My first experience of make-up was at home. My nan loved wearing a deep burgundy lip. She wore lots of fur coats, lots of gold earrings, lots of lipstick and eyeshadow – she was a fashion icon in her own right. I remember going to her house and seeing all these creams and perfumes and thinking she was so glamorous. My mum had a signature make-up look of bright blue – almost lilac – eyeshadow, and red lips. She wore that combination for the entirety of my childhood and most of my adult life. A lot of the Nigerian women I’ve grown up around like to make an effort for celebrations or birthdays and they're much less cautious of the supposed make-up ‘rules’ of what does and doesn't suit your skin tone. For my parents and my aunties, they just made do - they were never not going to wear make-up because it didn’t ‘work’ for them.
I grew up in a household which was primarily female – myself, two sisters and my mum. My dad was there but it was definitely a female-led house. Despite that, neither my sisters or myself grew up wearing make-up because the products just weren't there.
One of my earliest memories of make-up was through magazines. I used to buy annuals like Bunty that came with a free lip gloss or blusher and each time wonder if I'd even be able to use it. If it was something like toe separators or a baby blue nail polish then I was quids in, but if the free gift was butterfly clips or frosted pink lip gloss then I just knew I couldn’t wear it. I wouldn’t even open it. I had this shelf where I would put all the products I couldn’t use.
I'd see Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child in music videos on TV wearing these amazing 1990s pop princess make-up looks, but I never made the connection that that was something I could do.
When I did start to wear make-up, I was shocked by the lack of options. Before Sleek was introduced to Boots and Superdrug, it was sold in my local hair shop with maybe one other brand that catered to Black or dark-skinned women, and everything else was off-brand knock-offs that were cheap and had no pigment. I remember thinking, 'Oh there’s truly nothing'. If I wanted to buy foundation, I couldn't do that in shops on my high street.
You look at a local population like Croydon, which is so diverse, and the high street still isn’t providing make-up for the majority of people who shop there. It just doesn’t make business sense. Representation across the board matters. Everyone should have access to the same things – whether that’s clothes in a particular size or make-up in a particular shade. It’s such a basic thing.
When I speak to other Black women, I realise we all used the same products because there were so few available. There was the Maybelline Dream Matte mousse in one shade that we all had. I bought a pot of it for prom when I was 16 years old and I had it until I left uni aged 21.
The expectation for me as a young woman is to wear make-up – that’s a societal belief. It’s so easy to say we should divest from this idea that beauty is something women owe to the world but, in reality, women are valued so heavily for what we look like. That’s definitely a problematic thing but at the same time I do also enjoy looking good.
Saying that, I hate the idea of make-up as a crutch and something that we need to do. One of the reasons I enjoy make-up without too much internal conflict is because I don’t feel I need it. So many other things in my life are loaded and complex and make-up doesn’t have to be that. Sometimes I want to look nice, sometimes I want to look cool, and sometimes I’ll wear blue eyeshadow to match my blue suit.
For me, it’s about fun, creativity, fashion and style. That’s where it begins and ends for me and I think that’s what we should be trying to push for.
If you asked me 10 years ago if make-up can be a form of self-care, I would have said 'absolutely not' because it was completely characterised by scarcity, alienation, penny-pinching – it wasn't fun. But now, knowing that there are swatches of make-up for all skin tones, it feels like it’s moved into a space that’s a lot more experimental and fun. That’s something that a lot of Black women were robbed of growing up. Now it’s about playfulness rather than difficulty.
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