How Growing Up Poor Shaped My View of the Beauty Industry

Updated 10/19/17

As a young child, I used to follow my mother around, even when that meant sitting beside the tub during her cherished bath time. I would watch her slather her legs up in a bouquet of shaving gel, the white foam covering every inch of her slender limbs. Then, methodically, carefully, she would pull the razor up in straight strokes, removing row after row of froth and stubble. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be grown-up and shave and wear makeup and use all of those cool products that only adults get to use.

“This gel is expensive, so please don’t play with it,” she would tell me. As I got a little older, I stayed at home alone after school; I was a latchkey kid. I would sit in the tub and slather my legs up in that thick, creamy shave gel. “Wait as long as you can before you shave. After you do it once, you’ll have to do it for the rest of your life,” I’d heard, the words now echoing in my mind. I reached past the razor and grabbed my go-to rinse cup and dragged it up my soapy legs, pretending that I was shaving. The razor would have to wait until another day.

I walked into the gym on my first day of seventh grade. It was the first year that I was required to change into gym clothes in front of a bunch of other girls. I was hitting my teenage years, albeit the very first ones, and all of the girls around me were shaving their legs, wearing makeup, and growing up—and out—faster than I had anticipated. It was immediately noticeable how different I looked from many of the girls; I was still stuck in my childhood of wearing striped tank tops and shorts, running barefoot around my neighborhood, and avoiding any form of intimate situations with boys and girls.

I looked to my left and right and saw young women applying powder and lipstick to their faces, giggling about the boys who would share this class period with them, and doing a little shimmy to make their breasts look perkier. I didn’t own a single piece of makeup, but in that moment, I realized that I needed to if I was going to fit in.

It was much easier to claim that going without the finer things in life was a choice rather than a circumstance.

Cosmetics Industry - Cheap Makeup
Urban Outfitters

I came home and asked my mother if I could wear some makeup like the other girls at school did. I was slowly becoming self-conscious about my “immaturity.” For a while, she would decline the request: “You look beautiful without makeup.” But eventually, she caved.

I wanted to use her makeup, precious department-store products that she splurged on every few months when she could squeeze in the purchase. I always watched her hands, how they clicked that smooth powder container open or swept pink pigment across her aging lips, and, mostly, how they were the hands that I always held onto when I wasn’t sure where to go. But her products were too fancy for my preteen face. “This stuff is too expensive for you to use—and for me to replace," she told me. “You never start a 16-year-old on a brand-new Cadillac.”

So off to Walmart we went. I was momentarily disappointed that I wouldn’t experience the luxury of having someone do my makeup for me at the Clinique counter, but that feeling vanished when I walked into the brightly lit aisles packed with a million different options of every type of makeup. It was the time of purple, blue, and metallic shimmering eye shadows. I had no idea where to start. “The goal of wearing makeup is to look like you aren’t wearing any,” my mom would say. “So why do you wear it at all?” I replied. We grabbed a few basics—cheap brands that wouldn’t break the bank.

I had lived alone with my mother since I was 7 years old, after my parents divorced. My older sister went to live with my father, but I couldn’t leave my mom. We had never lived a financially privileged life, but mom always worked; that is, until before the divorce when she chose to leave her “cushy” job to go back to school and pursue something she actually enjoyed. We lived under a black cloud of student loans; our lifestyle was meager. When I wasn’t old enough to work, we made due with the resources we had: living in a tiny apartment, eating dinners out of a box each night, and taking minimal shopping trips beyond buying groceries. Buying makeup, clothes, or even takeout was considered the ultimate luxuries during that time.

When I opened up my brand-new bottle of drugstore liquid foundation, I was excited to finally feel like a woman. Every girl I knew seemed to have mastered how to look “pretty,” how to look like the women we saw gracing the covers of every magazine I loved but could rarely take home. The girls at school who wore makeup and styled their hair were always surrounded by tons of friends, and I hoped that I could achieve that community, that popularity, by using makeup too.

The first thing I noticed when I opened it was the smell. It didn’t have that department-store perfume scent. It was a chemical odor, a mixture of mothballs and calamine lotion. I wiped it onto my cheeks, “careful that you don’t leave streaks.” My mother and I made our way through every product, each one with that same odd smell. After I combed in some mascara, my eyes immediately started to water.

We finished off the entire process with a name brand perfume that Walmart carried. The transformation was complete. And my skin was breaking out in hives. Every spot that the perfume touched began to heat and turn red, small bumps covering the surface of my skin. My eyes were burning from the mascara, concealer, and eye shadow. This wasn’t how this was supposed to be.

Not everyone realizes that a woman not wearing makeup … sometimes [is] a matter of financial necessity.

Cosmetics Industry - Personal Essay
Urban Outfitters

My first experience wearing beauty products left me with an apprehensive and negative outlook toward makeup. Why would a company sell something that smelled so bad? For years, I wouldn’t touch makeup, mostly because we couldn’t afford to buy the expensive kind that had better ingredients. Makeup needed to be replaced at somewhat regular intervals, so it seemed easier to go without.

My identity began to form around this lack of beauty products. Instead of admitting I couldn’t afford it, I maintained that I didn’t need it. It was much easier to claim that going without the finer things in life was a choice rather than a circumstance, especially as a young woman navigating the social constructs of high school. Not everyone realizes that a woman not wearing makeup isn’t always a political statement or even a choice—sometimes it’s a matter of financial necessity.

As I burgeoned into a fully fledged adult, I still didn’t purchase many beauty products. I claimed the title of “low maintenance” and befriended those with similar lifestyles. Still, every once in a while, I would look in the mirror and think, You look so tired. Maybe you should go buy some makeup so you can look prettier. A female face without makeup seemed to read “lazy” or “doesn’t care about her appearance” (or so my insecurities often told me).

When it was just me and close friends, the way I looked was the last thing on my mind, but as soon as I hit 21 and was thrown into the mix of going out to bars and mingling with potential suitors, the old insecurities crept up, telling me that my worth was somehow tied to my appearance or my financial status.

It was enough that one day I picked up and ventured off to the department store. I was an adult now with a job as a 911 operator. If I budgeted right, I could buy the expensive stuff. And I did. But I was shocked by what I discovered.

Once I had a collection of expensive containers in front of me, stuff that I had idealized since I was a teenager, I felt giddy. I cracked them open, pulled them close, and inhaled their scent. But it wasn’t that dreamy perfume I had expected. The department-store makeup had that same chemically mothball-calamine smell as the cheap stuff! I applied a face full of makeup that cost me a good chunk of my paycheck, and I was saddened to discover that my skin began to react to the expensive stuff too. As it turned out, they didn’t put more effort into natural ingredients; they just put a higher price tag on what was effectively the same stuff.

That’s what inspired my journey into beauty education. With a little research, I learned that there were very little regulation and accountability for what goes into cosmetic products. I learned that makeup and beauty products can have adverse health effects, some of which I had already experienced with my very limited exposure to them. I also discovered that there were brands working to fill the gap between safe and natural beauty products and focusing on transparency with consumers.

Growing up in poverty forced me to view the world with a quantity-versus-quality mentality. Sometimes quantity mattered, like making a big meal out of what was most affordable rather than buying the finest ingredients. And other times quality mattered, such as purchasing beauty products that lasted and didn’t cause my skin to rot off. When I think of quality, I often think of cost; if it costs more, it should bring more value to the consumer, rather than just paying for a brand name while that continues to use the same ingredients as “lesser” labels.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned from my experience of having precious little to spend is that it is up to us to do the research necessary to decide whether a beauty brand is worth our hard-earned dollars. Unfortunately, when a brand makes a promise and sets a price—but doesn’t deliver—it doesn’t usually consider who might be on the other end of that transaction. It might just be someone who’s saved her whole life to be able to afford it.

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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