I was standing in Topshop browsing the beauty aisles. My friend was late, and I was bored, so I ended up looking at makeup I’d never buy. Like lipsticks. I found myself drawn to a bright, hot pink lipstick. It was fun, but I’d never wear it. It was too bold, too loud, it wouldn’t suit me. ‘That colour will really suit you,’ said the beauty assistant. ‘Try it.’
Seven years later, I still remember that moment because that was the lipstick that changed everything for me when it came to wearing makeup. Up until then, I’d always worn quite simple makeup. I bought foundation to cover up imperfections on my skin, black eyeliner to look sexy, and mascara to give me eyelashes worth fluttering. I generally steered clear of eyeshadows and lipsticks – especially in bright colours – because I’d heard that men preferred it when women looked natural.
If you’d ever asked my teenage self, or the woman who only discovered bright lipstick aged 22, if I wore makeup for men, I would have been shocked. I wore it for myself. I wore it because I wanted to look prettier, and I liked the way it subtly changed my face. I was a feminist, and there was no way I’d ever buy a beauty product just because a man wanted me to.
But under the surface, the truth is that I probably was wearing it for men. I didn’t explicitly only put on my makeup if I was around men – I’d wear it when I was going out with my girl friends too. But the products I chose were all influenced by the male gaze, and by white beauty standards. I wanted my eyes to look bigger and Disney Princess-esque, I wanted eyeliner like Audrey Hepburn’s so a man would like at me like Paul Newman did to her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I wanted clear, glowing skin – because when did men on TV ever date girls with spots?
A lot of it was tied in with wanting male validation. During my teen years, nights out with my friends were about men finding us attractive, and so we put on short, tight dresses and ‘glamorous but subtle’ makeup to do exactly that. Sometimes we’d go wild and express our personalities with makeup – mad, over the top eyeshadows and matching dresses – but it was all still done with an awareness of looking ‘hot.’
Even as I got older, and had my first long-term relationship, I was still influenced by male opinions. My then boyfriend told me he preferred it when I looked ‘natural’, and even though I’d never thought I’d change for a man, slowly and gradually, I found myself doing exactly that. I stopped wearing smokey eye makeup for nights out, and just wore simple, ‘natural’, makeup.
It was only a year after we broke up, aged 22, that I started to explore. It all started with that hot pink lipstick in Topshop. I loved the way it made me look. The pop of colour looked great against my brown skin, but it also represented a part of my personality I’d never shown with my makeup: my confident, outgoing, fun side. I felt amazing whenever I wore it – even if guys made unsolicited comments about it being a ‘bit bright’.
Since then, I’ve kept exploring with makeup. I’ve realised that I love a bold lip, and have a collection of dark red lipsticks I love. They make me feel empowered and feminine, regardless of what men think. I’ve had another long-term boyfriend tried to give me his makeup opinion: he thought I looked better with none at all. Instead of taking his words to heart, I laughed at him, and carried on doing exactly what I wanted.
Now if I want to wear overly glittery eyeshadow on a Tuesday morning, for no reason at all, I will. I don’t care anymore about whether men – or even women – like it. I feel so much freer and happier now, and there’s no way I’d ever go back to those insecure teenage days of desperately trying to fit into a narrow beauty standard. I prefer to embrace the face that I have, and use my makeup to express how I feel.
I don’t do the same thing every day – sometimes I go for days without even putting on mascara, but then I’ll suddenly decide to do a full face with dark red lipstick. There’s no real rhyme nor reason to my makeup regime, but that’s my favourite thing about it. I buy and wear makeup purely for myself, and the only thing that influences it is my mood that day and that’s what I call empowering.