My ex godmother was an agent to make-up artists, and some of my first memories are of her bestowing me with MAC lipglosses and eyeshadows every birthday. I had the snobbiest and best filled Spice Girls make-up bag of all the girls at school and I loved dressing up.
She’d to take me to tea dances at the Waldorf with her clan who found my devastating precociousness and desperation to be one of them both hilarious and charming. I devoured their beauty tips and begged to be taken to department stores for makeovers before school discos and my mother obliged. My love for all things transformative started early.
As I grew into my teens, nothing changed. I was dying to be glamorous, to be desirable, to be older and beauty products were what I saw as the key to womanhood. As my teenage insecurity developed, so did my eating disorder, my drug habit and my makeup bag.
So far, not so good- my link between my love of beauty products and empowerment might not be very clear. And there wasn’t a link then; for a very long time I used cosmetics to mask skin that was malnourished, bags under my eyes from long nights of score-use-score-use-score-use-blackout and to charm men into funding an ever increasing habit.
But I kind of liked to look sickly, ‘heroin chic’ seemed aspirational long before I tried an opiate. Underweight and underslept seemed good on catwalks but it was not nice, it was not glamorous and it did not make me feel good.
When I accidentally entered recovery a year ago, I was told that I’d have to reassess how I presented myself, how I dressed, how I made up my face (and my body - bronzer to enhance my A-cups? yes please). It felt like someone was snatching away the only bits of my identity that were solid, the bags and bags of accoutrements that were tangible facets of who I was felt like all I was.
I had been living in Paris when I was suddenly transported back to London- I only brought high heels, bodycon and eyeliner with me. I wasn’t thinking, I thought it’d only be a long weekend; it was three days, then twenty eight and then, before I knew it, ten months in treatment. I got taken into Topshop en route to the Priory to buy ‘appropriate clothing’ and sobbed whilst I picked up anything that looked like what I imagined people in rehab would wear, because it didn’t feel like me.
I got told off in detox for putting on lipstick to go and flirt with the cute weekend receptionist, I was taken to pieces in group therapy for wearing translucent pyjama tops without a bra. They told me I wasn’t healing and I was going to die. I didn’t think I was going to heal anyway, and I was dead already. They weren’t taking my Russian Red away in the same way they took away my drugs, I thought. I thought wrong.
When I was told to go to secondary care, which was for a lot longer and where I was supposed to start to learn how to live clean, to eat meals and to grow the fuck up, I was instructed to go to an all-female centre (after a few questionable incidents with boys in the mixed one). 22 women, one house. I didn’t have anything to say to anyone, I was sick of talking about my mother, of staging dramatic reenactments of my childhood (seriously, this happened).
I wanted to dress up and go clubbing and pretend everything was okay and I wasn’t allowed. I was told I had to stay in after therapy in the evenings and bond with my housemates. I was forced to confront what I had avoided for a very long time. And this is where beauty products started to come in handy for reasons other than to cover up bruises and sleepless nights.
Nothing made me feel closer to my new roommate than when she unpacked a sack of facemasks that rivaled mine- when rather than just talking about how our mutual drug of choice had ravaged our lives, we could talk about how to minimise our pores.
Nothing made me feel more like a normal girl than when we all stayed in on a Saturday night watching X-Factor and I could show everyone how to DIY nail art. I stopped making myself up to hide everything I was ashamed of, because I was getting less ashamed every day, and there was less and less to hide.
We talked a lot about ‘self care’, about learning how to love ourselves, body and soul. I learned to respect my body, to rest when I needed, to take a bath to relax- in lavender, even though it doesn’t smell fuckable. I washed my hair even if I wasn’t going to see someone that I fancied, but because it made me feel good about myself. And the products that I used, and the way in which I used them started to change.
As the drugs came out my system, I stopped slathering my face in chemicals- and I stopped needing to, because my skin got better. As I stopped puking every day, I stopped having to carry moisturiser everywhere I went because my newly hydrated skin stopped flaking off.
I could grow my nails because my stomach acid wasn’t peeling them apart every time I stuck my fingers down my throat. My bags were fading, my cuts were healing, my body was getting back to normal.
This did not mean I stopped loving beauty products. I love them now with the same fervour that I loved them as a nine year old girl, or a nineteen year old addict, but I love them for different reasons. I’m not hoping that my microdermabrasion scrub will clean my soul anymore. Spending an evening in with a facemask on, doing my nails in front of a movie doesn’t feel like a waste of time because I’m not shagging someone afterwards, it feels like a loving way to relax and care for myself.
I try and use natural products where I can because it seems paradoxical to fill my detoxed body with chemicals, but I’m not averse to a little bit when it seems necessary. I can listen to my body and what it needs, and I have the clarity to pick out products that suit me.
My eating disorder is far from vanished, it’s all I can think about some days, but I’m working out how to get a haircut that hides some of the hair I lost. When I’m crying in the shower, watching the evidence of a four day restriction clog up the drain, sometimes I want a conditioner that can help boost my confidence as well as my volume. I should be writing taglines for Aveda right now.
I make myself up to look how I like, not in the way that I think will sell myself best. I can go to the shop to buy cigarettes without make-up, without artificially subduing my self-obsession, because my make-up is not who I am. I like to look good but I try not to let that be my goal in life because I also like to feel good.
I’m turning into a very different sort of woman than the one my 9-year-old self expected, but I’m happy with that. There isn’t an illuminating primer in the world that is going to give me my new found spiritual glow, but I still like using the one that comes close for the days when I’m losing it (Laura Mercier, if you’re asking).
For me, now, makeup is about celebrating my self-expression as a woman rather than trying to mask it, empowering rather than diluting my feminism. Beauty products these days are about making me feel well as well as look it, and sometimes I just have to fake it to make it. I’m filled with rehab epithets, but even when I don’t have the insight to remember that stuff, I can always clutch onto the fact that heroin chic is so passe.