It’s almost one in the morning. I’ve poured out all my makeup on the floor in front of my sofa, having decided to count it in a fit of insomnia-induced madness. Plastic packages in all sorts of shapes and colours are jumbled in a big messy pile. My mom is a collector, but I’m the type who gets rid of things. Or so I thought, until I saw all this. This can’t belong to a de-clutter fanatic.
I count, meditatively, and find that I have 114 different products in my little collection. More than anyone would ever need, but perhaps it’s just enough. And this isn’t even counting nail polish, perfume, hair care or skin care, all part of that same beauty ritual. I wash my face, do skincare treatments, exfoliate and moisturize. I paint my nails, put my hair in colour masks, wear fragrance. In this physical beauty ritual I am forced to work and interact with my own body, a body that often feels foreign. I tame my body, confirming its physicality and reality, confirming my ownership of it. Sensory impressions – a serum with an odd scent, the tightness of a clay mask, warm washcloths against my face all act like reminders that my physical self is real. In front of the mirror, with my products like a smorgasbord of tools, I build myself. Each day I must find the right tools for the job, a job that always changes – sometimes I need a red lipstick, sometimes a green. My collection is my palette, my raw material.
On my face I build a character that feels like home, confirming my identity. Colours and textures claim my skin as my own, and touching it makes me confident in the border between me and everything else. What I put on is my shield, marking those borders clearly.
When I’m through counting, sorting everything neatly by type – lip glosses together, powders together, eye pencils in a need row – I feel a strange sense of calm. I think of all my little helpers, working every day to make me up. Building a body, a self, seeing a body, feeling a body, being a body. Seeing it and knowing it is mine. Noticing myself, taking notice of my self deliberately, taking ownership and responsibility. It’s a bunch of stuff but they’re parts of me, shades of me, images of me. Images I make myself, each day, always new.
My first real lipstick, China Red, is barely used. I bought it when I was 16, thinking it would make me look glamorous and classic, like Dita von Teese. But under the harsh flourescent lighting of my bathroom, the colour on my lips made me look sallow, tired and sick. I put that lipstick away. Despite my disappointment, I couldn’t bear throwing it away, so despite the fact that it’s gone off I still keep it in my collection. Sometimes I take it out and just look at it, and wonder why I really thought it looked so bad on me. It’s just a regular red.
Red can symbolize blood, vengeance, passion, rage, love. In China, the namesake of my lipstick, red is signifies good fortune and celebration. Or maybe it’s the colour of communism. Red is said to be the universal, always-flattering lip colour. In french, it’s Rouge à Lèvres – at the turn of the century, lipstick was called Lip Rouge in english. So red belongs on our lips. There’s a shade for any taste, from coral to oxblood. Today, my own collection contains seven different reds. There’s China Red, Ronnie Red, Flamenco, Pavlos, Russian Red and so on.
The rest of my colour wardrobe includes lipsticks in shades of green, blue, black, grey, pink, brown, purple. A colour for every mood. Colour might be the most telling part of your cosmetics, the first point of attraction. Colours that flatter, or that channel a trend, or are simply appropriate. Blue eyeshadow is said to look cheap and tacky, chartreuse mascara makes your lashes look like the barbs of a carnivorous plant. The attraction to colour is juvenile, even primitive. Aren’t people just endlessly amused by colour? In our homes, our clothing, our food. On our faces colour hints at our feelings and experiences. A black eye. Cheeks flushed pink. Dark circles. Green with envy. White as a ghost. Seeing red.
The compact is square, made from heavy plastic that is white on top and pink on the bottom. The lid has an embossed chrysanthemum design. It reminds me of something from the 50s or 60s. I can easily imagine it in a lady’s purse in 1961. What’s special about it isn’t actually the packaging, or the colour or texture of the powder blush inside. When I open the compact, I am hit with a scent so enchantingly nostalgic that I can’t help opening it now and then to catch another whiff of the fragrance. This blush smells like makeup. Powdery, a little floral – roses and violets, I think, it’s difficult to find the notes because once you smell it all you get is MAKE UP SMELL blinking in giant neon in your head.
The fragrance brings me back, as it often does, to snooping in my great aunt’s makeup bag in the bathroom of her apartment. An older female relative carries a purse filled with exciting and strange things, at least in the eyes of a child, and makeup was new to me since my mother rarely wore it. In the bag, I found a dark-blue oval compact with rouge inside, and it smelled just like makeup should. Difficult to put into words, but so familiar. Today, powder products are rarely scented, but now and then that scent appears like a dearly loved ghost.
Scent rouses associations and memories in a way other senses can not. Molecules snake through your nose, into your brain saying: Remember that compact you found? What is that smell? Doesn’t it smell the way a warm sweater feels?
Scent is three-dimensional. It intrudes in a cloud of perfume, crawling into your nostrils without even asking permission. It slips out of reach even if you press your nose to a perfumed wrist. It can assault or evade.
Scent if four-dimensional. It lives in time. Top note, Heart note, Base note is what your eau-de-toilette box says. Opening act, interlude, finale. A little show in three acts, each act differing in length depending not only on the chemical composition of the substance itself, but of the recipient too. It can be as short as a tv ad, or as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Scent changes through time. Your dinner won’t smell the same when it’s leftovers the following evening. Powder boxes don’t smell the same as they used to.
My lip gloss is pink. It says Butter Gloss on the tube and like all the other glosses in the collection, the colour is named after a dessert. Strawberry parfait. You open it, and the smell of artificial vanilla caramel ice cream topping hits you like a closed fist. It tastes the same, I’ve found out, since lip gloss inevitably ends up not only on your mouth, but in it. It’s like licking a cheap scented candle. The suggestion of taste, however, is of greater interest than the actual taste. How come makeup is named after food?
This gloss is the prime example, but there are numerous other products named after chocolate, fruits and sweets. Only in my own collection I find Pink Chocolate, Devil’s Food Cake, Strawberry Jam and Pistachio Macaron. I have a lip balm shaped like a tiny pink cupcake. Something can be said here for the relationship between women, food, and the body. Something like: You can only consume sweets in non-ingestible form. Your lip gloss can be strawberry parfait, but your restaurant order must be a kale salad. None of that whipped cream, sugary nonsense in real life. It’s forbidden, yet used to entice women – women eat bon bons, men eat steak. But if you actually do eat those bon bons, you’d better not eat too many. If, instead, your bon bones are consumed symbolically through cosmetics, all the better – because then you’re at least promoting your all-important feminine beauty.
Consume to improve and polish that horrifying womanhood of yours. Don’t you dare become fleshy, too much, bleeding at the edges, monstrous. Don’t you dare be more than strictly controlled impossible perfection.
My eye palette has a good sound. Drumming your fingers on the plastic makes a different noise depending on whether you tap the front or back, and running a nail along the edge makes a soft scraping sound. The best sound, however, comes from closing it. The built-in magnets makes the palette go click in a way that is just indescribably satisfying. It’s not too loud, but loud enough, not too hard, but hard enough. It sounds strangely commanding, like NOW TODAY’S LOOK IS COMPLETE, CLICK. And that’s that.
Beauty packaging makes a whole symphony of clicking sounds. Different locking mechanisms keeping lipsticks and powder compacts shut let out their own little sound to confirm that “there we go, now I’m closed tight!”. Guerlain, a brand most known for the scent Shalimar, launched a lipstick in 2009 called Rouge G de Guerlain. They were very keen to tell the press that their packaging would make a beautiful sound both when closing and opening it.
Sound can play a central part in the still somewhat controversial public make-up. On the tube, the click of a powder compact draws attention – what was that noise? Virginia Woolf talks about a room of her own, a woman’s room, and in a way you’re creating just that when you put on your makeup in public. Something that was once private, maybe even secret, is intruding on common, public grounds. Putting your face on is supposed to happen in front of a bathroom mirror, or in a girl’s room, where the fuss won’t bother anyone. Public space becomes unsettlingly private, intimate, as soon as you crack open that pocket mirror.
Viewing the self, being aware of your appearance and not hiding it at home, out of the way. Onlookers are pushed away and beckoned closer. You star in a little performance, right there on your morning commute. Drumroll please… ladies and gentlemen! See the astonishing urbane woman apply her rouge… left cheek..right cheek…a final look in the mirror…CLICK. Applause. Cheer. The crowd goes wild.
Putting your fingers against the surface of “Monster”, a highlighter to bring glow and radiance to the face, is a strange thing. When I’d just bought it, I’d heard the texture was unusual, but I was surprised nonetheless. This round, white jar contains a pearlescent powder-cream imprinted with a fabric-like texture.
Using your fingers to apply makeup may be seen as sloppy and unhygienic by some, but I can’t resist feeling a product. It somehow feels more intuitive, more intimate, without a brush or sponge getting between me and the product. Monster has a very particular texture. It looks like a pressed powder, but as soon as you touch it you find the surface cool and almost moist. It grabs at your fingerprints, but doesn’t stick. The little jar is filled with something almost bouncy, but it relinquishes its pigment with ease. Once you rub it into the skin, the texture transforms from creamy to powdery.
The colour shifts between white and pink, depending on the angle. I imagine it’s the kind of makeup a fairy would wear, while I tap it into my cheekbones. Cool and reflective, like tiny mirrors melting into my face. The mirror, to which I’m so attached, the one that tells me I exist. Reflections appear in makeup, in jewels, in the shop windows, in the water’s surface, and in my trusty companion – the pocket mirror. Light bounces off my body, into the mirror, and out again to meet my pupil. Waves of light meet my body, my body resists and reflects, and it proves it exists and I within it.
When I buy something new I’m always delighted by a built-in mirror, or disappointed when there isn’t one. Don’t magpies collect shiny things? Perhaps they too want to see their reflection, letting their form multiply and mirror. Which is the original? Is there an original? Can they all be originals? Is yesterday’s reflection the same as today’s?