Makeup's Dirty Little Secret: Covering the Scars of Abuse

Illustration for article titled Makeup's Dirty Little Secret: Covering the Scars of Abuse

Two days before CoverGirl, the NFL's "official beauty partner," was forced to respond to the league's handling of the Ray Rice case, I helped three girls on the internet find concealer to cover up their bruises and self-harm scars. I often write about beauty and makeup, and sometimes women will email me and ask me in private how to help. I usually send them a list of concealers and resources every time—resources that I know work because I've used them before. There's been some discussion about the complexities of the beauty industry's relationship to abuse, especially on Jezebel, and much of it is linked to CoverGirl. But not much of it focuses on the complexities of shame and visibility speaking from the side of the abused.


Putting aside radical notions of makeup as some patriarchal tool of oppression or a harmful lie we tell for wearing it: lots of us use makeup to feel great about ourselves. It's kind of a sisterhood, you know, to be able to talk to other people who wear makeup about what they like, and why. We're an international community of secrets and eyeshadow. But our conversations usually stop short of serious discussions about the other reasons we sometimes wear it: we wear makeup to confront someone else, to protect ourselves. We wear makeup to escape our bodies and anxieties, to tell people we're OK—because if we can tell them we're going to be OK, then maybe eventually we will be.

There's a lot of pressure put on survivors of domestic violence once the abuse has been revealed, and not much understanding for why we don't just leave and instead cover up our bodies and stay in these situations for months or years at a time. As Twitter has proven, everyone has their own reasons for #whytheystay and #whytheyleave. Concealer plays into both stories. Let's face it: you'd be too scared to talk to us if we were really visible. People get preachy. People see us differently; we cease to become capable friends and more a story for you to conclude. So many women stay invisible out of this sense of independence and this sense of utterly dependent, desperate hope for love. At least, I did. That was me. I'm not alone, though. One in four women are abused in their lifetime, and most domestic violence incidents are, like mine, never reported. Janay Palmer went so far as to publicly apologize for her role in the abuse—and I understand how she feels. Besides the fact that evidently 25 percent of women are abused at one point or another, as survivors, we're punished economically at the workplace, with 27 percent of victims reporting job loss as a result of violence.

I think about these statistics and compare them to the fact that approximately 52 concealers are purchased in drugstores alone every minute in the United States. How many of those products are purchased by girls who need to cover up bruises? The beauty industry doesn't track those numbers, but considering the fact that 1 in 5 women are abused by their partners, we could say that about 10 of those objects of vanity were reasonably purchased by abuse victims. This isn't counting online purchases made in the United States, or purchases from beauty retailers—just drugstores. So it would be safe to double that number. And isn't that horrifying? Isn't that significant? A portion of the purchases in the beauty industry are made because of domestic violence.

If you are silent in the knowledge that your products are being used in this realm of body terror, you are culpable to all of the results that follow. This is not to say beauty products advocate for these terrible things to happen—but they play a part in the cycle of power between the abused and the abuser, and it is important to place that power on the right side of struggle. Monica Figueroa says it eloquently in her writing on displacement and racism: "Beauty is difficult: it is a resource and a feeling, an unavoidable lure that does different kinds of work. It stabilizes and enables hierarchies to fall into place but also reminds us of the intermittent temporalities where beauty resides." There is power and action in the act of hiding through beauty, power in the silence and power in the time it can buy all people involved. I'm still grateful for the options are available, and if anything, I think the relationship between domestic violence and beauty needs to be made more obvious. Violence and beauty go hand in hand. ("Beat my face," as beauty terminology, never ceases to make me wince.) We have countless brands who speak out against animal abuse when it comes to beauty testing, but much fewer seem willing to do so when it comes to domestic violence. It's OK: We see you.


The "makeup is empowering" narrative is bullshit if you think your cat eyeliner will truly ever be sharp enough to stab through the eyes of a catcaller, but I don't think CoverGirl's sell was a total smoke screen. I bought into the fantasy of beauty products when I was being abused because I found them to be comforting, momentarily palliative. You know, taking my mind off of dark things and wrapping my senses up in determining the notes of a perfume when triggered—that did help me, it filled out the time that stretched on impossibly in my anxious brain.


More than anything, the ritual of beauty—the familiar act of putting on the cream, drawing the lines—made me feel like I had control over something. But none of this is a visible part of beauty brand vocabulary, perhaps in part because the idea of a battered woman being a valuable consumer doesn't seem quite right. How do you represent someone who is too ashamed of themselves to be visible? It would be trivializing, to paint the face of a battered woman for profit. So how can they/we/us be spoken to, in a way that doesn't court profits, but the cause? Do brands even consider that a worthy investment? Is it too niche a goal?

The data tells us otherwise: a battered woman is not rare and unusual. Twenty-four people per minute are victims of violence by an intimate partner in the United States. By the time you have read this far along, approximately 180 people have been abused; 364 concealers purchased from supermarkets, too. These connections are tenuous, but they are tangible. Body shame is embedded into beauty and demand, it is clear everywhere you look. Consider the market for covering up severe acne, tattoos, or vitiligo—all courted by Dermablend concealer. Some brands, including Mary Kay and Avon, notably do donate to women's shelters. It's one thing to align yourself with a notion of "empowerment," to call domestic violence "unacceptable"; it's another entirely to buck up and start talking to the battered women who are buying from you. You want to empower women? Make their stories known. Make it real and tangible. Don't glamorize abuse; help stop it with every purchase of your product. Make it a part of the vocabulary in everyday conversations. Link resources on your websites. Let other girls know that so many of us are hurt, so many women are killed, and that this is one way we can cope. There is a program for salons and manufacturers to help survivors of abuse, but not one LVMH-owned beauty brand is on it (Credit to Estée Lauder for having Aveda on there, though. Add more.)


It's not that domestic violence outreach should be a part of regular beauty branding; it's simply that it could be. This, alone, should be enough motivation: it is a consumer concern. It is a thing that goes on. Enduring and coping with shame is a process without a timeline, but we know we can use products to get us through a day, to help us survive, whether we're ashamed to admit it or not. I know that admitting this breaks the fantasy of eternal health we want from beauty, but it also affirms the idea that beauty connects us all—or at least one in four of us.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

Arabelle Sicardi is a fashion and beauty writer for the likes of Rookie, Teen Vogue, Refinery29 and The Style Con. She likes makeup, cyborgs, and bad fashion puns.



One of my former profs said that her husband (another one of my profs) then-boyfriend while in grad schoo one tried to help her deal with burns she'd gotten from spilling things on her by helping her to the bathtub, where she proceeded to slip and smack her face on the side of the tub. She had a HUGE shiner and she showed up to work on Monday, where everyone presumed he had beaten her senseless. As a feminist, she was glad their reactions were to ask if she was okay and offer to help if she needed it rather than judge or condescend. People were genuinely concerned and admonished him until they learned the truth. They thought he must have been abusing her.

I find that the visual representation is really powerful in cases of abuse (or presumed abuse) but as someone whose abuser never left easily-visible scars on her body, it goes both ways. People never assumed he was REALLY abusive (they knew he was emotionally abusive and saw lots of evidence of this but apparently that wasn't enough of a red flag) because he was good enough to cover his tracks well. He held me at knifepoint once but never cut me. The mental image was enough to terrify me. He threw me into a bureau so hard that it broke the door off of it. I likely had bruised ribs but you couldn't see those because it was early spring and I wore a lot of clothing. He would smack me just hard enough to scare me but easily enough that I could very easily cover the mostly-red marks up. With him, the physical abuse was not the thing he was driving home. It was the mental control over me.

I really wish someone had reached out sooner. I desperately wanted out at that point but was too terrified to leave and had internalized that *I* was to blame for it. Since we were abroad and he had my passport, I couldn't just leave. With backup, I may have had the courage but it was "just" emotional abuse. The people who knew this were definitely smart people. One of them had experience dealing with survivors of domestic abuse (she's a social worker now) but she felt she couldn't do more with so little evidence. She later apologized for not doing more sooner. She realizes now all the signs were there. If she'd known then what she knows now, she claims she would have confronted me. I just don't know how to educated people about how to deal with friends/family they suspect may be suffering emotional abuse. Because physical abuse may often accompany it (people are just great at hiding it) and because emotional abuse alone is seen to be just as damaging as physical abuse in many ways, this is worthwhile. I just don't have answers.