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Make-up isn't a 'lie' for people living with facial disfigurements

For those with facial conditions and injuries, make-up can be the difference between living and having a life

Patricia Skinner
Monday 20 February 2017 14:51 GMT
Shalom Nchom hit headlines last year with her ‘power of make-up’ video
Shalom Nchom hit headlines last year with her ‘power of make-up’ video (Youtube)

Though it has been used for thousands of years, creating countless trends and spanning numerous civilisations, make-up is still a polarising topic.

At one end of the spectrum, those who can upload perfect selfies to social media are commended for their skills. While at the other, those who do not wear it are equally praised for bravely being their own “gorgeous, beautiful, individual, unique self” – as no make-up proponent Alicia Keys puts it.

Yet there is another group who, throughout time, have used make-up for more than just beauty reasons: for those living with disfigured and visibly-different faces, cosmetics provide a defensive barrier against intrusive stares and comments as they go about their day-to-day lives.

Such sensitivity to facial appearance is nothing new; we have been concerned about our looks for thousands of years. In the 11th century, Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg in Germany wrote of his “ridiculous” broken nose and swelling in his cheek. In the 1960s, a writer with muscular dystrophy commented that he thought “a simple facial disfigurement is the worst disability of all – the quickly-suppressed flicker of revulsion is, I am certain, quite shattering”.

For those with facial differences, make-up can be the difference between living and having a life.

‘Normal’ beauty

We are all aware that the idea of “beauty”, and how it is perceived, constantly changes. During the Renaissance ivory skin and deep red lips were the go-to look, for example, but by the time of the Victorians, women were encouraged to go for a more subtle style.

Early on, make-up was labelled as a tool to serve female vanity. The Christian preacher Tertullian, who lived during the second and third centuries, thundered, “they who rub their skin with medicaments, stain their cheeks with rouge, make their eyes prominent with antimony, sin against HIM. To them, I suppose, the plastic skill of God is displeasing!”

The problem, according to Tertullian, was why women would want to paint themselves when they had natural beauty to attract men. He bluntly associates such ornament with prostitution. Fast forward a few centuries, and 17th century poets like Arthur Dowton were still making the same association, with painted women likely to end up in a cart to the gallows:

“A loam wall and a painted face are one For th’ beauty of them both is quickly gone When the loam is fallen off then lathes appear So wrinkles in that face from th’eye to th’ear. The chastest of your sex condemn these arts, And many that use them, have rid in carts.”

This belief, that make-up hides natural beauty, or is a “lie”, is one that still crops up today. And yet both views ignore the fact that make-up products help both men and women lead “normal” lives.

Changing lives

The confidence that make-up can give to those who are facially different should not be underestimated. Whether it is a simple slick of eyeliner, or a fuller coverage, make-up historically has been the difference between countless wearers hiding away and feeling that they could face the world.

People living with disfigured and visibly-different faces form a substantial minority, for whom cosmetics might provide a defensive barrier against intrusive stares as they go about their day-to-day lives.

However, make-up is not yet the best tool it could be to help those with differences. James Partridge – founder of charity Changing Faces which offers a skin camouflage service for people living with scarring or skin conditions that affect their appearance and confidence – has made clear that his work is about building confidence, and yet he has also admitted, that to him coverage “felt it was like wearing a crusty, odd-looking mask that made my face very conspicuous”.

The beauty industry is making moves to celebrate diversity of a kind, but extreme differences – that is to say, those that aren’t simple blemishes or acne scars – are still something to be hidden under coats of concealer and foundation, rather than shown to the world. Even though people like acid attack victim and popular model Katie Piper have stated that they use make-up as tools to be themselves, not to hide, the beauty business still perpetuates ideals that can only achieved by those without any serious disfigurement.

Will we ever live in a world where all can be comfortable with their appearance, disfigurement or not, make-up user or not? History might not give us the best examples but if we can accept that for some women and men make-up is a necessity, not a tool to deceive, those living with disfigurement may be able to finally feel comfortable in their own skin.

Patricia Skinner, professor of History, Swansea University. This article first appeared on The Conversation (

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