You might assume the biggest worries for teenage girls are choosing a career path, or the exam results that could determine their lives. Maybe relationships and boys, or relationships and other girls. Nope. Not for me: my greatest anxiety throughout my teenage years was my appearance, and how best I could cover it up.
This angst set in swiftly and brutally at age 14. I remember going from never thinking about makeup to spending two hours every morning painting my face just so I felt presentable enough to walk through the school gates and sit at a classroom desk.
My daily routine included three layers of foundation topped with bronzer and contour (the more tanned I looked, the better), blush on my cheeks and eyes and at least four layers of mascara. The icing on the cake, of course, was highlighter – a lot of highlighter. And I wasn’t the only one.
Almost three in five young girls wear make up, according to The Healthy Journal. Of these, two thirds started between the ages of eight and 13, and 15 per cent before they were 10. According to analysis by The Insights Family, the annual spend on toiletries and cosmetics by UK children aged 10-18 reached £709m in 2020. Teen cosmetics is a big business.
So I was interested to hear about some schools attempting to discourage pupils from focusing on their appearance and wearing make up. Good luck with that, I thought.
Christopher Whitehead Language College, in Worcester, has replaced the mirrors in toilets with motivational posters. Some read: “Beauty is nothing without brains”, “Dear girls, make up is a harmful drug. Once you start using it, you’ll feel ugly without it”, “If all girls started wearing no make up and comfortable clothes, guys would have no choice but to fall for girls because of their natural beauty”.
It’s a nice thought, but deep-rooted insecurities, fuelled by a global beauty industry worth billions, won’t be banished by a few well-meaning slogans. Had that happened at my school, I can’t see that it would have stopped me trowelling it on. I had acne and was always insecure about my “chubby cheeks” and the scarring on my face. I disliked my reflection, but couldn’t stop looking at it. Every time I passed a mirror – or any kind of reflective surface – I’d tap away, blending in some old make up or applying more.
It became the norm to wait for a space in front of the mirror after PE so you could touch up the make up that slid down your face during cross-country. God forbid a netball hit you in the face and ruin your contour.
It wasn’t just at school. Nipping to the corner shop required at least one layer of make up; venturing into town, two or more. The idea of being seen without it, with every mark on my skin on full display, terrified me. I’d convinced myself that without it on I was not worthy to leave the house – and even inside I’d take the make up off at the very last minute before going to bed and put it on as soon as my eyes opened. It became a ritual.
My raging hormones, acne and adolescent self-consciousness converged with the explosion of influencer culture: the beauty world had colonised YouTube and make up tutorials by young women like Zoella were everywhere. Her YouTube videos from that time (2015) have been viewed about six million times, and her Instagram has grown to more than nine million followers. Like many others my age, I became addicted.
I’d watch young women try out new products; I’d pay attention to the brushes, how they applied it and even what make up bags they were using. Their “Superdrug hauls” I’d write down as my birthday list and beg my parents for all the best stuff. Of course, nowadays TikTok is the platform of choice for consuming these videos (and marketing the products).
I didn’t grow up around make up at home. My mum never worn it, and had no idea what she was buying me through my teenage years. Nor did she particularly agree with the amount I wore – she often took away some of my products, which didn’t go down well. Like my parents, almost 70 per cent of men think children shouldn’t be allowed cosmetics before 16.
But psychotherapist Sue Smith says pressure to look a certain way is forcing younger generations to wear make up earlier. “Dubious role models – think Instagram – encourage kids to wear make up at an earlier age,” she says. “It can provide an instant boost of self-esteem and confidence.”
Smith supports the mirror removal but doesn’t think it will have the desired impact: “It’s a great supportive idea, encouraging more focus on learning, not looking at their reflection. However, there will always be those insecure students who will bring their own mirrors to check out their appearance.”
Danni Scott, a 25-year-old journalist who grew up in Telford, thinks she would have carried her own mirror. As a teenager, her self-esteem was linked to whether she had make up on and she even refused to walk the dogs without it. “Taking away teens’ ability to check themselves isn’t going to help,” she says. “Make up isn’t a bad thing; it’s society’s pressure to be perfect that’s the problem.”
One of my friends, Aisha Hetti, a model living in London, says the campaign wouldn’t have stopped her from wearing make up at school either. “I used to be absolutely petrified of being seen in public by anyone who’d recognise me. I even used to wear a full face of it to the gym and feel it drip down my face as I worked out. I didn’t think guys would find me attractive,” she tells i.
The 21-year-old, who has modelled for Asos and Topshop, felt like an outsider and thought make up helped her blend in. “It was quite common to be singled out as the ‘Asian kid’. I thought wearing makeup would help me be less noticeable. I noticed that a lot of other girls were starting to wear heavy make up, so I didn’t want another reason to feel like an outsider”.
Now, having left school four years ago, I rarely wear make up. But I do know that if the mirrors had been removed at school the first thing I’d have done is buy a compact mirror. It’s not the answer.