How Makeup Helps Me Deal With My Chronic Illness

Updated 04/19/19

As I live with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (a neurological condition in which the nervous system attacks itself, resulting in lack of sensation and mobility, fatigue, and daily nerve pain), my pallor often gives me away. When I look in the mirror and see a pale and blotchy face, bloodshot eyes, and balloon-like bags, I feel worse than I did when I woke up.

Somehow the physical manifestation of my sickness (which I was diagnosed with at the end of 2013, and carries words like “degenerative” and “incurable” within it) is more of a reminder that I’m ill than how I actually feel. Not that I ever forget. But the weak and sickly reflection in the mirror is my body’s way of reminding me that my illness has me, that it will always have me, and that there’s nothing I can do about it. While disease-modifying drugs are often prescribed before MS progresses, they can’t undo the damage that’s already been done. To manage nerve pain and anxiety, painkillers and antidepressants are regularly suggested—but when all else fails, there is one treatment, albeit not prescribed by a doctor, that continues to be my savior.

You have no idea how essential glitter is when you’re sitting on a hospital drip, counting the clock down until it’s time to call a cab home.

Makeup - Kylie Cosmetics

For some, no-makeup selfies are an act of liberation, a chance to show the world their skin up close and personal. But makeup-free selfies don’t make sense when you’re sick. With a condition like MS, every day is a make-up free selfie, an unfiltered confrontation with your reflection and the disappointment that you’re never getting better. Sure, there might be a miracle cure one day, but for now, at least, this is my reality, and showing my naked face on social media isn’t an act of strength like it is for healthy folks. It’s unlikely I’ll have the sun-kissed glow flaunted in most photos with the #nomakeup hashtag. Instead, mine will just invite pity in the comments section: “You’re so brave” or “I wouldn’t have so much strength if I were you.”

Instead of makeup remover and bold proclamations of natural skin, I choose makeup. In fact, for decades, people with chronic illnesses have been using cosmetics to remind themselves and the world around them that they’re the same person they were before the diagnosis. As one writer told Bustle, “Adding some color, depth, and confidence to my face allows for a bit more power over how I present myself physically to the world.”

For me, makeup never disappoints. There’s always more of it, a zillion ways to use it to produce something beautiful, like an emotional episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for your face.

I don’t wear makeup every day, but on my worst days, a little swipe of eye shadow is enough to elevate my mood. I’ve ordered more Kylie Cosmetics than a person should, and though applying lip liner is a skill I’m still mastering (I’m 34), the colors make my face feel alive. When I started ordering Lip Kits, I’d never really worn lipstick before. I wasn’t sure how it stayed on, didn’t smudge into creases, onto crockery, between teeth. But now I find myself practicing like I’m Picasso. Makeup gives me something to focus on, the chance to become my own self-portrait and create something better than what was there to begin with. (Hopefully.)

A full face of makeup is my mood board, my means of communicating who I want to be, who I am, aside from the illness.

Makeup - Amy Mackelden
Amy Mackelden

It’s not about hiding who I am. I don’t even care about foundation—it’s the sparkle that I’m after. You have no idea how essential glitter is when you’re sitting on a hospital drip, counting the clock down until it’s time to call a cab home. Shimmer deflects, distracts. A sick person’s just a reminder that mortality’s as inevitable as Sex and the City 3, but everyone loves pretty things to some degree.

Anyone who suggests that using makeup in this way is shallow doesn’t know what chronic illness feels like. Blushers and highlighters are the outfits my face wears when it lacks confidence and wants to present some normalcy. On days when leaving the house feels impossible because my skin is tingling like it’s overrun by tiny insects, makeup makes me reconsider. When my energy’s lower than leaky batteries, eyeliner is a big “fuck you” to the rest of my body. Once concealer has hidden the red patches, scratches, blotches, and under-eye bags, deep like graves, my brain’s tricked into thinking I’m okay again.

For me, makeup is a hobby as well as my medicine. It’s my chance to express who I am aside from sickness. Everyone sees MS before they see me, and that’s no one’s fault, but that’s not all there is. I’m more than the medical diagnosis I first heard two weeks after my 30th birthday. A full face of makeup is my mood board, my means of communicating who I want to be, who I am, aside from the illness. While I have to take that face off eventually with cleanser and cucumber wipes and water, I get to be that person for a significant chunk of time, and that’s something.

Makeup doesn’t erase my chronic illness forever, and I’m okay with that. I treat my MS and manage my condition. But makeup gives me the confidence to face the day when my bones want to crumble like gluten-free cookies, devoid of the necessary glue. It might not work for everybody, but makeup’s helped me discover who I want to be, and who I am, even on the days I’m dwindling. And for me, that’s more powerful than a makeup-free selfie could ever be.

The Flipside - Byrdie
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.

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