Make-up and chronic illness: it’s not vain to practice self-care

Make-up is, and probably always will be, a contentious topic. It can divide opinion between those who think ‘natural is best’ and so never pick up a lipstick, and those who feel a bit better — whether physically or emotionally — with a little cosmetic help.

The topic of make-up, it appears, is similarly contentious when it is thought about in relation to people who have health issues. On the one hand, there are schemes that offer workshops for men and women with cancer to learn the skills of skincare and make-up. They teach people, amongst others things, how to re-create missing eyebrows, or correct uneven skin tone. Such skills help people to address the visible signs of their cancer treatment.

One such scheme, ‘Look good, feel better’, includes the phrase ‘facing cancer with confidence’ as its objective. As this objective suggests, make-up can bring confidence to people suffering with ill-health. It can help conceal some of the physical effects of cancer treatment, if a person wishes to do so. In so doing, make-up can help a person feel more positive, more ‘themselves’ and not just a patient undergoing treatment. It can also just be a bit of light-hearted fun, as some of the testimonials on the website describe, and I don’t think many people would disagree such a past-time. After all, who would have an issue with a person doing something so simple that makes them feel more confident, improves their self-esteem and offers a bit of pampering during such a difficult time?

On the other hand, however, I wonder whether there is a slightly different view held about make-up for people with chronic illnesses. A few years ago I was berated by a doctor for wearing make-up. It was heavily implied that make-up is a mask, and that I was hiding my ‘true’ self by wearing it. I should, I was told, be confident enough to just ‘be me’ as a person with chronic illness without the (natural-looking) make-up that I was wearing at the time. It is far from being the first time that a doctor or nurse has commented on my appearance, and chronic illness forums are replete with similar stories.

This begs the question of what my ‘true’ self actually is. Well, my ‘true’ face is tired-looking from having fibromyalgia, migraine and sleep issues. It is a bit flushed due to having mast cell activation syndrome and, at times, a little spotty around the chin due to hormonal issues. I perpetually look as though I have two black eyes, such are the dark circles under my eyes. Is it this ‘true’ face that I must display all the time? Do I have to present myself as someone with chronic health issues? Am I not allowed to blend into the crowd of largely ‘healthy’ people?

My answer is yes, I should be ‘allowed’ to present myself however I please. There shouldn’t be a requirement that I ‘show’ my illnesses to others. My health status is deeply personal and only for me to share if and when I want to. Most of the time I want to look like any other person. I want to ‘blend in’ to the background, not spend my day being told I look tired, asked if I had a late night or questioned as to my health status. It is not glib to suggest this; it has happened more times than I could count. Make-up isn’t about vanity then, it is about having some degree of control over your own appearance and not letting health issues dictate that for you.

It is also true that make-up is an escape from the ‘medical’ intervention that comes with chronic illness. As many people with chronic illness will attest, when you have health issues you often become the subject of many ‘rules’. We are told what to eat, how to exercise, which physiotherapy to do, how to manage our time, etc. etc., the list goes on and on. Applying make-up is a form of escape from all those rules. It is creative and fun, as well as being relaxing and calming. It is an activity that it is truly individualised, and not subject to any well-meaning ‘advice’ by a medical professional. I get to decide how I look, and how to express myself in this way. It is ‘me time’, a mode of self-care that isn’t about any other person or any of the ‘health rules’ that I am advised to follow.

Most of all then, for me personally, make-up makes me feel, well, like ‘me’. That ‘me’ isn’t just a person with chronic illness; my health status being some sort of encompassing state of being that I cannot escape. I am more than my medical history or the stack of folders containing clinic letters, test results and prescriptions. When I spend time putting on some make-up it is about self-confidence, and self-esteem. It makes me feel more ‘put together’, and happy about myself. Given the emotional toll that chronic illness can bring, any activity that promotes self-care should be celebrated and not berated. We all deserve to feel like ourselves, and not just a ‘patient’. So I will keep wearing my make-up and feeling like ‘me’ when I do; the concealer under my eyes is here to stay.

Chronic illness blogger at and on Instagram @through.the.fibro.fog

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