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Photography Ashley Armitage, @ladyist

How beauty routines provide the escape chronic illness sufferers need


TextMarianne Eloise

We explore how applying make-up, skincare, and using other beauty products allows individuals to treat themselves and assert that they are more than just their illness

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bedroom floor in blinding agony during a worrying episode of an ongoing neurological problem while two paramedics looked over me before taking me to the hospital. I remember very little, other than that they were funny and kind, and one of them complimented my pink acrylic nails. I recall feeling shallow to be so grateful when I had a lot more to think about, but having someone who had only met me at my weakest acknowledging something other than my inability to see made me feel like a person in a moment of extreme vulnerability. 

Elaborate self-care, skincare, and beauty routines have become far more prevalent in recent years. Social media and YouTube can partly account for that increase – it’s easier than ever to be targeted by brands, share new products, and discover routines. The skincare industry in particular has seen a massive boom, and is reportedly now worth 60 per cent of the total profit for the beauty industry. While self-care has become something of a buzzword and is often solely associated with bath bombs, it can be a necessary, soothing part of our day. But for people with debilitating chronic illnesses, pain and disabilities, these routines can also be a lifeline.

It’s easy to dismiss an obsession with beauty as vanity, but for people with chronic conditions, it’s about much more than that, and the reasons are diverse. Louise, 32, is a wheelchair user who enjoys make-up and skincare. “I don’t want people to think that I look good despite the fact I’m in a chair, I want to look good regardless, whether it’s low key or all-out glam,” she says.

Becky, 30, who among other things has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, says that for her it’s partly about not wanting to look “sick”. “A lot of that, I think, is down to internalised ableism. I’ve spent most of my life trying hard to not come across as ill as I am. This is problematic in a million ways and I am working on trying to be more open about my capabilities and general state, but also I think it’s my own small way of reclaiming my situation,”, she adds. For Becky, it’s also about confronting people’s assumptions: “It’s weirdly rebellious to challenge people’s idea of what being sick looks like.” Louise agrees: “I’m probably subconsciously fighting people's preconceptions of disability,” she says.

“So much feels beyond control when you have health issues that skincare and cosmetics give you something you can control, something you can do without leaving the house, without even leaving your bed. I definitely wear make-up more often when I go out now because going out is so much harder, so I want to feel nice when I can make it out” – Suzi 

When you suffer from chronic pain, it can often feel as if your body is completely out of your control. Coming to terms with the fact that I have no say over how much pain I will be in day-to-day has been difficult, and when I am at my most vulnerable, the last thing I want is to “look” sick, too. When I go out, being able to look “well” is a way of turning the conversation away from how I feel. It’s a reminder that I am still myself. Plus, acrylic nails are basically permanent – they require an hour of effort every few weeks, but they look good in that time between appointments. On days where I don’t have the energy for make-up or even getting dressed, they’re a way to still feel put together with zero effort. 

Suzi, 33, who suffers from bile acid malabsorption, spends a lot of her time unable to leave the house. “So much feels beyond control when you have health issues that skincare and cosmetics give you something you can control, something you can do without leaving the house, without even leaving your bed,” she says. “I definitely wear make-up more often when I go out now because going out is so much harder, so I want to feel nice when I can make it out.” Plus, while Suzi spent a lot of time disempowered by not knowing what was wrong, she found that skincare was a way to control the things she did understand. “I have rosacea and adult acne, so those things feel much smaller than the chronic illnesses. It’s like being able to manage something on a small scale whilst the big health stuff feels less controllable,” she says. 

Some people have used their own obsession with skincare to empower others, too. Dena, 36, who runs a beauty blog called Leo With Cancer, was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in 2012 and has to get chemo every three weeks. That treatment had a major effect on her body, but she made the choice to engage in “indulgent self-care”. She says that “it started as a way to control the side effects of my chemotherapy without adding in more drugs. Skin is the largest organ of the body and so it shows what you are going through.” On her blog, she talks candidly about her cancer, her love of skincare, and beauty. She recommends products to others, too, and as a result, started her own skincare range.

It isn’t just about the end result, either. Being chronically ill or disabled can be lonely when you struggle to get out easily. For many, engaging in skincare and beauty routines is a way of having something “to do” that’s low impact and rarely requires leaving the house. “When you can’t predict when your good days are going to be and you feel shit for having to cancel things so much, it’s something reliable and fun you can do at home,” says Suzi.

Becky agrees: “it’s just something you can do for you. Being chronically ill is just the vast expanse of emotions, and also really fucking lonely. Even if there’s nothing else I can do but get my nails done and look at them when I’m stuck in bed, that’s something I deserve.” Becky works in the lingerie industry and also indulges in luxury lingerie: “I always wear my most ridiculous lingerie for hospital appointments because if I’m going to have a breakdown about a new diagnosis, I’m going to do it in £100 knickers!” she says.

For some, it’s the physical act of these routines that’s beneficial. Massage has noted physical benefits for pain sufferers, and many therapists offer services tailored to disabled people. But these treatments also offer comfort to people who feel a disconnect from their own body. Louise, who doesn’t have any sensation in some areas, says that “massaging oils and creams are a direct way of connecting even if I can’t feel it”. “Seeing the rush of colour or feeling how soft my skin in makes me appreciate my body. I think there’s an idea that if you can’t feel, then it doesn’t matter, but things routines remind me how important touch is,” she adds. The touch of hands-on therapies also provides intimacy: “If you’re in pain or have no feeling, you might think that you don’t deserve intimacy or tenderness. But I think they’re essential. We need these moments or routines to feel human. And if people are in and out of hospital a lot and seen by a lot of doctors, their body feels like a case study.”

Becky, too, finds connecting with her own body “grounding”. “I have a huge disconnect with my body. It’s incapable of doing the very things it needs to keep me alive and functioning so it can be really hard to maintain a healthy relationship with it, mentally or physically,” she admits, adding, “ There’s something grounding about those typical self-care things, like having an intense skincare routine or taking the time to get a manicure. A lot of the time I haven’t got the energy to do anything, so I use what little I have to feel more at home with myself.”

“(My body is) incapable of doing the very things it needs to keep me alive and functioning so it can be really hard to maintain a healthy relationship with it, mentally or physically. There’s something grounding about those typical self-care things, like having an intense skincare routine or taking the time to get a manicure” – Becky

These routines can often be dismissed as pseudoscience or vanity by people for whom they’re extraneous. The beauty industry is controversial and often fairly challenged; we’re supposed to want to move past that and free ourselves from the shackles of beauty standards. Complex skincare routines, too, while increasing in popularity the last few years, are experiencing a backlash of their own. Self-care, while never intended as a catch-all term, has seen sceptical pushback

But, what we forget when we say these things are unnecessary is that, for some people, they’re not solely about vanity or conforming to standards or following trends. Many routines are on a sliding scale of effort and cost, making them an accessible way of finding control over an uncontrollable body and connecting with ourselves. While not a cure-all, for people with chronic pain, illnesses, and disability, these things are often entirely necessary for our peace of mind and sense of self. They’re a way of reminding ourselves that our bodies, however painful, are worth attention and that we don’t have to be “cured” or able-bodied to enjoy treating ourselves.

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