Morbid Part 7: Makeup

Laura Diaz de Arce

On nights when I’ve worn a full face of makeup, I always take a shower. Depending on the heaviness and type of makeup, I may wipe with an oil first (like coconut or vegetable if I’m being cheap) or with a makeup wipe. But I always shower and watch the remnants of my painted face make their way to the drain. It is a little sad to watch the elements of something that made my face visually interesting or arresting or pretty so easily discarded and wiped away.

Even after my face has been pelted with soap or hot water, some portion will remain and leave an unflattering remark to my face. Most often these are the blurred remains of my eyeliner or mascara around my eyes, turning what once was becoming into a joke.I owe my love and life-long fascination with makeup to two people: My mother, and Andrew Lloyd Weber. My mother has her own long history of loving makeup. She wore it, and still does, wear it every day for work. It is part of a ritual for her. When I was a child she kept her massive expanse of makeup in a large pink, fold-out makeup box that I would raid and play with.

It wasn’t until we acquired a VHS copy of CATS! that my imagination really took off.

If you asked me now about CATS!, anything about plot, characters, songs, I could not tell you a thing. Even after doing a cursory look on Wikipedia, I cannot not tell you what in cat’s pajamas a “Jellicle” is. Nor do I know anything of “Memory” because after that word it’s all a mumble. Yet, child Laura was obsessed. I remember being fascinated by the concept of people visually turning into cats[i].

More importantly, I wanted to explore that artistry and that ability to transform.Armed with my mother’s makeup kit I began to experiment on ways to change myself into a cat. My poor brothers also became my guinea pigs, and I would paint them with the same contour sticks I used on myself. Doing my best with clumsy child fingers to remake our faces, to perform a bit of transformation magic. I didn’t want to turn into a cat per say, I wanted to see if I could make myself look like an artistic version.

That feeling of fooling around with my mother’s makeup is the same feeling I get now when I apply makeup. Good play can involve an element of discovery and exploration. This is how I still feel, like I’m playing, when exploring the contours and textures of an ever changing face, while rediscovering what I look like under new layers. It is a face that changes over time. Some days to find that I am working with more chin than before, more jaw or the addition of crows feet.

I have come to appreciate that makeup can be about adaptation to change.

We should always be changeable, mold-able. Makeup lets us do it. At its core, makeup as a tool, as a practice, is naturally dramatic. It is impermanent and transformative. It is a costume. That costume does not negate its authenticity though. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to believe that the curated self is the true self. A self made manifest through a conscious presentation is a greater expression of who we are internally rather than the meat bag we are born with.

What I failed to express before was that that “authentic and curated self” is not static. We have many selves, many versions that are each true and dimensional and deserving of expression. Makeup lets us do that. It lets us reshape and redesign our faces and within hours, wipe it away to start anew. A painted face can express many internal desires. We can be coy, sexy, innocent, frightening with the application of a little paint. In many ways, it is a learned witchcraft.

My fascination with makeup has become a steady evolution. As a child, this was fueled with my mother’s support. She readily brought me extra makeup samples or gave me her soon to be discards. She bought Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces and it became our makeup bible. My kid hands skimmed the pages, reading through instructions and improvising with my handed down makeup. I was enamored with dramatic transformations, with costumes of each entry.

I loved that beauty was a thing made and that it came in so many shapes and looks.

This relationship with makeup has not always been so pleasant, especially when it became less about costuming and more about adapting my face to standards of beauty. I remember the first time I tried curling my eyelashes and applying mascara. The heaviness of it, the foreignness of it and how my eyes watered. But I wanted it, that beauty. And so again and again I would apply it, learning to ignore the discomfort. Even falling asleep with mascara, eye crust and the dried solution fusing my eyelashes and keeping my eyes shut in the morning.

I remember the first time I used foundation to cover my face, and how it caused my young skin to break out a bit. The heaviness and fullness of that makeup was distressing as well, and I craved to scratch my face. But I did not. I desired that smooth appearance more. And so I applied foundations again and again, to acclimate and learn to love it.

I once tried a “plumping” lip gloss that felt like a full on chemical burn or a set of bee stings. The swelled, in the way that a lip may swell during an allergic reaction. That I did not try again. At least the product kept its advertised promise.

As a pretty poor kid, my makeup options were generally limited to dollar store fair and drug store staples, although the latter was after saving. I was a bit tomboyish for much of my youth, but this did not preclude my fascination with makeup. In fact, I relished that most of the time I was an unkept thing who could be adept at makeup on occasion. Even if what I was applying wasn’t always FDA approved fair.

From middle school on I would end up teaching some of my friends how to do makeup or doing theirs. Sometimes this worked out. Sometimes not. I knew my face, but it was something different to work with another canvas.

This makeup experimentation in West is largely left to women, although that’s changing.

Makeup, like other preferences of appearances, is culturally specific. In “Western” cultures, makeup is seen as a purely feminine endeavor, extended at times to queer people. As an Art History major, our concepts of masculinity and femininity were challenged by the knowledge of other groups and cultures. Of the men of Papua New Guinea who wear makeup while women do not, or of male pageantry. Or how even within similar cultural traditions, can have pockets of divergence. Contemporary French makeup has subtle differences from German makeup, determined by what each peoples finds attractive.

Even in those, cultures are not monolithic. As a middle schooler, I remember our local aesthetic including thick, precise, outward lip-line highlighted by a specific brand of rolling gloss. A look that is tied certain socio-economic groups and has been largely parodied in mainstream makeup.

Makeup is both the instrument of personal discovery and its own prison.

Women are largely expected to have some fluency in it. It’s even codified in certain types of job requirements or expectations. But never fun or expressive makeup. Natural makeup. Meanwhile, men are discouraged from learning it, from being around it.

I’ll confess to having my own odd moments of bias. Such as heading to a special event and being around fellow women who did not wear makeup. Often this stunned me, not because there was a lack of social expectation which made me a bit envious, but also because I wondered why someone wouldn’t want to explore the joys of makeup.

Then again, I understand it. I understand a complete distaste for an art form I love, when that art form has largely profited off retaining certain power structures.

Chiefly, an industry that has primarily reinforced gender binaries and the value of whiteness.

Kevyn Aucoin was where I learned about contour. He could remake a face with a little shadow work and application. In his books, he employed men as examples of how to apply makeup. Their faces would morph in before and after photos, to new features. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that these techniques were largely based in drag culture. The way faces were shaped often presented a White ideal- a thin, pointed nose, an angular jawline, ect. Beauty industries still cater to that idea, opting often to exclude skin tones, or to minimize non-European features. It’s gotten better, but not always by much.

For me, it remains a gift though, to transform into something mundane and subtle, or into something odd and theatrical. The face is a changing thing, painting it anew is a thrill; a joy. I have an art form that allows me to change myself every day, to express my many selves and become many “me’s”. That I can live anew as I please. Magic’s in the makeup indeed.


  1. [i]           Coincidentally, people turning animals is a frequent motif in my fiction. Who knew that a discount VHS would have this much of an impact?

Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor.

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