I have been drawn to beauty products and their glittering promise of transformation for as long as I can remember. During my teenage years, my best friend and I went out in Newcastle every Saturday night. We got spray tans a few days beforehand, shivering in paper knickers as a beautician coated our limbs in orange-gold. We spent hours getting ready in my room, drinking sickly rosé and dusting bronzer across our cheeks, our hair extensions fixed in heated rollers. We wore heavy, smokey eyeshadow with thick false lashes, squeezing ourselves into tight bodycon mini dresses and strutting across cobblestones in platform heels, our hair bouncing in silver clouds of hairspray, spare tubes of eyelash glue stuffed in our handbags.
My hyper-feminine look was partly inherited from the women I grew up with: my mother gets her hair done religiously every six weeks, regardless of whether she can afford it. She refuses to leave the house without make-up; we would spend hours wandering around the shops together, smudging eyeshadow across our wrists. Beauty tips and tricks were a shared intimacy between us. My grandmother always said, ‘I’m just putting my face on,’ as she applied her thick Leichner foundation at 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 transformed us into classy, glamorous women, but when I went to university at King’s College London, I found my fake tan and false eyelashes were no longer symbols of power. I encountered an understated set of middle and upper-class beauty standards, and I began to understand my own look as stereotypically working-class.
I am the first person in my family to go to university and when I got there I felt like an imposter, stumbling over my sentences in seminars. I saw myself as brash and unsophisticated in comparison with my peers, who had grown up with access to the elite cultural landscape of London and therefore moved through the city with ease. I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand class privilege and I internalised the ways in which I felt different, storing them in my body.
Up until that point, my experience of working-class culture was about flaunting what you’ve got and showing off what you worked hard to be able to afford. But in this new world, anything flashy or showy was considered to be in poor taste – and this trickled right down to the ritual of make-up. My university friends didn’t wear much of it, just tinted moisturiser, mascara and a slick of lip balm.
Some of them didn’t wear make-up at all, casually baring the results of their expensive skincare. My own heavy eyeshadow seemed extreme in contrast. They went out in boots and trainers with unbrushed hair, making fun of my bum-skimming dresses and orange-stained palms. My bleached, tonged hair and heavy bronzer, once markers of pride, became a different kind of signifier – representative of my class background. And so, I began to look at the sticky false eyelashes and bright pink make-up brushes in my drawer with a hot prickle of shame.
Over the course of my first year at university, I gradually stopped wearing fake tan and took out the hair extensions, choosing to embrace my pale skin tone and my natural dark blonde hair colour. I wore tinted moisturiser with blusher and highlighter, keeping my eyes and lips bare. I swapped one kind of aspirational beauty for another, not fully realising the look I was rejecting was in fact a form of ambition as well. I changed my beauty ritual to fit into middle-class, intellectual society, which elevated my social status yet stripped me of my working-class identity, making me feel unanchored. I now look back and wonder: what does this desire for acceptance say about classicism within society? Why did I not feel that I could comfortably visit a lecture hall, library or art gallery dressed like the women I had grown up with?
Hair extensions, fake tan and false eyelashes have been worn by pop stars like Dolly Parton since the Seventies, yet the dawn of WAG culture at the 2006 World Cup helped shape these markers of femininity into symbols of class aspiration. Cheryl Cole and Coleen Rooney were splashed across the media with their big hair and long eyelashes: working-class women who were catapulted to global fame by their proximity to wealthy football players. The popularity of the Kardashians introduced this polished aesthetic to a new generation of women and their influence infiltrated the fashion industry, foreshadowing the modern day trend for face-enhancing Instagram filters and cosmetic lip and cheek fillers.
Reality TV epitomises a particular kind of social mobility, as seen on The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore and more recently Love Island, where working-class women become famous overnight, acquiring wealth and status. When I was a teenager, these celebrities were role models. My friends and I didn’t know any working-class women who became doctors, lawyers or academics. We saw our culture represented by reality TV stars and we understood their maximalist approach to beauty as a kind of magic that held the potential to set us free. Their cosmetics were expensive and time-consuming: a deep tan, false nails and Botox require time and money. Their look represented a glamorous lifestyle, removed from the drudgery of the everyday.
I visited my mother after my first term at uni and she frowned at my new look. ‘You look tired,’ she said, rooting around in her handbag. ‘Why don’t you put some lipstick on?’ She passed me a waxy tube. ‘You’ll feel better.’ I brushed her away and she looked hurt.
While back at home, I also met my old school friends in the pub. They wore platform heels and heavy contouring; the ends of their cigarettes sticky with lipgloss. I sat at the table in my second-hand denim jacket, feeling uncomfortable. In London, I had started to embrace going out with undone hair, feeling strong and unencumbered in my Dr Martens, but I felt unmoored as I watched my friends re-apply mascara in their phone screens, as though I was fumbling for words in a forgotten language. I believed that my university education was teaching me a way of moving through the world that seemed closer to freedom, but in the North East, I suddenly felt child-like, uninteresting and drab. I remembered the power I had once felt when we went out together; shouting too loudly and getting too drunk as we swore in the smoking area, pinching cigarettes from strangers and dancing wherever we wanted, letting everyone know that our bodies belonged to us. 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 my younger self, feeling the loss of her brazen sexuality and her tough, polished skin; a rough diamond gleaming 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 shifting class identity. My make-up is simple: winged eyeliner with blusher and highlighter, but I always wear bright lipstick when I am feeling nervous, which connects me to my mother and grandmother, readying themselves to face the world. I allow myself to find joy in the thrill of dressing up and my heart still leaps in my chest when I recognise the sting of cheap hairspray or musky perfume in a pub toilet, watch a stranger apply lipgloss in the mirror.
Beauty products can offer us transformation, but it should always be on our own terms. To banish the performance of flamboyant, fake-tanned femininity from the library, art gallery or lecture hall is to disregard working-class women who are present and powerful, stepping proudly into the night with cigarettes in our bras and eyelash glue in our handbags, telling the world: we are here.
‘Milk Teeth’ by Jessica Andrews is out now