldn’t slap it on like I used to. My mascara was another £20, so I vowed to save it for best. I was mindful that my savings wouldn’t last long.
After a couple of months, I was lucky to receive a beauty pack from Godiva, an amazing non-profit organisation that supports women in refuges. I was given a Lush bath bomb, a Champneys body cream and body scrub. I put on Fake Bake and honestly, for a moment, I felt like a celebrity.
Before I was in a refuge myself, I might have laughed at how trivial that sounds. But the act of beautifying yourself is a luxury – one I still don’t take for granted now I’ve got my own apartment. It’s self-care; permitting yourself to indulge, just for a moment. It’s restoring the self-respect that abuse strips away.”
“Fake lashes got me through chemo”
Deborah James, 37, is a teacher turned author and podcaster from Barnes, south-west London
“Make-up is a mask I can hide behind: if I don’t look like a cancer patient then I don’t feel like one. Make-up gives me confidence when I don’t have it inside. Power, when I feel powerless to the whims of this disease. And given that I’m fighting stage four bowel cancer for the second time, I need all the help I can get. Even if I feel like sh*t, make-up helps me fake it until I’ve tricked my mind into being positive.
The first question I ask doctors about any new treatment is: ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ Despite the fact I’ve had 21 cycles of chemotherapy, I still have 70% of my hair. If I had to lose my hair to save my life, I’d do it, obviously. But I’d really rather not die bald.
Fake lashes got me through chemo: they transformed me from victim to vamp. I took a glamorous hospital gown selfie with every cycle and I’m sure the effects were less gruelling because the first thing anyone noticed about me were my phenomenal lashes, not the green tinge to my skin.
Cancer has ignited a passion for beauty I didn’t have before. I’ve become really interested in skincare, because the tumour-shrinking radiation I’ve had has prematurely aged me. Dermalogica’s Ultracalming range is my favourite.
I realise make-up won’t protect me forever. Last month, I had an extreme allergic reaction to some new drugs that gave me a rash so severe that my skin cracked and bled. For the first time in two years, I was really frightened because I looked in the mirror and saw cancer staring back at me. But when the inflammation subsided enough to be covered with Vichy Dermablend (the strongest foundation ever; trust me, I’ve tried them all), I felt ready to carry on fighting.”
* Details have been changed for safety reasons. Angela’s photo posed by model.
Images: Getty Images / Supplied by interviewees