“Are you wearing makeup?”
My friend V peers at me through the screen. We are on a Zoom call, not for a meeting, but to chat and catch up with each other after weeks of not being able to see each other in the lockdown.
“Yes,” I say, a tad defensively.
“I don’t even put on lipstick!” she said.
I get this a lot. When people see me with eye shadow, blusher, and lipstick during this lockdown, they are incredulous. Who are you dolling up for? Who are you going to see? Who’s going to see you?
The truth is, I doll up for me.
Makeup has been an obsession ever since I was a teenager eyeing Seventeen magazine articles on lip gloss and eye shadow. In those years, I spent what little pocket money I had on the cheapest cosmetics, the sort that either felt like chalk on my eyelids or creased within minutes in our humid climate. When I was finally earning my own money, I made many mistakes with makeup, from foundations that made me look like a geisha to much-too-bright pink blushers to heavy shadows that made my eyes look bruised. At my first magazine job, I managed to take over the beauty pages. It meant that packages full of the newest, glossiest, juiciest products landed on my desk almost every week. It was bliss.
The early feminists frowned on makeup because they thought women were bowing to beauty standards set by men. But the truth is, men don’t really notice what makeup you wear. Unless you slap it on as if you’re performing Chinese opera, most of them can’t tell whether that flush on your cheeks is brushed on or comes from within. It is other women, especially those as interested in makeup as you are, who do.
But I don’t wear it for them either. I dress my face for myself. Now that I can afford it, I think of eyeshadows, blushers, and lipsticks in the same way a child looks at candy. They are a source of pleasure and joy. They are playthings that I use when I want time for myself, the only time when I can concentrate completely on me and tune everything else out. It takes so much mindfulness to draw my eyebrows in properly, it’s almost better than meditation.
As this lockdown seems never-ending, accompanied as it is by all the other stressors that it causes, these morning makeup rituals have become even more important to me. I might not have a single Zoom meeting to face on a given day, but I still sit in front of my little mirror with the lights around it and do my face. Not so much because I want to look pretty, although it does help to make my visage livelier, but because I have the luxury of taking the time to shadow, shade, and highlight properly. In the pre-pandemic days, when I had to go out for meetings and other appointments, I often had to rush through my routine and not enjoy the sheer ritual of it.
My vanity drawers are chockful of foundations, eyeshadows, blushers, and lipsticks because Sephora is my Toys“R”Us. I’m a sucker for every new brand that comes out, but am not snobbish about price. Which is why I have Pat McGrath’s ridiculously-priced eye palettes as well as NYX, lots of Nudestix, and Sephora’s own brand eye pencils. Whatever works. Recently, I got my hands on Bobbi Brown’s latest line, Jones Road Beauty, mainly because nobody else I know has it.
Lockdown means that it is possible for me to experiment with makeup which I could never have done if I had to meet people face-to-face. When I don’t feel like wearing anything more than jeans and a t-shirt, I might still slather my eyelids with Pat McGrath’s or Fenty’s glittery eyeshadow. Why not? When else am I going to use them, given our very uncertain future? When will the next glamorous ball or wedding be when my eyelids can sparkle again? I have no idea, so I might as well sweep my eyes with glitter now.
I have, however, come to recognise that I might have accumulated too much over the years. My bathroom closet has many little pots of cream, bottles of serum, and tubes of moisturiser that I either bought because someone recommended them, or they came in a goodie bag. I am now determined to use all of them before I buy anything new. If they smell funny, I throw them away. Otherwise, my face has been the field on which all sorts of lotions and potions have been sowed, regardless of brand, with no negative effect.
With incredulous friends like V, I thought I was a freak. Then, one glorious morning, I was listening to an interview of the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she of the ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ fame. There she was owning up to the pleasure of clothes, shoes, and makeup, especially in these strange times. “We should be allowed our vanities,” she declared. I agree.