Forty-one per cent of the population now regularly use beauty products to feel better about themselves. But is this routine an act of self-love, or simply papering over cracks in our self esteem? Lara Williams investigates. 

YouGov, the international online market research firm, recently launched the results of their report into the mindsets of people when it comes to maintaining their appearance. The report, titled The Beautiful People, was inspired by a desire to understand how our lives are governed by the “eternal quest to both look physically attractive and to stay young”.

Using data and analytics collated from over 100,000 participants online, the report found 32 per cent of the population aim to look their very best when leaving the house, while 41 per cent regularly use beauty products to feel better about themselves.

It seems keeping up appearances has never been more important, but what do we mean when we say we are invested in the way we look? Can regularly using beauty products mean more than we simply care about looking beautiful—whatever that means? And could it be considered an act of self-care?

The idea of self-care was created by writer and feminist Audre Lorde. “Caring for myself is not an indulgence,” she wrote, in her seminal 1988 book A Burst of Light. “It is self-preservation and an act of political warfare”. A black lesbian poet, Lorde was talking in staunchly political terms and there is an argument that her definition of self-care has been co-opted to sell expensive beauty products, that it has become diluted and exclusionary.

Read more: Could housework be the secret to good self-care?


Spending time to take care of yourself

Sarah Unwin, an arts producer and programmer based in the North West, believes it has been slightly co-opted, but that this does not detract from its original meaning.

“To me, self-care is essential maintenance,” she tells me. “And a beauty regime definitely qualifies as self-care. For me, beauty is about taking control of how you look, and that control directly correlates to your mental well-being.”

Unwin’s thoughts on self-care have changed since she was diagnosed with a rare condition called Hemiplegic Migraine. This condition is a migraine variant which mimics many of the symptoms of a stroke; manifesting as temporary weakness on one side of the body when experiencing a migraine attack.



"When I have less control over my own body,

the fact that I can still do my hair

and put on my favourite lipstick holds

significant value"



“The illness rendered me unable to work and required me to use a walking stick to get around,” Unwin says. “I used to feel that taking time out to take care of myself was a selfish thing to do. The fact that I didn’t take self-care and look after myself seriously was a significant trigger for the condition, and I have had to throw all my initial preconceptions about self-care out of the window and make it an essential part of my daily routine as a part of my rehabilitation.”

How Unwin might get ready for the day depends very much on her, and she describes how she might pop to the supermarket in a vintage frock and faux diamond earrings if she’s having an especially gloomy day.

“During episodes of my illness, when I have less control over my own body, the fact that I can still do my hair and put on my favourite lipstick holds significant value,” she says. “It gives me agency over an unruly body and it means I can still be me.”


Making it a routine

Leah Cowdry is an art teacher based in the East Midlands. She views self-care via a beauty routine or wearing makeup as a mode of expression; and is also attuned to her status as a potential role model for her students.

“I do wear a lot of makeup,” she tells me. “But it’s not warpaint or worn as a disguise. I’m comfortable in my own skin. And my appearance is part of my identity.”

Cowdry admits to being very shy at school, with “zero” self-confidence; she believes self-care, self-love and personal acceptance were the tools used to overcome that. She believes there is something about the routine of a beauty regime that might qualify, say, a favourite face mask or applying your chosen nail varnish, as an act of self-care.



"I do wear a lot of makeup,
but it’s not warpaint 
or worn as a disguise"



“I have a daily routine,” she says. “That's important for me. It's important because it helps me to wake up, have a positive mindset, feel prepared for the day, and ready to give my all in a job that I love.”

While Cowdry admits to getting something out of wearing makeup or taking time to look after her skin, she believes her school’s policy of not allowing the girls to wear makeup is legitimate.

“We want them to feel comfortable, to accept that everyone is different, and to not feel they have to grow up so quickly. I set lessons based around body positivity, and we talk about self-care in the sense of getting a good night’s sleep and having a healthy lifestyle.”

Though she adds tellingly “Let them have five years away from conforming to the standards which are, a lot of the time, set by men.”


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