Wednesday, 20 April 2016

First experiences of beauty

As part of this work in Paris, I've been exploring how beauty fits into a woman's life (sorry boys) at different ages. I started to reflect on my own experience and realised that, even as someone who's never highly prioritised appearance, the influences have been there almost right from the beginning.

In early childhood I remember being keenly interested in my mother's makeup bag, watching her apply lipstick and blush in the front room mirror and of course wanting to emulate her. I also remember receiving toys with plastic lipsticks and 'make your doll pretty' instructions.

The 'Barbie Loves Beauty' styling head is recommended for girls aged 3 years +

On my tenth birthday, I had a group of friends from school join me at the local ice skating rink. My boyfriend gave me a bunch of daffodils while one of my female friends gave me a makeup compact, much to my mother's horror. I remember being surprised that it would be allowed, but delighted because birthday presents were a binding contract of ownership!
Makeup compacts designed especially for the beauty-conscious child

I do remember that, by the time I was 11, I had read enough magazines and seen enough adverts on TV to know that a woman has to use moisturising cream to keep looking young. I thought that, by starting really early, I would mature into the youngest-looking woman in the world. So I started using some of Mum's skincare products whenever I spotted them in the bathroom. As I rubbed the creams and serums into my face, I would imagine a future where I would be interviewed for my beauty secrets.

Isabella Rossellini told me to do it!

Starting senior school at 11, I was teased for having hairy legs and begged my mother for the equipment needed to start shaving them. I also thought my eyebrows were too hairy and tried to shave those off... and logic told me that if you shaved your legs then surely you must also shave the hair from your arms..?

Of course as a teenager it was all magazines and peer pressure, makeup tips and images of young models with perfect skin. I'd steal goodies from Mum's bag and collect free samples... I guess if I was a teenager now I'd be watching videos on YouTube and reading beauty blogs, trying out all the different techniques.

Anyway, on reflection, it seems that I've spent my entire life being shaped by the world of beauty, even if I did resist it as I grew older and my priorities changed.

And now maybe I'm part of that system... I go to children's parties as a face painter, with a book full of ideas themed on favourite films, superheroes, animals... but so frequently the girls will ask to be made up like Miley Cyrus or other favourite celebrities, with coloured lipsticks and black eyeliner.

How was it for you? Did you also have dolls, books, things to influence you as a small child, or did the 'pretty priority' come later? Do you have children now and do you see them being influenced?

Friday, 15 April 2016

Changing Faces II

Another week, another four looks!

The routine is becoming more habitual now... but am I getting any closer to 'beautiful'?

Monday - soft pinks and gloss, hair down and straight

Tuesday - dark violet eye shading, matte brown lips, hair half up

Wednesday - neutral eyes, gloss red lips, hair pinned up

Thursday - green eyes, orange lips, hair in a side braid

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Is it all just wank?

This week is proving difficult. To understand the luxury market I've been diving into the most prestigious stores Paris has to offer. I've been sampling perfumes that all smell like hotel soap to me, marvelling at eyeshadow compacts priced at $140 a pop, and been approached by waif-like French girls in smocks who spout barely pronounceable epithets of 'creative directors' as though I should fall at their feet on hearing such hallowed names.

The most exclusive boutiques at the Palais Royal
Yes, I appreciate that this is a rather odd definition of 'difficult'.

The truth is that I'd rather abseil down the Eiffel tower naked during an electrical storm than take a single step over one of these store's thresholds in my normal day-to-day life. Getting too close to the price devoid, sparsely populated, confusingly mirrored showrooms starts my heart pumping with fear and dread in a way that nothing else can.

I know I said at the start of this adventure that I'd throw myself whole-heartedly into the discovery of a different culture, but it's just so much larger a leap than I've ever had to make before. In this shiny new world I listen to perfectly manicured men and women launch their practised monologues on the subjects of 'couture', 'exclusivite' and 'brand DNA' and, the moment my concentration wavers, it turns into 'WANKER, I'M A WANKER, SUCH A BOURGEOISE WANKY WANKER!'.

Is it just me? I've felt comfortable in so many other cultures. In Japanese nerd culture, in death metal culture, in acute mental health wards and in third-world villages... all have made sense to me and I've found an immediate joy in learning my role in each one. But this?

I've read that in luxury fashion over 50% of all purchases are returned to the store. Apparently people go to highly expensive outlets for the experience of being treated like a wealthy, glamorous individual. They enjoy the process of choosing an item (or having it chosen for them), of fitting, of packaging and of payment - perhaps even a free gift thrown in - but have little or no interest in owning the final product long-term.

Apparently they also have the balls to go back in there and request a refund.

Shops where you wouldn't DREAM of browsing through the clothes on display

Luxury beauty (makeup, perfume etc) seems to be a more accessible version of this... people go in there to be advised, even to be given a facial makeover, without having to splash out the thousands of dollars that might otherwise be required. But still the position of monetary power apparently turns some people rude to the point of abusive. Highly dedicated shop assistants have their sleeves tugged and even their hair pulled by customers who believe themselves to be above the laws of basic human decency.

And, in the meantime, people in highly-polished office blocks separated from it all wax lyrical in overly long meetings served by coiffured baristas about how their employer's brand, identity, heritage and desirability give them licence to spend shareholder funds on elaborate marketing campaigns that loosely connect their mass-produced articles with some higher human aspiration.

What am I missing? I want to get this, I really do... how can I start to appreciate what others already do, even to become one of them? What's the key to turning off the 'Wank Alarm' and becoming a member of the luxury elite?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Are men missing out?

So, I've been spending the last week or so working in Beauty in Paris. I've been interviewing women about their beauty choices, reading about how mothers deal with introducing beauty regimes to their daughters, and I've even undergone a makeover myself.

Having my face 'done' by an expert

But there's one voice that I've yet to hear: that of men.

It makes absolute sense to me that men should be just as interested in their visual appearance as women. It's not as though there's no historical basis for men using makeup. We'll avoid diving back to the Ancient Egyptians or the Renaissance for the moment and stick to the 20th and 21st centuries... Obvious examples like David Bowie and Boy George continue the idea of makeup is a feminine trait whilst celebrating their gender-spanning artistry. But who ever thought Elvis Presley effeminate for wearing black mascara to accentuate his baby blues? Or Johnny Depp less of a man when he portrayed the heavily made-up Jack Sparrow? Male style icons have used makeup throughout the decades and used it to set the standard for facial attractiveness.

Now, in this new millennium where gender has moved from a binary choice to a fluid spectrum and where a man can be the brand ambassador for a line of luxury womenswear, it seems only logical that makeup use should be normalised amongst our masculine friends.

Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith) modelling a very expensive skirt ensemble with his female colleagues

It certainly doesn't seem to be something that's talked about openly, unless you're a young vlogger on a mission, but there's much evidence to suggest that 'grooming products' like tinted moisturisers, bronzing powders and beard-filling pencils are on the rise. They're sold by specialist providers and I've seen them in men's bathroom cabinets (Airbnb hosts, do you really expect us not to look?). But I've never heard them mentioned in conversations.

YouTube's Beauty Boy (link above) publishes tutorials on how to get that 'no makeup' look

And, perhaps most surprising, the big makeup brands are not capitalising on it. You can walk into a prestigious beauty store in Paris and head straight for the men's fragrances, but those delectable little coloured pods on the other side of the room are clearly marked NOT FOR YOU.

So what do you say, chaps - are you being massively overlooked? Is makeup something that appeals, or indeed something you already like to indulge in? Are there still stigmas that prevent you giving it a go, or would you rather steer clear of the whole thing altogether?

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Changing Faces

Four days in and I've been learning so much about what beauty and makeup means to women across France! It seems that everyone has a 'look' that they wear and which makes them feel comfortable.

So I've been trying out a few of my own. Below are four pictures, one taken each day this week Monday-Thursday, and each using a different combination of makeup and hairstyles.

Which do you like?


Hair carefully curled with straighteners and pinned up both sides. Foundation, eyebrow pencil, liquid black eyeliner and light brown lipstick. Grey and cream knitted dress.


Hair pinned up on one side. Foundation, black liquid eyeliner and bright red lipstick. Retro silver-framed glasses and lime green knitted jumper with pencil skirt.


Hair in loose waves. Soft brown eyeliner, blush and brown lipliner with a gloss. Teal blue long-sleeved dress and silver necklace.


Hair in french plait (apparently here it's an African plait!). Foundation, concealer, dark violet eyeliner and mascara with a light green eyeshadow on the lash line... clear lip gloss. Sheer leopard print blouse with pencil skirt and gold necklace.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

I've never been to Paris

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, the much romanticised city of Paris has always been within easy reach. Such easy reach, in fact, that it takes quite some avoiding.

As a soppy teenage girl, of course, I read magazines and absorbed television dramas in which girls just a few years older than I would be whisked off their feet and taken on a surprise trip to 'gay Paris', to dance among the fairy-lit trees, to sip on delicate cocktails... and of course to engage in arousing embrace atop the Eiffel Tower.

Remember when Lisa off Hollyoaks got taken to Paris in a helicopter?

Why would I want to spoil that opportunity by going there myself first? When my man came along and flew me to the French capital it would be the first time my eyes ever beheld it, and it would be the most magical experience of my life.


Any teenage girls reading this, allow me to impart one snippet of wisdom from my now deeply cynical thirty-something-year-old pool of experience: never wait for someone else to make your dreams come true.

So now I'm finally going. It's not entirely by design - I asked to pick up a project somewhere in Europe for a month or two and, when my assignment to Brussels Airport went wrong, Paris was next on the list. I'm needed for 8 weeks to work with a luxury brand on their makeup division. And while that sounds like the dream of many a young woman with a love of beauty products it's a little outside my comfort zone.

Let me tell you a little about me:

My favourite shop in the world is Matalan Clearance in Newport, Wales (see below). If I want to treat myself to a designer dress or handbag, I visit the nearest charity shop or - at a push - eBay. But most of the time I'm happy to just pull together an outfit based on whatever I can find - the more colourful and quirky the better.

Everything's £1 at Matalan Clearance!

I don't wear makeup every day, although I'm capable of wielding a lipstick when necessary. I'm pretty sure the rouge I'm using now was originally stolen from my Mum's bag around the same time as I was pouring over those vacuous girls' magazines. I'm about two stone (28lbs) overweight. My nails are often stained from kids' facepaint or Copic markers, my hair gets cut once a year and my beauty secret is that I occasionally have to shave my big toe.

I'm happy with all of that. It's me - it perfectly suits my priorities. I care about learning new things, expanding my horizons, looking out for others and doing work that positively impacts human lives. My recent projects have been focused on better delivery of government services, on finding ways to include people often left behind, and on seeking out new opportunities for communities in developing countries. I am immensely proud of that work and I don't care that I look like this doing it:

Zipping around the Solomon Islands with my colleague Joyce

But that's not going to work in Paris. This will be another new experience for me, another opportunity to learn and to develop, by immersing myself into Parisian culture and into a different type of society, one that values outward appearance and luxury, and I intend to fully embrace that.

So today the transformation must begin. Day by day I'll be learning more about the world of beauty and making changes to myself that will allow me to better understand it. I'll be embarking on a journey from double-chinned feminist hippy to glamorous Parisian femme.

Enjoy the ride!