My diagnosis at 17 uprooted parts of my life I’d worked so hard to build. Turning to makeup helped me rebuild them.
Unlike the swathes of teenage beauty influencers now, skilled makeup artists the moment they first touch an eyeshadow brush, makeup was no skill of mine growing up. Scarce attempts at winged eyeliner and boldly filled brows were about as much as I could muster throughout my school days. The only kind of makeup “routine” I held onto for any stretch of time was dark kohl eyeliner lazily smudged around my eyes during an embarrassingly passionate emo phase.
Looking back, I didn’t care enough to put a great deal of effort into doing my makeup. My own insecurities about my appearance squashed my attempts at anything more before they started, and I didn’t see the point in enhancing features I didn’t like just because other people my age were doing so. I also wasn’t exactly a popular 13-year-old; I was more concerned with surviving a school environment I hated and envisioning a life beyond it, rather than learning how to contour or where to apply highlighter.
Granted, the life I created for myself in my 13-year-old head was vastly different from the reality that unfolded. I had long projected lofty expectations on a distant version of myself. She was confident, surrounded by a wealth of friends she loved. What almost hurts to think about is, for a little while, I was that girl. At 16, I found good friends who made me feel comfortable, and after years spent grappling with a number of insecurities about my body, my style, and my personality, I had begun to feel happy with who I was and with the people around me. That happy little bubble I’d so carefully crafted burst unexpectedly when I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis just three months away from my 18th birthday.
I had always struggled with my self-image, but now, unable to rely on my body even to perform basic tasks, I was devastated.
The news came as a shock. I assumed something like arthritis wouldn’t affect me until I was much, much older. It turns out, after unknowingly living with it for years, I was suffering from an overwhelming flare-up all across my body, which led to my diagnosis. Because of it, I could barely walk and struggled with things as simple as chewing my food. I had always struggled with my self-image, but now, unable to rely on my body even to perform basic tasks, I was devastated.
From that point on, socializing felt agonizing, and I wanted nothing more than to extract myself from the very friend circle and life I’d always hoped for. Simply moving from room to room was exhausting. My medication made me feel awful, and I could barely muster up the energy to talk to anyone who couldn’t comprehend what I was experiencing. Even worse, my illness left me unable to drink alcohol, just as I was approaching the legal drinking age in the UK. After years of visualizing — and creating — a life with friends and excitement, I was suddenly thrust into a life of isolation, and not by choice. Eventually, getting out of bed was no longer an option for my body.
Naturally, I replaced the people and activities in my life with various forms of media to distract myself from, well, everything else. I memorized every lyric to Hozier’s discography. I tortured myself with reruns of Pretty Little Liars and hours of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares episodes. What dominated my time the most was finally committing to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which I had only watched sparingly since I was 15. Not only did I immediately fall in love with the outrageous personalities and ridiculously comical judging littered throughout, I was enamored by the transformations, by the way the drag queens wielded everyday makeup products as tools to completely reinvent themselves, whether that looked like immersing themselves in femininity or in something that transcends gender entirely.
My obsession with the show swiftly morphed into losing myself in marathons of makeup tutorials from other famous drag queens. And after I’d exhausted that content bubble, I turned to any makeup tutorial I could get my hands on, drag queen or not. Watching someone’s process of applying makeup soothed me in a way few things were able to, particularly the unconventional looks that people created — the unexpected vibrant colors and eccentric shapes. It was a new side to makeup and to self-expression I hadn’t realized I could explore.
Inevitably, consuming so many makeup tutorials coaxed me into attempting some of the looks myself. In a perfect world, I would’ve learned I was surprisingly gifted at makeup, like one of those teenage beauty influencers, with untapped talent waiting to be unleashed. But this isn’t a perfect world, and I learned almost immediately that I was catastrophically bad. My eyeshadow was rough, eyeliner wobbly, and my lipstick skills may as well have been the true inspiration for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. But I didn’t care. I loved how it felt to go through the motions of makeup myself, just as I loved how it felt to watch.
Doing my makeup eventually became a calming ritual I loved to experiment with, even in the subtlest ways. I would balance whatever mirror I could find on the head of my bed frame as I watched tutorials on how to blend eyeshadow and apply bronzer. With a worryingly cheap eyeshadow palette I managed to dig out from goodness knows where, I mimicked the motions of seasoned beauty veterans as best as I could. I swept my eyeshadow brush in small circles to make transitions seamless. I made sure to wet my highlighter to make it stand out more. I attempted every trick in the book. The challenge of achieving an outcome somewhat close to the tutorial’s end result was one my body could handle for the first time in months, and it made me feel so accomplished — regardless of whether or not my result looked like the before picture in a ‘90s rom-com makeover montage. As time went on, I stopped relying on videos and trusted my instincts.
Suddenly, a reason to leave the house wasn’t something I dreaded, but a welcome opportunity to fumble around with brushes, new colors, sponges — anything to animate myself with. Sometimes, I enjoyed the steadiness of simple, soft looks where I could take my time blending out the colors with a fluffy brush. Other times, when I began to feel more sure of myself, I indulged in the eccentricity of hastily swiping on vivid shades with my fingertips and relishing the abnormality of the outcome. Yellow eyeshadow as blush? Amazing. Star-shaped glitter on top? Sign me up. I didn’t necessarily need off-the-wall colors or a convoluted makeup look to feel good. I just loved doing it. I was excited again. And I hadn’t felt that way in a long time.
When I had lost so much personally, and so suddenly, it felt rewarding to find a new skill and form of self-expression my new physical and emotional limitations couldn’t control.
Rare, scattered social plans became more frequent over time, mostly because I loved having the excuse to complete my full makeup routine in preparation for a night out. I had cancelled countless plans in the past because I spent the hours leading up to them riddled with anxiety or second-guessing what I was inevitably putting my body through. Now, though, I had an hour completely to myself before I ever had to see anyone, dedicated to something I liked. I didn’t need to think; I could just open myself up creatively. Blue glitter shoved in my eye’s inner corner may look a bit stupid to other people, but when I’d leave my house I’d feel elevated by the calm it brought me just moments before. Most of all, when I had lost so much personally, and so suddenly, it felt rewarding to find a new skill and form of self-expression my new physical and emotional limitations couldn’t control.
Chronic illness certainly wasn’t a part of the life my tween self had pictured. Then again, neither was purple eyeshadow plastered up to my eyebrows. Falling in love with makeup, however, gave me something I needed much more than those lofty goals. It gave me confidence that I drew from myself, not my social plans or what my body was capable of doing. And that's far more important to me now than a scared, panda-eyed 13-year-old could even fathom.