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On my cancer journey, doing makeup has helped me feel like myself

Using the skills I had learned through my makeup course gave me the confidence to face anything that life threw at me.

27 Jan

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When I was 13, I secretly borrowed and applied my mum’s Rimmel shimmer lipstick on my lips and smeared her blue eyeliner on my lower lashes. Despite the fact I wasn’t allowed to cut my waist-length hair, altering my appearance in this way felt powerful. For the next few years, garnet and berry matte lip colours allowed me to express my coming of age as a woman. And just like that, I could wipe it away deceptively so my parents didn’t see it.

My relationship with makeup changed over the years. I was initially scared to wear it from age thirteen because it was seen as being gaudy, showy, a vixen or even a ‘slut’ in my local Punjabi community. Only married women wore a painted face, and even when you went to the Gurdwara, community members would always cast a critical eye over your face. But no matter how many times people around me shamed me for wearing makeup, I would reapply it with fascination and awe at its power to create and empower. I could mould myself in my image through MAC Cosmetics, Rimmel and Revlon.

Years later, as an adult, I began evening classes for a Makeup Artistry Diploma Level 2 at Bedford College in 2014. On a wintry Wednesday evening and surrounded by a gaggle of other makeup lovers, I stood in my black beautician uniform. Here we were taught about colour theory, skincare, makeup application, skin biology, and mood boards. We could harness our playful selves and create masterpieces on each other’s faces through this medium. Whether it be a gold-leaf eye, a statement look, or Asian Bridal makeup, I left each lesson feeling empowered, energised, inspired, and excited about where it would take me. Little did I know that I would need these skills more than I could ever have imagined two years later.

“No matter how many times people around me shamed me for wearing makeup, I would reapply it with fascination and awe at its power to create and empower”

In 2016 at the age of 33, I was diagnosed with Stage 1a ovarian cancer. My world imploded. I was taken to hospital in agony and had 12 litres of fluid pumped from my abdomen. Surgeons removed my left ovary and appendix, and I had fluid on my lungs. I lost a lot of weight, couldn’t eat and was in the hospital for a few months. After my diagnosis, I was terrified, as I valued my fertility so much, and I dreamed of having kids.

The doctor cornered me in an office and started spouting off about cancer markers and having a hysterectomy before my eventual surgeries and treatments. I refused to let the doctors coerce me into a hysterectomy, and they didn’t even tell me that they had removed my appendix. I had lost control of my body, and it had become my enemy. I felt that my health, fertility and sense of womanhood had been butchered right before my eyes and that I had no control over my body anymore. When I was going through chemotherapy, I realised how much weight I had lost and how frail I was. It was inconceivable to imagine myself as invincible anymore. 

I soon realised that I could use the makeup artistry skills I had gained to help amplify my self-confidence. By experimenting with new cosmetic trends in the hospital, I took back control over my image. Makeup, like writing, has always been a form of escapism for me, an injection of glamour that I needed in that terrifying clinical setting. It was one of my most important coping mechanisms when I was in survival mode.

“Makeup, like writing, has always been a form of escapism for me, an injection of glamour that I needed in that terrifying clinical setting”

I was so depressed and fatigued in the months after my diagnosis, but I applied some makeup and styled my hair on the days I could. My go-to was usually a bold eye, but I soon got bored and decided to experiment with lip colours and glitter. I began watching YouTube tutorials from the likes of Lisa Eldridge and Pixie Woo and was fascinated by the luxury, indulgence and creativity in each makeup workshop. I was hooked, addicted, hungry to know more, with a passion that still endures.

When I was in hospital after my ovary removal surgery in April 2016, I would put on some makeup to feel like myself again. It was my warpaint; a red lip, shimmer of pearl eye pigment and champagne highlighter made me feel like an empress. I felt like a shell, a shadow or apparition of myself as a sorrowful patient without it. Without makeup, I didn’t know my identity or who I was as a woman.

Using the skills I had learned through my makeup course gave me the confidence to face anything that life threw at me. If I was feeling a little depressed in a hospital bed, then I’d do a rose-tinted smoky eye to perk me up. For me, makeup was, and is, the power to change my appearance and control how the world saw me through one of the most challenging times in my life. 

“As I felt myself diminish, I found the strength to start applying makeup slowly to my blank canvas”

I have experienced a lot as a woman: fertility loss, both ovaries being removed, complete hair loss, losing my periods and getting Covid-19. I sometimes could not recognise the person staring back at me in the mirror. So, as I felt myself diminish, I found the strength to start applying makeup slowly to my blank canvas. Glitter, sequin turbans, statement jewellery and vibrant lip, blush and eye colour palettes became my armour of choice. Building on my makeup artistry gave me the confidence to confront the world, channel my creativity into my modelling, and rewrite a new future for myself.

I find an inner power in my artistry that never falters. Hopefully, doing a Level 3 Make Up Artistry qualification this year will help develop, challenge and stretch my skill set; I’ll learn more about fashion and photographic makeup, media make up, bridal and more.

Picking up makeup products today, I feel the tendrils of freedom surrounding me as I apply a metallic shade of bronze lipstick. This empowerment is intoxicating. It is the same kind of potency of power I felt when I was in front of my mother’s dresser mirror as a 13-year-old girl.