Trigger Warning: Discussions of violence against women, images of facial bruising, discussions of war, and statistics on violence against transgender and cisgender women.
I have wanted to write about my entrée into makeup for some time now, but there’s no comfortable way to broach the subject. I figured that International Women’s Day is a perfect time to talk about this, because the issue I am about to talk about- violence against women- is a global epidemic.
You see, in February of 2013, three white cis-men college students assaulted me. My face took the majority of the damage. I describe what happened to my face in detail, because it is a major part of this story. I broke my two front teeth off, fractured my chin, and had about a three-inch long road rash across my left cheek, which at the time the doctors thought would be a permanent scar. I also suffered a severe concussion, which had neurological effects that lasted roughly three months. This happened the second semester of my first year of my PhD program.
Victim shaming at the Emergency room only compounded my feelings of violation when multiple nurses and technicians said, “why were you out by yourself at midnight on a Saturday night?” and “maybe next time you’ll think about standing up for yourself to a group of guys.” I shit you not, these were things said to me in the few hours following one of the most horrific moments of my life.
Years of therapy and PTSD counseling have helped me come to terms with that night, and I am comfortable talking about it openly (even to the internet masses). I also had a wonderfully supportive advisor, faculty members, and department who gave me the strength and time to heal. I will forever be indebted to them and the kindness and love my cohort and faculty members showed me.
So why is this story about my assault on a blog about fashion and beauty? In the weeks following my assault, one of my biggest concerns was that my face would be forever scarred and noticeably altered. In my mind, I could hide the emotional wounds from my assault, but the idea of having permanent visible scars felt like something I needed to fix and control. Enter Sephora, and the trip to Easton Towne Center that changed my life.
My mother is not a huge fan of makeup, and she never encouraged, nor taught me how to use it (mainly because she herself did not know how to put it on). About a week after I got my front teeth replaced, and the swelling of my face began to die down, we decided to go to Sephora, at the recommendation of one of my high femme makeup aficionado friends, @Morganism. This was the first time I had ever been to a Sephora, and I was immediately overwhelmed and self-conscious about the scabs on my face and my swollen lips.
As soon as the consultant saw me from across the room her eyes welled up with tears, and she called two other consultants over. The women at Sephora were very gentle and spoke softly, and brought various cover-up, foundation, and face creams to help hide and heal my facial wounds. I was very uncomfortable with the ease and knowledge with which they talked about how to hide bruises on the face. I mean, I know it is their job to know skin care and makeup, but to say, “this Laura Mercier cover up is specifically designed to cover face bruises, you know, if little old ladies slip on the ice and hit their face.” Right…
In fact, when faced with having to go back to teaching with a giant scar across my face, I would have done anything- paid anything- to have it covered. I wanted to protect myself from my students’ reactions. I wanted to feel like my old self, even though I would never be the same again.
In addition to helping me find the best products for my face, the consultants sent me home with a ton of bright lip color samples. They said that a bold lip would take attention away from my jaw. They were right. From that day on, I began my love affair with lippies.
Not to make light of the fact that there is a makeup industry designed to cover up and hide bruises, scarring, and other injuries one might have. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women worldwide will be sexually and/or physically attacked in her lifetime. We also know that transgender women face higher rates of violence compared to cisgender women. Violence against women is an epidemic in the U.S., as well as globally. That night I experienced it firsthand, but I am just one in millions of women to survive violence at the hands of men.
My love of fashion and hair has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. My relationship to makeup, on the other hand, is still in its puppy love stage. Watching makeup tutorials in the early months following my assault gave me an excuse to stare at myself in the mirror and look at the ways my face had shifted. It allowed me to be unabashedly narcissistic, which is what I needed during that time of healing. For me, it was part of my recovery. I wanted to feel beautiful, and when I could put on the Laura Mercier cover up that hid my scar I did.
Part of what motivated me to write this blog entry was a TED talk I listened to a few weeks ago about human endurance. It is funny that the podcast popped up on my feed just two days after the third anniversary of my assault. One of the speakers, Zainab Salbi, talked about her experiences of living and working in war zones throughout her life. As someone who lives in a post-conflict space, I was particularly interested in hear what she had to say about the lives of women in war.
While her talk bordered on essentializing and universalizing women’s experiences (sorry, I gotta invoke my feminist killjoy critique here), one aspect of her talk stuck with me in particular. An act of resistance during the darkest hours of war is finding laughter, singing songs, and doing small things to remind ourselves that we are beautiful humans.
Talking about her time in Sarajevo during the four year long siege, Salbi discussed the moment when she realized she took herself too seriously as a women’s rights activist in war. She did not realize that part of resistance to oppression and violence is to do what makes you feel human and whole. She said,
“I went into the besieged city and I said, what do you want me to bring you the next time I’m here? And the woman said, ‘lipstick.’ And I’m like, ‘lipstick?’ What are you talking about? Don’t you want, I don’t know, vitamins?… and they said ‘lipstick because, you know, it’s the smallest thing we put on every day and we feel we are beautiful and that is how we are resisting. They want us to feel that we are dead. They want us to feel that we are ugly.’ And one woman said, ‘I put the lipstick on every time I leave the house, because I want that sniper, before he shoots me, to know he is killing a beautiful woman.’ And I looked at her and I thought, that is how she is keeping her beauty. Who am I to take myself so seriously when they are keeping life going through beauty.”
I want to point out that I am not comparing what I went through as the same as or equal to living through a war. I have never lived in a war zone, and out of respect to those who have, I am not trying to equate our experiences. Rather, I am pointing to those moments in life when we do something as an act of resistance that makes us feel whole and human in the face of horrifying violence.
Salbi’s talk stuck with me, because that was my experience when I was in my darkest place. When I felt so much shame, guilt, self-loathing, and all of the other terrible feelings one who survives violence feels, I wanted most to feel like myself. I wanted to escape to a time pre-assault. I wanted to feel like I was beautiful again. Beauty, for me, was resistance. The ritual of putting on makeup was not only a ritual of self care, it also became part of my recovery and part of my resistance.
It was a fuck you to the boys that disfigured me. It was a fuck you to the patriarchal system that taught boys that they have rights over women’s bodies. It was a fuck you to the entire victim blaming and shaming that I endured following my assault. Fuck you.
I can be beautiful still. I am beautiful with my scars and my fake teeth. I am beautiful with PTSD and a fire that burns to topple misogyny and patriarchy and militarism. I can be opinionated and smart and loud and a feminist. I am allowed to be angry and say fuck you to the pieces of shit who commit acts of violence against others. I can walk two blocks alone at night, and I have the right to not be assaulted. Fuck you to violent masculinity. All women have the right to bodily freedom and self-determination. My body/ OUR bodies are not public property. They are not for anyone’s consumption. Fuck you if you disagree. We will fight for our freedom to not be assaulted, blamed, and shamed. We will keep living our lives and finding beauty in spite of the ugliness that is enacted upon us and our bodies. We will endure. We are resilient.
The love of and search for beautiful things and joy in life is still part of my resistance. Over the past three years my scar has faded and you can only see it in the summer if I get tan. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I used skin lightener and scar ointment to help it fade. I have finally gotten used to my falsies, and now I hardly notice any difference between my old and new teeth. I am still in therapy, and have my PTSD under as much control as possible. I still wear makeup, and I love trying new lipsticks when I can afford it.
I will forever be grateful to my family, friends and the women and men who supported me during that dark time. I will also forever be grateful to the ritual of putting on makeup, because of what it meant for me during my recovery. I will probably follow my mother’s lead and stop wearing makeup altogether some day, but I will remember my foray into learning how to do makeup as an integral part of my process of healing.
Patriarchy- We Don’t Need You