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Andy Warhol, Chanel #5 Suite, 1997

Beauty is a privilege if you're growing up in poverty

One writer reflects on her uneasy relationship with buying make-up in light of her low-income upringing

There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in 2017, and it’s predicted that thanks to the ongoing Universal Credit rollout this December, there will be a further 400,000 by 2022. Growing up, I was one of them.

As a child, I struggled to build a healthy relationship with beauty, because it was something I literally couldn’t afford to do. I was ignorant at the time of the fact that I was already privileged in other ways by default – fitting the Western beauty industry ideals of being young, slim and white. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always taken pride in being clean and looking my best, despite having to be frugal with showers because the gas meter was nearly always in emergency credit. The last thing I ever wanted was for others to think I looked ‘poor’ – I’d rather wash with cold water in the sink.

But growing up in a one-parent family in a council house where finding money for the next evening’s meal was often prioritised over replacing the near-empty bottle of shampoo or tube of toothpaste, made me view any beauty products that were anything but basic as a complete indulgence. It grew more complicated when I discovered make-up in high school. I lusted after my mate’s new Bourjois lip gloss – which must only have cost a little over a fiver – as she generously applied it while pouting in the toilet mirror, then the YSL Touche Eclat that she click-click-clicked after her older sister gave it to her simply because she’d bought a fresh one for an eye-watering £20.

There were no high-end hand-me-downs in my family, but I liked make-up and I just wanted to fit in with the lunchtime trip to the toilets. I received bits of make-up for Christmas, but I felt ashamed and guilty for asking for them when I knew my mum hadn’t visited the hairdresser all year and had a cosmetics bag half-filled with the cheapest products she could find down the high street.

That shame and guilt never left me. I want to have a better and bolder relationship with beauty and make-up, but my upbringing makes me feel ridiculous for wanting anything more than necessary. Even today, I feel very uncomfortable spending more than £10 on a foundation, even though I can afford to treat myself. I had my nails done last Christmas for the first time and, despite it leaving me feeling like a grownup who finally has her shit together, the idea of spending £20 every month to recapture that feeling seems absurd – especially considering  just a few days later, our landlord gave us notice he was selling our flat. I can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad to bail me out of any financial woes.

Most of my make-up is from Superdrug’s own brand and anything that isn’t is probably a freebie through working in the media or from a friend. Thankfully, I’m able to afford toiletries without worrying, but the thought of one day starting a family and ending up in a situation where I have to choose between feeding my kids or making sure they have shower gel and enough hot water to wash with, as my mum did, is yet another financial reason to put off the idea of indulging in beauty products for a little while longer.

Not every woman from a working-class background shares the same outlook on beauty, but it’s still a complicated relationship in different ways.

Suze, 30, had a similar upbringing to mine, but her acne meant that she learnt to prioritise health and beauty, saying, “I was really self-conscious about my scars and redness, so I actually couldn’t wait to start earning my own money and experiment with products that worked for me.” After getting herself into a financially secure position after leaving university, Suze would happily spend £32 on a foundation and cleanse with products from brands like Liz Earle.

However, following the breakdown of a long-term relationship, she now finds herself back in a precarious financial situation. “This month, I can’t afford to buy my normal foundation, so I went to several large department stores for free samples to tide me over until payday. I’m not proud of that and I know I could just buy a cheaper foundation, but I’m determined not to compromise on the quality my skin deserves ever again, because I’d feel like I was back to being a skint teenager, constantly worrying about my skin.”

“Feeling guilty for spending money I earn on something that makes me feel good can be frustrating, because, like Suze and Eden, deep down I think it should be something I deserve”

Eden, 22, also grew up in a single-parent family on benefits, and, like mine, her mum would borrow money at Christmas and birthdays to buy her make-up products. Although she still lives at home, she’s now able to buy her own products when she wants them, explaining: “Financially, me and my family are all better so I don't actually feel guilty spending money on beauty products anymore, especially as it means not putting that pressure on my mum to pay for them.” However, her upbringing taught her to be cautious and stick to cheap products: “Because I've always been less fortunate with money, I'm quite smart with cash, so I still won't splash out on high-end brands.”

Feeling guilty for spending money I earn on something that makes me feel good can be frustrating, because, like Suze and Eden, deep down I think it should be something I deserve. Research into the relationship between class and the beauty industry is lacking, but there are plenty of studies showing how the use of beauty products and make-up can make us feel better day-to-day. If people really do judge others within a matter of moments – something I definitely do – I want anyone I meet to think I’ve got my act together just by looking at my made-up face and hair, which in turn makes me feel more confident. This helps to explain why the average person living in London is willing to spend £113 of their monthly salary on grooming and beauty products, while the average 18 to 24-year old in Britain spends £63 a month on improving their appearance.

But, for a growing number of people still living and growing up on a low income or in poverty, like I did, not being able to afford health and beauty products at all is becoming an even bigger problem.

Research carried out by Kind Direct in 2017 found that 37 per cent of the UK – 56 per cent of which were 18 to 24-year-olds – have had to go without hygiene or grooming essentials, or cut down on them, due to lack of funds. The Trussell Trust, which runs food banks around the UK, also reported that more than half of the people using its services cannot afford toiletries. If women and girls can’t afford to buy tampons – which a growing number can’t – this surely must affect their relationship with the health and beauty industry?

In 2017, Jo Jones and Sali Hughes set up Beauty Banks which distributes hygiene and beauty products to food banks, homeless shelters, schools, NHS Trusts and period-poverty charities. Jo explains that “poor hygiene can lead to a number of serious health issues, bad body image, social exclusion, bullying and so on. We never intended to include make-up in our beauty parcels, but we do because we were specifically asked for it by our charity partners. They tell us that it makes the women they serve look and feel good about themselves.”

Discussing feedback from schools and youth centres, she adds: “Young people treasure the non-essential items we send like hair styling products and make-up (if appropriate) as it makes them feel special to have such treats that are way beyond their reach. If you’re growing up in a household where toothpaste and sanitary pads are left off the shopping list because there isn’t the money for them, then something a little extra special has a majorly positive effect.”

Even when women from a low-income background do prioritise cosmetic products, there’s the fear of being ridiculed for caring, thanks to the media’s obsession with mocking working-class girls at Aintree’s Ladies Day held before the Grand National, where women traditionally get dressed up and enjoy themselves. According to the Daily Mail, these women are all fake tan and hair extensions, which is interesting, because the last time I watched the upper-classes parading around on Made in Chelsea, they also wore fake tan and hair extensions. Some women need their cosmetic armour simply to face the day and feel a bit better about life, others just really enjoy the way they look with it on – it’s not OK to ridicule the ones who can’t afford the best beauty products, while praising those who can.

“Even when women from a low-income background do prioritise cosmetic products, there’s the fear of being ridiculed for caring, thanks to the media’s obsession with mocking working-class girls”

This isn’t to suggest that everyone who’s grown up in a comfortable or middle-class background is automatically frivolous when it comes to beauty, but the privilege of growing up without ever considering how much lunch money you’d have to sacrifice for a decent hair conditioner instead of the stuff mum usually picks up at the pound shop, makes the relationship a little easier.

I spoke with a group of female friends who grew up in middle-class, two-parent families, all of them agreed that they’ve never had to prioritise other daily costs over the usual health and beauty products that they grew up with – apart from when starting university, when being a skint student is a rite of passage, right? And anyway, those products they missed could always be found back home.  

“I remember my mother using Elizabeth Arden products for her facial routine and she got my sister and I using Simple or Clean and Clear in our teens – for years she tried to instil some awareness of the importance of a cleanse-tone-moisturise routine. She also bought all my make-up but I didn’t ask for too much of that,” describes one of my mates, Mary, 28. “Today, I religiously cleanse, tone and moisturise twice a day, and now I can't not do it. I have had to factor it into my budget and do see it as an added expense because the products are dear, but I feel it is a priority now.”

Mary was clearly just as influenced by her beauty routines and surroundings while growing up as much as I was – they were just very different. She was taught to treat skincare as a priority to the point that she now budgets for the best products, acknowledging and accepting that it’s a luxury she can afford. I still use the same Dove soap bar and tub of Nivea cream that my whole family used, feeling relieved to be able to buy them.

Despite continuing to be socially mobile, I don’t see my relationship with beauty changing anytime soon. I shouldn’t consider myself ‘lucky’ to be able to buy the essentials but, knowing that women my age are relying on beauty banks, I do. It’s comforting to learn that people from similar backgrounds also have their own complicated relationships, although I’m slightly envious of those who are determined to prioritise and invest in their beauty routines more as they grow older.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who grew up able to wash their face with decent products, ask their mum for a new lip balm and who were able to afford to experiment with beauty –  that’s the way it should be. But, we need to talk about health and beauty as a privilege more and realise the ugly reality behind it.