My high school best friend, whom I have known for over 36 years and whom I trust completely, is a dermatologist but she hardly recommends any skin care product to me, even when I ask her point blank. One time when we were together abroad and I saw a cream that touted a new level of membrane penetration that could get rid of a small dark spot I have on my face. She just said: “get a small one and will see after you have tried it.” She never sells me anything nor swears by any skin product. She always tells me that “your mom has them (freckles) it so it’s genetic.” And when I ask her about moisturizers and cleansers, she says “whatever works for you.” Ask her about make-up, and she knows even less.

So I just manage here and there without her advice, as obviously, she is not keen on having me contribute to a $40 billion cosmetic industry annually. But I am not normal and she is not normal. We are middle-aged women who, having grown up together, have wired our brains similarly on certain things and it includes being deficient in the contemporary cosmetic knowledge department.

But as a science writer, I am interested in make-up, not on me, but as a phenomenon. Why have we as humans fallen for these creams, waxes, gels, sprays and paint-ons? And this affair is, like love, also a tale as old as time. We were coloring ourselves long before we learned how to plant food! And as I have found out, civilizations may rise and fall but make-up is forever. Why?

The earliest evidence of “fabricated” color pigments in the form of ochre has been found and dated 164000 BP in a South African coastal site. Ochre was then used to color the skin. These were also used to decorate ornaments like shells that earlier humans wore. The scientist who did that review of art, starting with what we have done with our bodies, cited it as proof that we already valued the joy we get from color and form. Body make-up was, scientists think, our first work of art. We painted ourselves first and it was not long before we also thought of decorating ourselves with objects and other objects with our art. We experimented on ourselves first before we worked on things that were separate from the human body. But it was not only enjoyment we got from this we also used art on ourselves to differentiate our group from others, especially in times of conflict. And research also shows that make-up was not a uniquely Homo sapien propensity. Even the Neanderthals seemed to have also made pigmentation either for camouflage or decoration.

One of the earliest societies known to have used a complex form of make-up (lead-based chemicals mixed with oil, nuts and other minerals) were the Egyptians. Men and women alike wore them. A study on make-up samples preserved at the Louvre found that because they were lead-based, they were highly toxic but seemed to have served a protective purpose then given the widespread and constant bacterial risk in those times during floods. But even so, the Egyptians seemed to have known the power of highlighting their eyes with thick kohl. Apart from probably thinking that it had sun glare protective qualities, they knew how much the eyes meant in human contact and exaggerated their presence with make-up more than any other facial feature. We only need to think of Elizabeth Taylor as the image of Cleopatra in (because no one really knows for sure how the real Cleopatra looked like) to know how much power her eyes had. Literature say her over-all personality was alluring and as her stories with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, show, it shone in historic proportions. Evidences have also been unearthed to show that the dancing girls in Egypt tattooed themselves in their thighs thinking that it protected them from venereal diseases.

But the history of “make-up” was not a consistently progressive one. For example, during the Victorian Era and medieval times, make-up was looked upon as “sinful” or at the mildest, “unnecessary” since women then, the one who preferred make-up more than men did, did not have the freedom to express themselves as they wished. But our desire to decorate ourselves is deeper and stronger than any sanction from heaven or hell. In fact, in the US in the early 1900’s, when radium was just discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie, it was observed that it could be a very effective colorant. And so, many women lavishly used it and they later became ill and died of radiation sickness.

It is of course, illegal now to use radium in cosmetics, at least in proportions that we already know are not safe. But we have obviously forged on with the unstoppable parade for our painted selves. You only have to be reminded again of the magnitude of the make-up industry now and how it is the natural tool kit in this age of social media where selfies rule, to know that it has survived those serious tragedies and put-downs.

I would be remiss if I did not tell you that one of the deepest reasons for make-up is because coloring ourselves to enhance our features or mask our imperfections, are ways to attract mates which nature has wired us to go for so that genes could go on and on. You may not be conscious of this or admit to this but carefully designed experiments have shown this to be true. A large chunk of scientific literature bears evidence of the many colors and arrangements we do to make ourselves more attractive and appear healthy to the sex who can help us give birth. Rosy lips and cheeks for vitality, foundations to even the skin tone (because blotches are a sign that there may be something amiss). But what is also true, and equally deep is the human propensity to recreate herself or himself just for its own sake.

“Decorative” and “cosmetic” – words that usually are associated with “shallow”, “superficial” or even “not the real thing.” But decorating as a creative act is, creation and re-creation, and has always been an essential part of the human psyche, not an accessory. And that is why I think it is called “make-up” and not “make-down”. It is always meant to raise your perception of yourself or the way others perceive you (you may not always be on the dot with the latter). I don’t know of anyone who will go through all the trouble of doing a meticulous make-up so s/he could feel down. Everyday make-up is definitely intended as a “raise-me-upper”.

So yes, we will always be decorating ourselves because we are just built this way – curious as to what else we could do, with our bodies. It may hurt us sometimes but the thrill of re-creation, of drawing and re-drawing our imagined selves, will always be worthwhile to the creative humans that we are. –


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