First I apply primer, to keep the makeup from getting too oily. I start at my hairline and work my way down to my chin. The hair on my brows is scarce and light, so I shade my eyebrows in with brown pencil to make them full and dark. After that, I put concealer on my acne scars and any other spots or imperfections. I blend it in, and let it dry. Then I smooth foundation over my whole face.
After this base is complete, I paint on my eyeliner. I place the felt tip in the corner of my eye and drag it out, lifting it upward to create a wing. Then mascara and finally clear lip gloss. I look in the mirror and feel confident enough to walk out of my house.
From 2nd to 8th grade, kids at school bullied me and called me ugly because I had a keloid on my ear. A keloid is scar tissue that doesn’t know when to stop growing. A heap of flesh the size of a golf ball and the shape of a small brain hung from the top of my ear.
When I was 10 and still had the keloid, my Aunt Tammy visited from the South. She pulled me aside and said, “Sweetie, you are beautiful on the inside, no matter how you look on the outside.” I nodded as tears welled up: I knew what she was trying to tell me.
Later that evening, my mother said angrily, “Don’t you ever allow anyone to call you ugly. Haven’t I taught you any better? You are beautiful on the inside and out.” Her comfort was a small bandage, but my aunt’s words continued to sting.
I went into foster care when I was 11. Even though my mother neglected me, she had always told me I was beautiful, and I missed that. In my first few years of foster care, my foster mother didn’t do my hair or take me shopping for clothes. The majority of my clothes were hand-me-downs from her daughters. My middle school had a strict dress code, and my foster mother ordered only one uniform shirt. I washed it out by hand every night.
The Least Important
When I was 13, my foster care agency agreed to pay for surgery to remove the keloid. After that, the boys who made fun of how my ear looked started to pay more attention to me. Kids at school stopped calling me “the girl with the thing on her ear” and started to call me by my actual name. I rejected the attention of people who’d bullied me, but I did feel better about myself. My ear no longer defined me. When I met new people, I didn’t have to worry about them asking what caused the deformity.
When I turned 17, though, my skin broke out. I popped pimples without washing my hands first and then I didn’t use any acne creams or ointments to wash my face afterwards. This led to dark scarring on my face. Again, I wanted to hide.
I started dating Jacob when I was 18. I didn’t wear any makeup then, and he still thought I was pretty. Part of me felt like he was the only guy who would ever want me. I often feel like the least important person in the room because no one really notices me. I try to counteract that by telling myself that I have some sort of importance, some sort of purpose. I believe God placed me on Earth for a reason.
I confided in Jacob and told him that I was a virgin. He told me we would wait until whenever I felt ready to have sex. We kissed and made out a lot. I enjoyed making out, but I wasn’t ready to go any further. I thought he would respect that.
After two months, though, he started to push and insult me. He said I was a tease and that he was getting tired of it. Either we were going to have sex or he’d know I didn’t care about him the way he cared about me.
I finally gave in. I knew I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to have sex that day. I had even told him before our make-out session that I did not want it to lead to sex. But he pushed his way into me, and once it was in, I stopped saying no because I’d lost my virginity already.
Afterwards, he asked me why I was crying and I told him it was because it hurt. It did hurt, but I was crying because I wondered if what had just happened was rape.
I Liked Me Better
Right after that, Jacob broke up with me. I felt stupid and hurt. I also wondered if he’d have stayed around if I were prettier.
One of my older cousins noticed my heartbreak. She wanted to make me feel better so she took me to get my eyebrows done for the very first time. I got them threaded and it hurt like hell but they were so neat afterwards. Then she did my hair.
I saw my eyebrows and realized all they did at the salon was slightly alter them to bring out the arch. I did look better. “What if I made them a little darker?” I thought. Eventually I purchased an eyebrow pencil and did just that.
A week later, I saw Jacob again.
“Did you do your eyebrows?” he asked.
“You should do them more often. It looks better.”
We started texting again, quickly escalating to “good morning” texts every day. I felt relieved that he wanted me back. I’d always imagined myself marrying the person I lost my virginity to.
He told me he was sorry and that he missed me. I didn’t know much about relationships and hadn’t had any great examples growing up. Jacob had so much more experience than me. I just wanted to be pretty enough for him. Like an idiot I gave myself to him once more, and once again we were a couple.
He seemed to like me better after I started doing things to alter my appearance. I liked me better, too. I felt more secure and less vulnerable. But a month later, I found out he’d been cheating on me with several girls. This left me feeling like I was never enough for him in the first place.
But it took another mean remark to really get me into makeup. One of my buddies said about the dark circles under my eyes, “I don’t like those bags; you’d be prettier without them.” I don’t know why she said that. It made me feel terrible. I bought some makeup to cover up the circles but I didn’t know what I was doing.
A Blank Canvas
I got better at it though, through experimentation and also by watching makeup tutorials on YouTube. At first, it was mostly for fun. It reminded me of painting a blank canvas. By the time I was 19, I was wearing a full face of makeup every day.
I studied pictures and videos of people I found beautiful, like model/actress Cara Delevingne. She has really thick eyebrows, and I tried to make mine look like hers. I did this by filling my brows in dark and thick with an eyebrow pencil, but it looked weird. I realized that I shouldn’t try to imitate someone else. Now when I do my eyebrows I just follow their original line and darken them.
I told myself that I was only wearing makeup because it was fun, but I started to need it to feel beautiful. It disguises the circles under my eyes and hides the acne scars that I am ashamed of. I wish I could feel beautiful without makeup.
Last year, my older sister and her boyfriend set me up with his little brother Anthony. We started off by texting each other, and it turned out we had a ton in common. We listened to the same music, had sketchbooks that we drew in, enjoyed literature, and both smoked weed.
Dating him played a small part in helping me figure out who I am. I didn’t feel like I had to change myself to be accepted by him. He told me I was beautiful with or without makeup and that my heart is pure. This should have encouraged me to wear less makeup. But I feared that if I didn’t look good, he’d end up cheating on me.
Not All In My Head
Thinking I need to be pretty is not all in my head. There are reasons so many women wear makeup. Being pretty brings acceptance, respect, even power. You get a greater chance at jobs and other opportunities.
I don’t want to wear so much makeup anymore, but I don’t feel pretty without it. I want to look in the mirror and be content with who is staring back at me. When I look pretty I feel more confident that I can overcome anything, and as a 20-year-old in foster care facing aging out, I need some confidence!
Other things make me feel good about myself: my accomplishments, a heart filled with love, and good intentions. I’m a really good friend and I go out of my way for the ones I love. I’m there for my friends and family whenever they need me.
But makeup is the only thing that makes me feel pretty. Those other things don’t make up for feeling ugly and invisible. I wouldn’t want everyone’s attention on me, but I do want my presence acknowledged. I get more recognition when I’m put together.
Cultivating Inner Satisfaction
And yet, I think something deeper keeps me from feeling good enough, no matter how well made-up my face is. I have a lot to work on in terms of raising my self-esteem and overcoming pain from my childhood. I plan on doing this by learning more about my own character and venturing outside my comfort zone. Exposing myself to new environments, I might come across something new I like that I would have never known about if I’d stayed in my corner.
Many things in my life have been out of my control. For instance, growing up in care, I didn’t get the love and approval that children deserve growing up and that’s made me feel small and vulnerable. I felt abandoned by my mother, and I was bullied because of my keloid. There’s so much from my childhood that I’d like to go back and change, but I can’t.
Now that I’m 20, I’ve realized that all the bad things that happened did help me grow stronger and learn how to respond to criticism without losing my composure. For now, I need my makeup. But I also know there’s beauty in being a calm woman who can handle her business and keep herself together.
Alexus Colbert originally wrote this article anonymously, but requested that her name be attributed to it with this reprint. Originally published in Represent (Spring 2018), a quarterly magazine founded in 1993 that provides a voice for youth in foster care. Their stories give inspiration and information to peers and offer staff a window into teens’ struggles. It’s published by Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth strengthen the social, emotional, and literacy skills that contribute to success in school, work, and life.