I’m sitting in my local GP practice, huddled over a hot water bottle as I wait for an emergency doctor’s appointment. The mind-numbing pain in my abdomen is intense and, sadly, oh-so-familiar. Yet despite the discomfort I’m in and the hours I’ve spent in and out of this waiting room, all I can think about is the hideous state of my cuticles.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely the pain can’t be that bad if you’re preoccupied with your unsightly manicure? Well, to know me is to know my chronic illness and love of beauty in equal measure. If my nails are looking shabby then, chances are, I’m having an endometriosis flare-up.
Turns out 2017 is a pretty trendy time to be diagnosed with this chronic illness. My feminist girl crush, Lena Dunham, has been incredibly vocal in her struggle with the condition and one in 10 women of reproductive age are affected by this life-altering disorder in the UK alone. Medically speaking, endometriosis is where cells like the ones in the lining of the womb are found elsewhere in the body. In reality, this typically causes debilitating pain that affects sufferers in all aspects of their lives. Yet my diagnosis has only encouraged my love of everything beauty. It’s taught me to appreciate the role cosmetics can play in forging our identities, especially during periods of ill health.
Personally, I can pinpoint moments of my life by what I was wearing on my face. Rummaging through my grandmother’s dressing table aged five and excitedly combining blue, sparkly eyeshadow and coral lipstick. The teenage years I spent paying homage to Lauren Conrad’s signature cat-eye flick and failing miserably. My first year of university was defined by a selection of NARS red lipsticks as I tried the ‘outgoing party girl’ persona on for size.
But when I was diagnosed with endometriosis two years later, I suddenly wanted to look like the most natural version of myself. I instinctively gravitated towards tinted multipurpose balms and dewy foundations. I stopped highlighting my hair quite so blonde. During a particularly trying time in my life, my failsafe products – and some trusty new additions – allowed me to hide the hell my body was putting me through.
My fellow #endowarriors confirm that I’m not alone in relying on beauty as a means of coping with this condition. Bryony, 20, uses makeup to "hide the destructive nature of endometriosis". She tells me that she "can make [her] skin glow and [her] nails sparkle and the rest of the world is none the wiser." Meanwhile, Emily, 25, chooses to "spend copious amounts on bath stuff" to literally soothe her pain.
Dr. Tania Adib, a consultant gynaecologist, asserts that "because [endometriosis] is a gynaecological illness, and sexual health is inextricably linked with self-confidence, having this condition can affect one’s self-esteem." As a result, makeup allows us to "create a mask to face the world." Beauty becomes a way of coping and it’s only natural that "the more it hurts, the more [we] cover up."
Yet in the same way that this condition manifests itself differently among sufferers, for some women, their appearance understandably takes a back seat to the symptoms. Lucy*, 27, confides that when her pain is at its worst, "it’s hard enough to get out of bed and shower," let alone think about her makeup or nails. Another sufferer agrees, telling me that "makeup is the last thing I worry about, what with working, family life and managing pain, too."
Self-care is an incredibly individual, personal thing. While I take comfort in my makeup routine, other women tell me how they have found strength in beloved pets, extravagant designer purchases, and glamorous photo shoots.
Dr. Sheri Jacobson, clinical director of Harley Therapy in London, agrees that "each woman is free to define 'beauty' and 'self-care' for herself," recommending that if you "feel beautiful when you walk in nature or practise mindfulness, then that can be the best way to practise self-care in the face of health challenges."
Equally, Dr. Jacobson recognises beauty as a form of self-care: "Like exercising, eating better, or making time for a relaxing bath at night, it can be a conscious choice to allow our time and attention to be just on ourselves and allowing ourselves to feel good." Especially as endometriosis sufferers are at risk of developing anxiety and depression, "self-care has now been linked to better psychological health."
Beyond prescribing stronger painkillers, there is not much my GP is able to do for me. I get home, shower immediately and blow-dry my hair. I apply some luxurious body butter, specifically reserved for bad pain days.
I take my time as I apply my makeup, pausing for sips of tea and to sing along to old Oasis songs, enjoying the therapeutic process after a particularly draining morning.
Feeling refreshed yet still uncomfortable, I decide to paint my nails, choosing to self-medicate with a bottle of Essie’s "Ballet Slippers" polish. I feel more like myself with a fresh manicure. Because that’s the beauty of makeup. Its effects are not simply skin-deep.