For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to beauty products and their scintillating promise of transformation. During my teenage years, my best friend and I would go out to Newcastle every Saturday night. We tanned a few days beforehand, shivering in paper panties while a beautician coated our limbs in orange gold. We spent hours getting ready in my room, drinking sickening rosé and dusting bronzer on our cheeks, our hair extensions secured in heated rollers. We wore thick, smoky eyeshadow with thick false eyelashes, squeezed into skin-tight mini-dresses and strutted down cobblestones in wedge heels, our hair bouncing in silver clouds of hairspray, tubes of glue spare eyelashes stuffed into our handbags.
My hyper-feminine look is partly inherited from the women I grew up with: my mother religiously gets her hair done every six weeks, whether she can afford it or not. She refuses to leave the house without makeup; we spent hours wandering the stores together, smearing eyeshadow on our wrists. Beauty tips and tricks were a shared intimacy between us. My grandmother always said, “I’m just putting on my face,” as she applied her thick Leichner foundation to the kitchen table every morning before her shift at the local fish market, a ritual which encapsulates a particular kind of working-class pride. .
For me and my friends, our beauty habits turned us into stylish, glamorous women, but when I went to college at King’s College London, I discovered that my fake tan and fake eyelashes were no more. power symbols. I encountered a low-key set of middle- and upper-class beauty standards, and began to understand my own look as stereotypically working-class.
I am the first person in my family to go to college and when I got there I felt like an impostor, tripping over my sentences in seminars. I saw myself as brash and unsophisticated compared to my peers, who had grown up with access to London’s elite cultural landscape and therefore moved easily around the city. I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand class privilege and I internalized the ways I felt different, storing them in my body.
Until then, my experience of working culture was about flaunting what you have and showing what you’ve worked hard to be able to afford. But in this new world, anything flashy or flashy was considered distasteful – and that carried over into the makeup ritual. My college friends didn’t wear much, just tinted moisturizer, mascara, and a little lip balm.
Some of them wore no makeup at all, casually showing off the results of their expensive skincare. My own heavy eyeshadow looked extreme in contrast. They came out in boots and sneakers with unbrushed hair, mocking my butt-skimming dresses and orange-stained palms. My bleached, shorn hair and heavy bronzer, once markers of pride, have become a different kind of signifier – representative of my middle class. And so, I started staring at the sticky false eyelashes and hot pink makeup brushes in my drawer with a pang of shame.
During my freshman year in college, I gradually moved away from wearing fake tan and removed hair extensions, choosing to embrace my pale skin tone and natural dark blonde hair color. I wore tinted moisturizer with blush and highlighter, keeping my eyes and lips bare. I traded one type of ambitious beauty for another, not fully realizing that the look I was rejecting was actually also a form of ambition. I changed my beauty ritual to fit in with middle-class intellectual society, which raised my social status but stripped me of my working-class identity, making me feel ungrounded. I now look back and ask myself: what does this desire for acceptance of classicism within society say? Why didn’t I feel like I could comfortably visit a lecture hall, library, or art gallery dressed like the women I grew up with?
Hair extensions, fake tans and false eyelashes have been worn by pop stars like Dolly Parton since the 70s, but the dawn of WAG culture during the 2006 World Cup helped shape these markers of femininity in class aspiration symbols. Cheryl Cole and Coleen Rooney were splashed in the media with their big hair and long lashes: working-class women who were catapulted to world fame by their closeness to wealthy football players. The popularity of the Kardashians introduced this refined aesthetic to a new generation of women and their influence seeped into the fashion industry, foreshadowing the modern trend of face-enhancing Instagram filters and cosmetic lip fillers and cheeks.
Reality TV embodies a particular type of social mobility, as seen on The only way is Essex, geordie coast and more recently the island of love, where working-class women become famous overnight, gaining wealth and status. When I was a teenager, these celebrities were role models. My friends and I didn’t know of any working-class women who had become doctors, lawyers, or academics. We saw our culture represented by reality TV stars and understood their maximalist approach to beauty as a kind of magic that had the potential to set us free. Their cosmetics were expensive and time-consuming: deep tans, false nails and Botox take time and money. Their look represented a glamorous lifestyle, away from the chores of everyday life.
I visited my mom after my first term in college and she took a dim view of my new look. “You look tired,” she said, rummaging through her purse. “Why don’t you put on lipstick?” She passed me a waxy tube. “You will feel better. I pushed her away and she looked hurt.
Back home, I also met my old classmates at the pub. They wore platform heels and chunky outlines; the ends of their sticky cigarettes with lip gloss. I sat down at the table in my second-hand denim jacket, feeling uneasy. In London, I had begun to agree to go out with my hair down, feeling strong and untroubled in my Dr Martens, but I felt undocked watching my friends reapply mascara to their phone screens, as if I was looking for words in a forgotten language. I thought my college education taught me a way to move around the world that seemed closer to freedom, but in the Northeast, I suddenly felt childish, uninteresting, and dull. I remembered the power I once felt when we were dating; screaming too loud and too drunk while swearing in the smoking area, pinching strangers’ cigarettes and dancing wherever we wanted, letting everyone know our bodies were ours. I began to wonder why I felt less in control of my own body in my new, supposedly emancipated world. I looked at pictures of me younger, feeling the loss of his cheeky sexuality and hard, polished skin; a rough diamond shining in the night.
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Over time, I settled into my own life. I became proud of my working class roots and today my beauty routine reflects my changing class identity. My makeup is simple: winged eyeliner with blush and highlighter, but I always wear glossy lipstick when I’m feeling nervous, which connects me to my mother and grandmother, who are preparing to face the world. I allow myself to find joy in the thrill of getting dressed and my heart still leaps in my chest when I recognize the sting of a cheap hairspray or musky perfume in a pub toilet, look at a stranger applying lip gloss in the mirror.
Beauty products can offer us transformation, but it should always be on our own terms. To banish the performance of flamboyant and falsely tanned femininity from the library, the art gallery or the amphitheater is to ignore the present and powerful popular women who proudly advance into the night with cigarettes in our bras and eyelash glue in our handbags, telling the world: we are here.
Jessica Andrews’ “Milk Teeth” is out now