How Makeup Became Essential to My Mental Health
During the first two years of the pandemic, I pretty much stopped wearing makeup (save for the one-off occasions when I was lured by yet another beauty hack on TikTok). But as we enter our third year of working from home and social-whatever-it-is-we’re-doing now, I noticed I started wearing it again—and more often.
Makeup has once again become a part of my daily routine. However, it’s no longer tied to any specific time (i.e. first thing in the morning) because my motivation for wearing it has changed from something I felt I had to do to make myself presentable to the outside world to something I want to do just for me and just because.
Why do people wear makeup?
“People wear makeup in response to a variety of social and cultural norms, which is why it’s important to have an awareness of what is motivating a person to wear makeup,” explains Josie Howard, a psychiatrist and psychodermatology specialist in San Francisco.
“If it’s worn to fit into a specific aesthetic norm or beauty ideal, it can be harmful to one's self esteem—a regular reminder of imperfections and flaws. If, on the other hand, it’s worn as a form of self-expression and adornment, it can support a healthy sense of self and well-being. I also think that, especially in the midst of the pandemic, wearing makeup has come to symbolize a kind of connection to normalcy and the routine of applying makeup can be stabilizing for many people,” Howard adds.
That’s certainly been true for me these days.
Applying makeup offers a rare pause in my day. Before I begin, I carefully set my brushes and bottles out on my bathroom countertop. Oftentimes, I’ll turn a podcast on in the background and sink into a trance-like state, blending and sweeping my brushes across my face in a slow, measured rhythm. This is my quiet time, a time where I allow myself to do nothing else but the task at hand.
I don’t always know what to do next—in my career, in my relationships, in life—but this much I know for sure. After decades of practice and finally becoming friends with my face, I know exactly which products to use and in what way. It feels good to have certainty in a world where few things are certain.
“Somebody who is dealing with anxiety may feel relief that there is at least one stable constant in their day-to-day life,” acknowledges psychotherapist Alex Greenwald, MHC-LP and clinical team lead at Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City. “Wearing makeup isn’t just about going to Sephora and buying the newest foundation. For many people, wearing makeup calms them down, and the simple act of putting on a bold lipstick may be the first step in doing something that relieves their anxiety. In fact, studies have found a correlation between short, repetitive rituals and perceived boost in happiness.”
How else can wearing makeup play a part in improving your well-being?
Deep within this exploration of the psychological impact of wearing makeup, I found myself face-to-face (or rather, screen-to-screen) with Oludara Adeeyo, who recently authored a book about Self-Care for Black Women. Adeeyo is also a psychotherapist and a psychiatric social worker based in California, where she assists individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as mental illnesses. In her experience, makeup can facilitate healing, which is a slow and non-linear process. It’s a starting point.
“Many of my clients have experienced trauma—whether it's childhood trauma or the trauma of being homeless as an adult. And with trauma, there is this feeling of loss of power,” says Adeeyo. “You know something happened to you that was out of your control, and to get that sense of agency back, you need to create a safe space for yourself in order to move forward with healing,” she explains.
“Makeup can be a great avenue to begin creating that safe space for someone. And it’s relatively accessible to people, especially when you compare it to most other things. Putting on makeup can also serve as a form of art therapy, in the sense that it allows for self-expression and a way for you to regain control through the application itself. You get to decide exactly what you’re doing in that moment and how you're going to do it, and that is empowering,” says Adeeyo.
So, is wearing makeup ultimately a good thing?
As Dr. Howard points out, “Although I think it is hard to make an argument that all cosmetics are generally in the service of mental health, self-esteem, and empowerment, I think the ritual of applying makeup within the social context we live in can be comforting and self-esteem boosting by the engagement in the ritual itself.”
In short, it’s less about the products themselves and more about the act of using them. To which I raise my foundation brush. If putting on makeup brings even a modicum of joy or stability to your days, then, please go forth with that full face beat.
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