Clara Barnhurst

It took me about six months to go to work without wearing makeup. It was provoked by a comment from one of my colleagues: “If some of you showed up to work without makeup on, the children would think you were ill!” I wasn’t the only one that took exception to it. About a week later, I dropped a friend at work a text. Perhaps I was psyching myself up?

I’m not going to bother with makeup today.

What’s wrong?

Nothing. Just not going to bother.

Good for you. I could never do that.

The day went by without comment. Nobody thought I was ill. My friend and I chatted on the playground during a break and the observation from the previous week came up. We joked about it, but I know she was annoyed about the observation as well. I hadn’t realised how annoyed I was about it until that day: the satisfaction of showing up without makeup and nobody caring hit it home.

“You bring a bit of glam into the pub.” July 2017, my first month working behind bar. I complimented a regular on her eyeshadow and she returned the compliment. New job, new people. I hadn’t gone to work without makeup, even on a day shift when the only people to see me were delivery drivers and the odd passer-by. I didn’t feel safe enough.


Makeup is survival: blend in (or not), conceal problem areas, shape, contour, colour… Give them something to look at. Makeup keeps us safe. Makeup lets us control things we’re insecure about. We can look in the mirror, see what we hate, and think, “I can fix it.” Makeup is comfort.

I never managed to go to therapy without makeup. I cried in therapy, but never cried my face off. Not a smudge. A fellow charity worker commented on it as I broke down at lunch — I felt guilty for eating. Floods of tears, nary a streak. It helped me keep my head high as I left these situations.

The morning before an appointment at a new clinic, May 2018. Induction, nothing heavy to happen. An extra twenty minutes I hadn’t planned on leads to tricolour eyeshadow and a facefull of glitter. The more time I had, the more complicated it got. My fiancée joked at how much of an effort I was making, but this wasn’t effort. This was play.

Later that month, gifted a palette with a primary yellow eyeshadow. I buy red eyeliner (the lip pencils are the same formula as the eye pencils, as it turns out). Mix it with purple. No reason. I just wanted to see what it did. Striking, but it worked.

Makeup is expression. It reflects how we feel. It indicates what setting we expect to be within that day. Makeup is art. It creates opportunity or experimentation — wanders into the abstract. It gives the viewer information about the wearer in the moment. Makeup is a game.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re just fine over there with your great skin and well defined eyes.” Banter from a bestie the morning after a gig. I mentioned that I was lucky to just not worry about my skin. She was right: I do have great skin. My eyes are well defined. I don’t really need makeup to do neutral. I don’t do neutral makeup, so that’s handy.

Nobody commented when I stopped faithfully wearing makeup at the pub. I felt better in myself as the school fell behind me. Confidence grew as I came to know the place. My employer and colleagues proved to be extremely supportive. I overslept one morning and just threw clothes on — that was it. Yeah, it was prompted by circumstance rather than decision. But it happened before and I was still late for doing my face on those occasions.

New clinic, new doctor. A friend was giving me a lift; I stayed the night before at hers. Less faff. I brought my makeup. All of it, despite knowing what I was wearing and the colours I would be looking for. I took my time. I unpacked everything and arrayed it in front of me on the kitchen table. My friend took one look at it and decided to go for a run, “Seeing as you’re doing that.”

I only took twenty minutes to do the job. The meditation mattered. The ritual. Sustained on adrenaline, it was a mindful moment. Considering colour created a blank space for me to be safe from the impending stresses of the day. It wasn’t like the induction. It wasn’t play. I was deciding how best to protect myself. Deliberate, yet casual. Bold, but non confrontational. “That’s really pretty,” my friend said when she returned. She meant it.


Makeup is safety. Our faces are seen hundreds of times a day; we can partially control what is seen. Makeup lets us decide how we will be perceived and adapt to situations. Makeup is mindfulness. It places us in the moment of consideration: what are we doing today? How do we feel about it? How are we going to meet the day? The moments spent shaping our appearances allow us to create space for ourselves. Once completed, we are protected somewhat just as clothes protect us from the elements. Makeup is armour.

As I donned my armour that morning, I shared pictures of the process with friends. Showing off? A little. I’m good at what I do. I’m proud of that — it’s a skill. Some of the sharing was a thank you to a friend; she gave me the eyeshadow palette I used. Makeup is to be seen, and I was showing it to people. I walked into that appointment feeling more secure for having taken the time. More focused for taking the mental space. Calmer.

People dismiss makeup as false advertising or vanity. It isn’t. Makeup’s role in a person’s life is complex. The reasons to wear it are varied. The feelings it raises inside and out are important: we tell people about ourselves. People respond. Makeup forms a part of the body language used in conversation. A temporary tattoo. A temporary face. A bit of therapy? Sure. Everyone needs an outlet.


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