I went to a lovely event the other day with a friend. It might seem strange to describe it as lovely, as the friend and I have both had cancer* and the event was hosted at the Haven, the breast cancer centre in West London, a place most people would pay good money never to have to visit. So maybe not your ordinary definition of a fab day out, then – but still, that’s what it was.
We were there for a Look Good, Feel Better workshop. What a brilliant charity LGFB is (its acronym is quite easy to confuse with LGBT, which as Child 2 would say is a Whole Different Thing). Cancer and the treatments used to fight it can be so dehumanising. You become used to being looked at as a problem, a collection of symptoms and horrible malfunctions to be cut, zapped, drugged and, we all hope, cured. The treatment I have had has been fantastic, and has included psychological support, aromatherapy and now even a mindfulness course. I love the NHS to bits. But I still want to be the person I was before. I am lucky (probably – ask me in ten years and if I can’t answer we’ll have to agree I wasn’t lucky) not to have had chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so my appearance hasn’t been radically changed. I felt a little bit of a fraud attending the course – I have hair, eyebrows and eyelashes and my face is pretty much the same as ever. But I am a great believer in the power of makeup and was dying to see how LGFB worked.
There were about eight of us, all women, all different ages, at varying stages of treatment. We did that female thing of bonding quickly – from being total strangers we were rapidly hooting like a hen party, because, after all, we had something pretty major in common. Yes, none of us really understood foundation. The grown-ups in the room, keeping order, keeping us happy and definitely failing to keep us quiet, were three kind make-up artists who had volunteered their time to help us out.
As most women are firmly stuck in a rut with their make-up, and I most definitely am, I thought it would be really interesting to learn some new tricks. I think a lot of us experiment heavily as teenagers, find a look that vaguely works, then keep on applying it every morning relentlessly for ever more. When I was young, I remember seeing elderly ladies with perfect round coins of coral blusher in the middle of their cheeks. It was a look that was hugely on trend in the 1930s, maybe not so great in the 1980s. Was I still sporting distinctive 1990s eyeliner today? A frightening thought. I’m definitely doing it differently now.
But there is a more serious purpose to the proceedings than just updating a look. Putting on make-up for many women is a way of gearing up to face the world. For good or ill, a bit of a boost from our favourite lipstick makes us feel more confident and ready to take on the stresses and strains of life. If we are temporarily without hair or eyebrows, then make-up becomes more important still. People do look and stare at those who appear different – we all just do, we can’t help it, we are innately curious. If you know you are looking as good as you can, you are a little bit more ready to take on this unwanted, unasked-for attention, on top of everything else that is thrown at you with a cancer diagnosis.
Here are the main points from the tutorial:
- If you warm moisturiser or foundation in your palm before applying, you will need less.
- Concealer should be dotted on in three spots under the eye, then blended with the ring finger (fourth finger)
- Foundation should be dotted on in five places (forehead, cheeks, chin, nose) then blended with fingers or a brush.
- Blusher should be applied to the apple of the cheek, when you smile, and should go upwards along the cheekbone a little way (not like those stripes of colour we used to love back in the day)
- Powder should be applied after cream blusher but before powder blusher. Use it lightly in the T zone (forehead, nose, chin) avoiding any wrinkly areas as it will draw attention to them
- Eyeliner should always flick upwards a little, though only do a real cat flick if you are young and/or brave. Just blend a lot if you are old/scared
- Mascara should be added mostly to the outer top lashes, for day, bottom lashes as well for the evening. If you push the lashes up after applying, they set in place in a pleasingly uplifted fashion. Don’t agitate the brush in the mascara tube to try and scrape excess gunk off it – you will just introduce air to the container which will dry up the mascara. Mascara should be replaced every six months anyway.
- Eyebrows – this was a crucial lesson for many of the ladies and is not easy even if you are an expert. To find out where they should go, take your eyebrow pencil and rest it against the side of your nose. Your starting point is where the pencil hits your browbone above your eye socket. Now move the pencil in an arc so that it runs from the side of your nostril to the outer edge of your eye. The point where it crosses the browbone should be your stopping point. To build up natural looking brows, use a pencil a shade darker than your hair and softly draw the separate hairs back in, smudging as you go. It’s amazing how natural this can look – my friend is brilliant at it.
- Lips. Apparently lip liner is back, though I am still scarred by the Naomi Campbell dark liner/pale lip of my youth. If you are bold, you can go just outside the natural lipline to enhance a bit, then fill in with lipstick, blot and reapply.
We were each given a huge bag of new cosmetics each to play with, containing full-sized products generously donated by manufacturers like Clinique, Avon, Chanel, Lancome and Estee Lauder. It was just like Christmas. I got to try out loads of things I haven’t used before, some of which I absolutely loved and would recommend, so I’ll do a review in the next few days.
I think we all learned something, even if it was not to take ourselves too seriously – it’s hard not to laugh when you’re daubed with every colour of foundation under the sun. I thought the most special moment was when we persuaded one of our number to ditch her wig and instead embrace her new growth of hair, soft, short and fragile after the rigours of chemo, but very beautiful. It was like watching Spring breaking through after a nasty tough old Winter had done its worst.
*I hesitated about using the past tense here but I think it’s right. Touch wood.