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MADE UP: Chronic fatigue syndrome and makeup
By Isheeka Goswami
Isheeka Goswami is a writer and dressmaker from Sydney, Australia.
If you were to meet me on the street (and here we are talking only hypothetically; I seldom go out), you would not suspect that I have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I look awake and fresh, spots of colour on each cheek, my eyelids shimmering with sparkle. “You look great,” my friends and family often tell me.
I don’t mean to brag. It’s just that after years of training (watching YouTube videos) and investment (spending a lot of money at Sephora), I have become something of a makeup aficionado. I can tell from a photo of a swatch on a disembodied arm whether a particular bronze eyeshadow is by Marc Jacobs or Hourglass. I can recommend to you the perfect shade of sheer Gucci lipstick depending on your colouring. And, as you can imagine, I am very good at making it look like I don’t have CFS. So a little compliment here or there doesn’t go amiss.
In 2014 I came down with glandular fever which, over the course of months, failed to really get better. I was eventually told I had CFS, a diagnosis of last resort when the doctors found themselves otherwise unable to explain why I constantly felt an awful combination of feverish and hungover.
I was a junior lawyer at the time, trying to work my way up the government lawyer ladder (which, yes, is as exciting as it sounds), but CFS kept getting in the way. More often than not I found myself lying on my sofa, too sick to go to work, ensconced in a dressing gown, watching makeup tutorials on YouTube for want of energy with which to do anything else. Listless and frustrated, I saw my friends and colleagues pass me by while I convalesced. I forced myself to work, to try to keep up—and I worked more than I should have, my throat on fire, my lymph nodes the size of golf balls. On paper, I was hitting every target, but my immune system seemed to think I was dying. I always ended up back on the couch, watching those makeup videos, my dressing gown sad and coffee-stained.
After years of frankly rather traumatic forays into graded exercise therapy (a sham), immunology appointments (a very expensive sham), psychology (great but surprisingly doesn’t reduce inflammation in one’s lymph nodes) and gradual returns to work (laughable in the face of CFS’s innate unpredictability), I discovered that there is one thing and one thing alone that helps me when I’m in a flare-up: retail therapy. I’m kidding. It’s rest. Feet on the couch, all day pyjamas rest. And it was when I was at my most unwell, taking all that rest, that the “beauty community” became my escape. The community is made up of swathes of people—mostly women—who keep up with new makeup releases, who post swatches and tutorials and reviews on Instagram and YouTube and Reddit. Many of them receive tranches of makeup products for free. Some are paid to tell their viewers how very volumizing this mascara is, how dewy and ‘skin-like’ that cream blush is.
At the time, this is what I looked like: acne-ridden, sallow skin; dark circles around sunken eyes; broken nails; hair falling out like it was going out of style. Having worked myself to the bone, with no energy left for hobbies or socialising, I felt rather sorry for myself. And I was watching these makeup tutorials in which everyone’s skin radiated with a beautiful clarity and their lips were painted in chic shades of plum and toffee. Like a child, I was overcome by the desire for a treat, to have the toys that the other kids had. I didn’t deserve CFS, but I had it, so I felt I deserved something good to balance the scales.
So I bought my first eyeshadow palette, the original Naked palette by Urban Decay, a product I’d learned about on YouTube. I remember it cost $83, but I’d told myself it would be my one and only. Fast forward to today and I have 21 eyeshadow palettes, and I’d rather die than calculate how much money I’ve spent on them all. I have single eyeshadows, too, and cream eyeshadows, eyeshadow sticks, eyeliners, glitters—every conceivable thing you could put on an eyelid. I am, at this very moment, wearing the type of eyeshadow only fellow makeup obsessives would have heard of: an indie, duochrome, pink-to-green, high-glitter, single eyeshadow, alluringly named Fantasy Creatures. I am, at this very moment, a fantasy creature.
Coincidentally—or not—it was in this period of heightened anguish, illness and spiralling makeup consumption that I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. It is, in a nutshell, a devastating treatise on how the beauty industry encourages women to spend disproportionate amounts of time, energy and money on makeup and skincare while leaving men free to enjoy the patriarchy, and it made me feel like a sucker. I immediately became determined to be a more serious, career-driven intellectual, so for some weeks I decided to wear not a speck of makeup. I felt very feminist; I was sticking it to the man! But every day that I worked made my CFS symptoms worse. I clutched onto anything that promised, or even suggested, to make me feel better, and nothing was more suggestive than makeup.
As a junior lawyer trying to get more interesting, challenging opportunities to prove my worth, it no longer felt very smart to turn up to work looking the way I felt: exhausted, feverish, vaguely infectious. Who would entrust someone like that with an important assignment? Covering it all up with foundation and lipstick helped me to blend in with the dozens of other young lawyers who were gunning for the same opportunities. Admittedly, I was feeding into the assumption that women can’t be taken seriously unless they look a certain way. But I did look capable. You might say I looked able.
I think it’s time I re-read The Beauty Myth. (To be honest, I’ve forgotten most of it—CFS has really done a number on my memory.) I have realised, in the course of writing this essay, that makeup is one of the few things I do every day, without fail. There’s brushing my teeth in the morning (though not always at night, if I’m particularly ill and my tonsils cry out at the sight of a toothbrush). There’s baby-talking to my cat (essential). There’s checking Instagram (compulsive). And there’s wearing makeup. I don’t exercise, write or read every day, but I have come to rely on makeup. I can’t see myself without it, and don’t like to see myself without it.
The problem is that same energy could be spent doing the work needed to resist the systems that oppress people like me: women, people of colour, people with illnesses and disabilities. It could be spent advocating for more research on CFS. It could be spent applying for the disability support pension. But where that work is hard, watching a video on eyeliner technique is easy. Where that work can be unrewarding and fail to result in change, there is no denying the immediate, transformative power of a red lip. And I’m not alone: there’s that whole beauty community behind me, so many other women devoted to an industry that places the foremost value on how they look.
The hope is that my investment in makeup will reap rewards where CFS has robbed me. Though I no longer earn an income, though I struggle to meet new people, though my ability to create and exercise and stretch myself intellectually is curtailed by this amorphous, all-compassing illness, maybe, just maybe, I can command some respect, claim some status, simply by virtue of my impeccable personal grooming.
My dependence on makeup is somewhat hypocritical in that I often wish CFS weren’t so invisible. There is a unique pain and humiliation in telling people—particularly doctors—who think you look fine that, actually, you are not fine. I feel self-pitying, petulant, defiant, a liar. I feel like a kid who’s trying to get the day off school by pretending to be sick, except I’m an adult and I don’t actually want the day off because then I don’t get paid.
But on the other hand, when someone grasps the full extent of my CFS—oh, the pity with which they treat me! It is somehow so much worse than the pity I feel for myself, the sorrow I bandaid with an online order from Beautylish. The few times I’ve revealed my usually hidden, chronically fatigued self (no makeup, depressed, covered in cat hair, probably un-showered) to family members, they’ve later sent me a text offering to come over, cook for me, clean for me: an outpouring of concern when they have seen how ill I am. It is simultaneously heartening and humiliating. By contrast, how simple and affirming it is to be told, “You look great!”
In this way, makeup is a double-edged lie. The first lie is one I tell the world: that I look great, and therefore I feel great. Harmless; superficial; everyone does it. But the thing is, I often forget that I’m pretending. I now fake it so well that the made-up me feels like the real me, and when I take my makeup off at the end of the day I get a rude shock. And that’s the second, more insidious lie: the lie I tell myself. Because why would I accept help from friends, apply for disability support, do whatever else a person with CFS might do to make ends meet, unless I believe that I need support in the first place—unless I have accepted that I am less than able? The person I look like doesn’t need it: she is a fantasy creature. She looks great.
Whole post reading by Jenni Pettican