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Beauty, Appearance, Cosmetics & Me

“She tried to remind herself that beauty was only skin deep, but that didn’t offer any helpful excuses when she was berating herself for never knowing what to say to people. There was nothing more depressing than an ugly girl with no personality. […]

Deep inside, she knew who she was, and that person was smart and kind and often very funny, but somehow her personality always got lost somewhere between her heart and her mouth, and she found herself saying the wrong thing or, more often, nothing at all.”

On Penelope Featherington, by Julia Quinn in Romancing Mr Bridgerton

Growing up I was often told that “beauty is pain”. I just didn’t know then that pain wouldn’t always refer to how my head and neck ached while getting my hair braided. This is not the first time I blog about beauty and appearance matters, but it will almost certainly be the last: after nearly 24 years of existence, I’m exhausted by this topic. Nonetheless, during the last few months, I have felt an unwavering need to write again about it due to ongoing social media conversations on phenomena like “fatphobia”, “pretty privilege” and “desirability”. My past writings barely reflect my current thoughts and opinions on these issues. To some extent, I was still quite naïve and optimistic when I wrote them, often seeking inspiration and hope from my own romantic view of the world. Fortunately for my inner peace, I’m more sensible now (possibly borderline cynical).

While archived posts like Does it Matter? and Beauty, Pop Culture, Makeup & Eurocentric Standards include nascent versions of my present opinions, I barely recognise myself in others. I definitely wouldn’t waste my time now writing a spirited defence of high-fashion models and pretending “thin-shaming” and “fat-shaming” are equivalents. I also wouldn’t spend it writing metaphoric drama-filled reflections on the inner pains of being ugly-slash-unattractive. Although my thoughts on this matter remain as enmeshed as ever, I have at last developed a personal position towards it: for the good and for the bad, it is time for me to divest from beauty. Warning: I’m not presenting here a well-researched, scholarly, or nuanced account of contemporary beauty affairs. This post is merely a reflection written on my personal blog, primarily based on my lived experiences and observations. So, bear with my rambling.

Currently, we live in the era of digital, accessible and commodified beauty. From influencers, socialites and entertainers building alluring beauty empires, to established beauty/fashion companies and magazines reigning on online platforms. In recent years, the mainstream beauty world has rebranded in a way that other industries could only wish for in the era of social justice. Concepts like “inclusivity” and “diversity” have become staples of every brand needing to keep up with the times. “Representation” and “empowerment” are imperative marketing lingo for any beauty-related endeavour aiming to succeed and stay afloat. Products like makeup are living their prime years, thriving as an art, as a lifestyle and as a source of income, particularly for many women and queer people taking advantage of a world, and industry, that not always allow them to do so.

However, as with every domineering trend, not all is harmony. A couple of weeks ago, people on my Twitter timeline were discussing the remarks of someone who claimed that women wear makeup for men. As with every hot take made online by people with significant followers and/or visibility, there were those earnestly agreeing and those vehemently disagreeing. And, as with every hot take made online, the debate soon shifted into personal feuds leaving no active participant unscathed. At some point, feminism was also brought into the conversation. Meanwhile, the whole affair felt tedious for me, as it had been discussed several times already. For the record, I don’t believe women always wear makeup for men (plus, hello, not all of us are heterosexual!). I also don’t believe that wearing makeup is always devoid from a(n understandable) personal-to-social need to be “presentable”, “desirable” or “attractive”. Bottom-line is, I don’t believe makeup is “pro-feminist” or “anti-feminist”: it is a lifeless product, it doesn’t have the agency to be either of those things.

Still, like other commodities, makeup is subject to political, cultural and social forces that are never as straightforward as discussed by the general populace on Twitter. Within the current landscape, makeup is indeed at times presented as empowering for women by those seeking engagement or sales. While it is true that some makeup styles go/originally went against dominant ideals of beauty and femininity, I struggle to see how that is the mainstream reality for cisgender straight women, often (misleadingly) the objects of these discussions. The issue is definitely different for queer people, such as feminine/“femme” gay men and transgender women. While not above analysis even within the realm of queer politics, it can’t be ignored how makeup is often empowering and freeing for some queer people, allowing them the self-expression and identification that society’s biological essentialism denies them. However, it is dishonest to pretend wearing makeup isn’t a norm within many societies where beauty and attractiveness are demanded from all, but particularly in insidious ways from girls and women.

Regardless, my “concerns” around makeup are not so much about patriarchy and the overly-scrutinised choices of women, as they are about the tantalising makeup industrial complex. Every year new products, lines and brands emerge, when makeup already feels infinitive. Primers, concealers, foundations, highlighters, blushes, lipsticks, lip-glosses, lip-liners, eye-shadows, eye-liners, brow fillers… So many items required to achieve a “full-face” makeup look, and even the infamous “no-makeup” makeup looks. To be clear, I’m not above the issue I’m touching on here. In recent years I have found pleasure in purchasing an array of highlighters and lipsticks, becoming also in love with brow pencils, and feeling ecstatic after finally finding a foundation that perfectly matches my golden brown skin tone (saying “golden” feels better than saying “dull yellowish undertones”). Additionally, I (skim)watch tip-filled YouTube tutorials on practices such as winged eyeliner (I’m a spoon trick user!) and “nude”/light-toned lip looks (spoiler: it is all about the lip liner!).

Then again, increasingly, I stare down at my makeup drawer and wonder why I have so many products which I hardly use, yet I keep buying. I’m a not an avid makeup wearer and I’m resourceful: I have used brow pencils as lip liners, highlighters as eyeshadows. But, inevitably, Twitter and Instagram function in a way in which you are drawn to buy products you never knew you needed due to questionable “imperfections” and “malpractices” you never knew existed (don’t get me started on the current trend of excessively countouring noses, particularly among Black people!). This issue hasn’t only manifested for me when comes to makeup, it also applies to the equally thriving and ensnaring world of skincare. As someone with acne-prone, uneven and hyperpigmented skin, the “clear skin” discourse on social media eventually made me embark on an incessant quest to “fix” my skin. Problematically enough, this desire partly stemmed from “well, if I have clear skin, I will have a good excuse as to why I do not wear makeup often!”.

From DIY skin recipes to commended skincare brands: to this date, I have tried all I could. And, to this date, my skin remains acne-prone, uneven and hyperpigmented. The harsh reality is that, unless your genetics worked in your “favour”, obtaining clear skin is often a wealth matter. Social media has also realised this at last. Gone are the days in which people accepted skincare advice such as “drink more water!”. This was always obvious when looking at recommendations from actual dermatologists and aestheticians. Their suggestions are always clear: prescription creams, professional-grade chemical peels, laser treatments, (micro)dermabrasion… Actually, they aren’t always as clear for many people of colour, since through more of digging you often find that certain procedures can backfire and damage our brown-to-dark skin. By now, we all know how before trying any recommended product or treatment, we should always google its name + “dark”/”black”/”ethnic” skin.

Regardless, the path to achieving clear skin is (not-so)simple: you need money and time, certain products and treatments. And this is normally out of reach for the low-incomed working-classes I belong to. As a matter of fact, mid-end last year, my love affair with the skincare industry came to a halt because of financial difficulties. Owing to a very tight budget as a full-time Master student with family responsibilities, I had to stop buying my precious skincare jewels. No more The Ordinary serums, no more retinol creams, no more face masks. Just facial soaps, cheap moisturisers and spare oils I had in my room. In the beginning, this was embarrassingly hard (I was truly going through it). Earlier this year I also had a persistent forehead breakout for the first time since I was a teenager. In the end, I resorted to African black soap, my original skincare miracle which I had previously swapped for more “sophisticated” products. Unsurprisingly, my forehead breakout vanished, and since then, my skin has been alright and trouble-free, though uneven and hyperpigmented.

Now it is April, and with my job payments finally coming through, my financial situation has improved. For months, I had been waiting for this moment, to buy again the beloved skincare products I had been forced to forfeit. But, lately, I have been okay with my skin and I have also begun to question whether it needs “fixing” in the first place. Except for my self-inflicted acne scars, my skin “imperfections” are natural, with most dating back to my childhood: you can see my uneven skin and dark circles even in my baby pictures. It isn’t tiredness, sun damage or a lack of proper care: they have always been there. Even my breakouts are natural and/or due to biological processes which are often beyond my control (e.g. hormones). Photoshopped skincare advertisements and beauty/fashion magazines have always warped perceptions of how “natural” skin should look, but the current era of Snapchat filters and Facetune has definitely made this worse.

Contrary to widespread notions of inadequacy, it is normal to not have “clear skin”, and it isn’t something that needs to be fixed at all costs (literally!) other than for aesthetic or health reasons. For me, having an uneven, hyperpigmented and acne-prone skin is probably forever. Particularly the uneven part: the only way to really even my skin is laser procedures which could backfire, or fade/lightening treatments suspiciously close to bleaching which would, at best, suck the life out of my already-lacklustre skin, and, at worst, utterly damage it. Yet, I still struggle to shake off the need to buy skincare products that promise to fix the “imperfections” I wrestle with, seeking to feel better and less self-conscious even if I know the promises won’t be totally delivered. Over-consumption as “self-care” (no, self-care is not about the watered-down meaning that brands so often attribute to it) has also happened in other appearance-related departments of my life, including my once-true nemesis: hair.

Throughout my childhood and pre-teen years, I always wore my hair in braids or cornrows made with extensions. A key reason for this was practicality: my mother and aunties were unable to do my hair regularly. However, another inculcated rationale was that wearing my hair natural would inevitably lead to breakage. My hair couldn’t touch water because it would break, it couldn’t be left open in an afro style because it would break, it couldn’t be un-braided or uncovered for a long time because it would break. All these statements became so engraved in me that whenever I didn’t wear braids or cornrows with extensions I felt anxious. In retrospective, as I was mainly taught to feel ashamed of being seen in public without protective hairstyles, I should have known better. Still, the inevitable lesson learnt was that my hair in its natural state was wrong, it needed to be hidden and protected from the world.

Fast-forward to the present. I just spent over a year with my natural hair, without wearing protective styles made with extensions. While I had done this before, during my year abroad in Morocco between 2017-2018, this time it was “riskier” since I was going to do it in the UK. The cold and wet UK that could ruin my hair if not braided or covered. Now that it is spring, I can confirm that my natural hair has not only survived, but it has grown and feels healthy. I had already suspected for a while what I was taught as a kid was misleading, but this “experiment” has confirmed it. The problem is that it isn’t something I was told as an individual or singular case. There is a prevailing deep-rooted belief that Black women with natural hair (and when I say “natural”, I’m talking about type 4 hair) need to “protect” it by wearing wigs, weaves, headwraps, or “protective” styles like box braids. If not, we probably are better off cutting it as Black men often do. And, even if you want to wear it natural, strict norms still apply.

Since going natural in 2014/2015, a nearly heart-shattering realisation has been that the so-called “natural hair movement” is not the progressive saviour one would think it is. At least not for Black people with type 4 hair. Granted, it helped me to initiate my journey into doing my own hair and feel confident about it, through helpful tutorials and tips. Nevertheless, influencers and advocates in the movement often reinforce the uncontested belief that having natural hair automatically equals to immense trouble around maintenance and to needing tonnes of styling products. Shrinkage is the enemy because only longish hair is accomplished natural hair since growth is the ultimate goal. Wavy and/or straight edges are a must because if you have your natural coils your hair is unkempt. You need gels and setting products, and hours and hours, to achieve shiny loose elongated curls because if not your hair is supposedly damaged and/or not moisturised. Basically, you can wear your natural hair, but only if it is “tamed” into acceptability.

When I moved to university, I began to do my hair on my own all the time, deciding to not rely on my aunt or on hairdressers (which I have never been to). I bought many products during the first couple of years, particularly supporting the drive to buy from “Black-owned” brands. While I did spend too much money and time on this, and I now see the pitfalls of consumption as “Black empowerment”, I don’t regret this experience. It gave me the chance to try and test products, and to see which ones work the best for me and are worth sticking to. However, lately, I have been reducing the number of products I buy and use. I try to limit myself to leave-in conditioners, natural oils and a DIY cream mostly. For the DIY cream, I do have an assortment of unrefined butters and oils, but this last quite long. For wash day, I either use a shampoo bar (highly recommend!) and a deep conditioner, or a cleansing clay mask. I do have other products like styling gels and setting lotions, though these are mainly leftovers from my era of endless buying.

Truth is, I’m happy with shrank coils, kinky edges and un-stretched roots. I have always been since going natural, I just care about keeping my hair moisturised and trimming the ends when necessary. My care regime felt tough at the beginning whilst I was still learning, but now I find it easy, even comforting and relaxing at times (catching up on my favourite series while doing my hair during free evenings = peak unwinding time). Sometimes I might attempt specific hairstyles that require more time, such as bantu knots, flat twists and cornrows, but I normally wear twists and braids (for days/a week), and subsequently twist-outs and braid-outs, or combed afro styles. I do want to learn to use rollers, perm rods and flexi rods, simply to try different styles. Nonetheless, time availability to learn and practice is not on my side here. Indeed, as a student and as a part-time worker, I don’t have the time to do my hair every night and every morning. Still, my type 4 hair has managed fine, even if many times it doesn’t look like what people would consider as “good”/accomplished natural hair.

On a personal level, my natural hair journey was about gaining the confidence to showcase it in its natural state and to take care of it on my own. It was a transition from a shame-filled and dependent childhood to a carefree and self-sufficient young adulthood. It has also been about experimenting and trying different things, such as dyes, twists made with extensions, and protective styles with unnatural colours like burgundy and plum. Now, sometimes I sit down and find somewhat hurting that I don’t have pictures as a kid with my natural hair in open afro-styles, although I have various with my hair semi-straightened. Interestingly enough, using a chemical relaxer was allowed for me, despite it being the only thing that has ever damaged my hair and caused it to break (hence why I haven’t looked back since using relaxers back in 2011-2012). Despite this reflective growth, I have realised that I can only carry forward with all the gained self-love and self-reliance if I become less invested in the natural hair movement I was once so submerged in.

Although noble in intentions, even radical in its origins, the natural hair movement at present is entangled in the same respectability politics and shaming antics that often force and/or influence Black people to wear wigs and weaves or keep their hair trimmed short. Increasingly, Black women with type 4 hair are fighting back against this, taking to social media to call out “texturism” and the co-option of the movement by Black and biracial/mixed-race women who have type 3 hair. Whilst this something I don’t disagree with, I’m more concerned with the (linked) persistent consumerist and negative discourses around the maintenance of natural hair (my social science studies might be taking over too much of my non-academic life). Regardless, the main point stands: the mainstreamed natural hair world no longer centres and truly-empowers its target audience, rather it constrains, suffocates and side-lines them.

A similar cautionary tale can be found in the “body positivity” movement, started by fat/“plus-size” women who are now shunned for promoting “unhealthy” lifestyles and attacked for complaining about the appropriation of their subversive narratives. What is more, even “plus-size” body positivity is increasingly credited to, and supplanted by, often-artificially-attained “slim-thick” bodies (i.e. small waist, flat tummy, wide hips and big butt). This has also added pressure on thin/slim people who are no longer as idolised since thigh gaps, lean limbs and noticeable collarbones were left behind, belonging now to ancient Tumblr archives. Nevertheless, slim-thick bodies are mainly “on” due to over-sexualisation and fetishization by celebrity/socialite culture, the cosmetic surgery boom and IG-influenced fast fashion. The mainstream beauty/fashion world still caters mostly to slim, able and tall bodies (also muscular for men), especially established high-fashion magazines and brands who refuse to depart from their set ways except for sporadic “diversity”/ “inclusivity” stunts.

Like hair issues, body image problems have always been significant for me, though manifesting more latently and inconsistently. I have always been non-thin and “big”, tallish as a kid (now just above the average for where I live), with a curvy body shape and normally fat/overweight. More specifically, my butt is… let’s say “salient”, and this has always made stand out because it isn’t as phenotypically common in Europe. I was even asked once during a summer camp by another kid if I had “back problems”, with a gesture/reference to how my butt is shaped (it was a bit mortifying). In any case, ignorant social commentary was not the real issue. Shopping for clothes, particularly dresses, skirts and trousers, has always been an extreme sport for me. And, and more importantly, I have ways been seen as older (i.e. “grown”) than I am because of my shape/size, often approached, objectified and/or over-sexualised by creepy adult men on the streets even as a minor.

Tied to these issues, my clothing style used to be heavily policed, particularly when I started to dress as I wanted in my teenage years. For example, I loved wearing patterned tube-style dresses, but I was told that I shouldn’t because I could be perceived “the wrong way”, as a “sort of Latina prostitute” (yes, those were the words used; that’s a common stereotype in Spain, plus I’m both from African and, to a lesser extent, Latin-Caribbean background). Undeniably, my body on its own isn’t the problem. Throughout my childhood I was trained (though always failing) in “impression management”: a hyper-manipulation of my appearance as a working-class Black girl from a family of African migrants, who lived in a predominantly-white setting and attended a Catholic school with mainly white middle/upper-class children. Although critical, I can’t blame my parents: Spain has severe classism, xenophobia and anti-blackness issues which respectability can’t erase, though yes attenuate. These are topics to navigate in another post, but they help to contextualise my body-image issues, as well as mentioned hair experiences.

If I’m being honest, my body shape (i.e. my “salient” butt and wide hips) used to be my main body image struggle growing up. This doesn’t mean that not being slim/being fat was not an issue. Commentary on my weight/size, on what/how much I ate, was far from scarce (weirdly enough, there were even disapproving comments when I had periods of not eating much). None of this was ill-founded, but by fixating on my external appearance, people overlooked the now-obvious reality that I had an eating disorder, among other mental health issues. What’s more, my size/weight was often attributed to laziness, despite how I played basketball at a competitive level. The ludicrousness of this claim increases once one remembers that I had surgery in my hip when I was 11 years old, and ever since, my ability to engage in sporty activity has been physically limited. Yet, those in my life never connected these dots, and feeling the pressure, at times during my lowest moments I sneakily spent money on promise-filled weight-loss products.

While re-trapping all this resentment in my Pandora’s box, I must reiterate how my size/weight didn’t become my primary body image concern until I fell quite ill during my second year of university and I gained a lot of weight. Ever since, the fact that I’m fat and overweight has never escaped me. I have spent long periods without posting many or, any, pictures of my body, most notoriously when I did my year abroad in Morocco. People have pointed out how odd it is that I’m not in any of the pictures I took, except for selfies. Although I brushed it off as a coincidental/insignificant detail, this was a conscious decision. In retrospect, it was incredibly foolish. More difficult is to admit that the main reason why I did it was so my family members wouldn’t make remarks on my body. I even went to perhaps unreasonable extremes to prevent this commentary, including avoiding family visits. The truth, time doesn’t heal everything and some demons always shadow you.

As I have gradually lost weight since last year, I have sometimes gotten some praise, which makes me feel uncomfortable rather than “accomplished”. Indeed, I’m intentionally losing weight partly because of “superficial” reasons like wanting to fit in clothes (plus-size ranges are renownedly limited, scarce in non-fast fashion). But, more crucially, 1) my eating disorder is currently dormant (I’m wary of saying “gone” yet), and 2) living with IBS has involved dietary changes and restrictions. I also haven’t done, and I will almost certainly never do, a “before and after” social media post showing my weight loss. For me, every “before Emily” is just like every “after Emily”, except with less body mass. My body image is not the main factor affecting how confident or fulfilled I feel as a person. Besides, my body in its healthy BMI range (admittedly a questionable indicator, still my indicator) would not be considered slim/fit: I have been in my healthy BMI range before and I still wasn’t seen as slim/fit.

Altogether, little question should remain as to why my relationship with my appearance is thorny. There are other aspects which I haven’t touched on, such as the implications of not being biracial and/or light-skinned as a Black person. That’s for two reasons. Firstly, this wasn’t an obvious issue for me growing up. I never experienced any internal complex around my skin tone or race (admitedly, within the Black skin spectrum, I’m not in the darkest end). Colourism only became more noticeable when reading online about the experiences of brown/dark-skinned Black women. Suddenly, a lot of weird statements I had heard made sense, such as, “Would you date a Black girl? Not even if light-skinned?”, “Black girls, you are so aggressive”, or “Don’t have kids with a Black man because the kids will turn out ugly”. More recently, I have noticed how differently I’m (and my youngerself was) treated and discussed compared to my little sister, who is light-skinned and biracial/mixed-race, particularly when comes to hair issues (ultimately I never dwell on this, it would be futile).

Nevertheless, colourism is often discussed in relation to desirability and dating, the second reason why I haven’t covered it in this post: those are discussions I avoid since I don’t date for a variety of reasons that supersede (though not totally transcend) my appearance. Moreover, this framing feels reductive. Beauty is material, an asset with social value even outside the world of love and sex (which I recognise can be transactional as well). People ascribe positive qualities to beauty and attractiveness, consequently attaching negative qualities to their opposites. It’s been discussed how not being thin is tied to “laziness”, how natural hair is seen as “unkempt”. Words like “ugly”, “fat” and “nappy [hair]” are insults, though increasingly reclaimed. Appearance-shaming is a strategic way to offend people which many of us entertain. I know I did throughout my childhood and t(w)eenhood during feuds, missing the irony of it all. Now I’m making conscious efforts to unlearn this behaviour, but it is so deeply embedded that I still catch myself perpetuating it.

As I near the end of this longwinded post (thanks for bearing with me!), I want to stress that despite all the angst unpacked, I ultimately have an ambivalent relationship with my appearance: I have self-esteem and body image issues, but their impact on my behaviour is limited. I don’t wear makeup regularly and my looks are often incomplete. I wear my hair natural without over-manipulating it. I wear crop tops and tube-style dresses/skirts even if it makes my fatness more apparent. The reality is, sometimes perfecting my appearance feels good. Others it feels like a hassle. I’m not artsy & crafty enough (an understatement to be honest) to be joyfully entertained by practices like makeup, and I have “bare-minimum” tendencies for things that don’t intrinsically matter to me. The latter is probably the crux of the issue: I normally don’t try to look “beautiful” because of an innate desire, rather due to an internalised necessity to be “feminine” as a “young woman should be” and/or to be “presentable” within formal/celebratory settings. And even though I follow these norms at times (both happily and begrudgingly), at heart I have a mutinous spirit that stops me from doing so many others.

My Instagram posting habits might sometimes make it seem as if I enthusiastically adore my appearance. I don’t. I just indulge in vanity sometimes: I like how I look in a particular moment, so I share a picture to immortalise it. In spite of my idealistic politics and critical thoughts, I’m, above all, a realistic person. All the radical theory and praxis in the world don’t change the lived fact that I’m not usually perceived as beautiful or attractive, even when I’m happy with my (natural or polished) appearance. Beauty/attractiveness increasingly feels like an unattainable goal to strive, and consequently suffer, for, which I’m just too stubborn to surrender (#EverydayTaurusStruggles). At the end of the day, if even celebrities widely praised for their appearance can’t escape digital hyper-beautification (Facetuned pictures of Angelina Jolie and others were widely shared across Twitter recently), what can those who don’t even meet norms and standards, nor have the means or inner wishes to do so, aspire for?

With my convoluted thoughts laid bare, the paradox within this post’s premise might be self-evident. One simply cannot divest from beauty in a world in which beauty means so much. However, I already ceased sharing “beauty/fashion” blog posts, since celebrating myself under those ideals was only adding to my pains, never translating to the value or self-esteem I craved. Long-gone are also the consolations of beauty “being in the eye of the beholder”, the rosy portrayals of beauty as warm and loving. The crude reality is that for beauty to exist as a yearned prize, there must be ugliness to repudiate as a damning failure on the wronged side of this spectrum. Because beauty is not subjective or virtuous: it is personal and social, lived and inner felt, all-encompassing and alienating, rewarding and destructive, enduring and volatile, consuming and ownable. No longer the exasperated little girl on a cushion praying that section of hair wouldn’t be parted again, I clearly see now how beauty is indeed pain. And I refuse to keep suffering.

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