The shoot started off as a simple exploration of makeup – how we use it, how we don’t, how we love it, how we don’t. It’s a strange tension that unravels into latent discomfort the more I think about it. Why do I use makeup? If it’s empowering, why am I paying for it? The makeup industry feels so wrong and yet so right. It is both empowering and exploitative, deceptive and truthful. It’s also historically been pretty racist. Constructing a standard of beauty was the industry’s way of selling products, but it had to stay in line with current norms. As a result, women of colour were not allowed to be beautiful. I suppose this is why I still feel uncomfortable wearing it: if I’m buying into a structure that was created for white women, isn’t this simply layering white validation into my insecurities? And yet, brands like FENTY, women like Iman, photographers like Nadine Ijewere, have changed the game. Suddenly, makeup is a tool and not a disguise. I painstakingly layered shades of KIKO for Pink Ball, but flicked on some Glossier the next day: I’m using makeup, it’s not using me. Right?
This shoot was pure joy. We blasted Taio Cruz and Iyaz, and then someone told me I couldn’t control the music so we listened to Beyoncé instead. I wanted it to be about makeup and empowerment – choose your favourite look, show up, laugh, smile, dance and honestly just breathe. But through the day, as we huddled for warmth, blew on each other’s hands and shouted compliments at girls we’d never met; makeup became a much smaller part of this empowerment. I don’t really know how I feel about makeup yet: I still wear it when I know I have to chair a meeting, or speak to an audience. And I still worry that this empowers me because I am tapping into ‘white’ confidence, as opposed to finding my own.
I feel a bit stupid now though because on the shoot no one was even really thinking about makeup. It was fun, in an insolent way, and it was special, because it’s never been done before. We laughed all the way through and it felt good because I don’t think I often believe I am allowed to feel good here. In this sense, it was the most disruptive thing I’ve done. Leela
“Institutional racism thrives on women of colour not loving themselves or being confident in who they are, so acts of self-love and self-expression are threatening, and are in many ways, resistance. The act of putting on my makeup is self-reliant and cathartic. To me, a bold red lip screams Latina, beautiful, powerful, unafraid.” Nohely
“I’m ambivalent about makeup; I’m fully aware that when I use it I probably subconsciously do so to participate in the system so to speak, and conform to conventional beauty standards. My (very sparse and nonexistent) eyebrows are one insecurity for instance – I haven’t really figured out how to work with them and look sufficiently “good” without filling them in. That hints at the wider problem undergirding my relationship with makeup – that I think I have to look “acceptable” whatever the heck that means although I’d really rather skip the 10 minutes in my morning routine. That said I think makeup is definitely a beautiful medium for play and art. It’s just a pity that aspect of it can be so suppressed in everyday life.” Rachel
“I love using makeup and it’s part of my everyday routine, but I hate most of the industry surrounding makeup. The fact that advertising preys on female insecurities is gross, and something that makes me think twice about the brands I support.” Zehra
“makeup gives me the chance to highlight the things I like about myself and literally put my best face forward. Which is really nice for me on days where chronic illness wants to keep me in bed because it gives me a push to get out and about because my face can’t be wasted.” Myra
“I totally agree about the days where it’s so hard to get out of bed! As someone with depression and who struggles with motivation, makeup gives me that ‘fake it til you make it’ attitude, especially as a woc living in a world which has so many ways of putting you down or making you doubt yourself.” Henna
“People want to see women of colour as a single entity but makeup is a space in which literally every look is unique and nothing looks the same on any two people, it’s very much about the individual and personal agency.” Myra
“I think of make up as a form of paint. I use it to alter the way I look. Not because I have any issues of self-esteem about my face, but just because it gives me the option to have a different one on different days. If I’m feeling strong, loving, creative, whatever, I can literally reflect that through my face with make up. It’s like having subtitles to your body language. It’s a form of communication for me.” Toni
“The fact that women of colour are empowering themselves through makeup and redefining beauty standards is great but I’m frustrated by the fact that the discourse is still centered around beauty as worth. Why do women need to be beautiful at all? Why do we dedicate so much time, money, and emotion just to vindicate, like, every man who’s ever lived? Every woman is so alienated from her body because we don’t own it and its perception. It just reminds me of Fiona Apple muttering “there’s no hope for women” over and over again – sisters and non-binary kids, we have nothing to lose but our chains. At the same time, no matter how much I personally try to transcend the shackles of womanhood I can’t help but depend on the validation of my appearance because I’m still coded as a woman every time I go outside. I’ve worn eyeliner since I was 12 to “compensate” for my monolids and I probably won’t stop anytime soon. Looks like the only way we can be free is to completely dismantle the system and reboot society as Lesbians living in matriarchal agricultural communes, using men only for reproduction. Let’s see how they like it.” Jiaqi
“I personally really love wearing bright eyeshadow colours especially after growing up believing that people of colour couldn’t wear bright colours and instead should wear darker colours. But I’ve realised that everyone can do what they want with their makeup. I like coordinating my makeup with my outfits.” Sadiyah
“I was in the school choir for almost 6 years, so stage makeup was something I’d grown up familiar with. For the longest time, however, I thought makeup wasn’t for me because the foundations and concealers used were always 5 shades too light. It was only recently that I matched my correct shade and grew to have a more positive and healthier relationship with my use of makeup.” Eliza
Photography by Kirsty Fabiyi and Antonio Perricone. Production and Words by Leela Jadhav. Featuring Toni Busuttil, Eliza Chee, Daffodil Dhayaa, Henna Khanom, Jiaqi Kang, Karishma Paun, Keisha Asare, Laila March, Mrinmoyee Roy, Myra Ali, Nohely Peraza, Rachel Qiu Ke Xin, Sadiyah Diallo-Geny, Safia Harji, Sanjana Gunasekaran, Shoma Dhar, Yuhong Wang and Zehra Munir