How YouTube Beauty Tutorials Got Me Through My Mother's Cancer

My college experience was bookended by two major life events: my mother’s cancer diagnosis in November of my first semester, and her death in October of my fourth and final year.

While my friends were sleeping off parties and late-night cram sessions, I would get up early, take a bus to the hospital, and spend a few hours studying at my mother’s bedside before returning to campus for an afternoon of classes. Even in the hyper-social environment of a college dorm, I was lonelier than ever as I tried my hardest to keep my parallel life a secret from my friends, many of whom had no way of relating to what I was going through at that time.

Without the support I needed to cope with the overwhelming feelings of anxiety, I fell back on an old childhood coping mechanism: gather as much information as humanly possible, to give myself the illusion of control. Name a chemo protocol, and I could rhyme off the drugs it used, the side effects for each, and a list of recommended remedies.

I was simultaneously in type-A control and also utterly overwhelmed. Sleep was the first casualty of my stress. Nearly every night, I would shut the lid of my creaky Dell laptop and crawl into my tiny single bed, where I would lie awake for hours on my plastic dorm-room mattress.

Desperate for rest, I turned to YouTube in search of relaxation videos that would lull me to sleep. One night, after listening to new-age ladies telling me to “imagine a warm light flowing through my body,” I noticed that one of the suggested videos was a "What’s in my purse?" segment. Maybe it was voyeuristic curiosity, or maybe it was a desire for a distraction, but something made me click on that little thumbnail of a blonde girl holding up an empty bag for the camera.

I spent the next nine minutes and 58 seconds completely transfixed by this perfectly put-together young woman detailing the contents of her monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag (it was 2008), which included not one, but two designer wallets — one of which was inexplicably empty.

That video succeeded where others had failed up until that point: It completely took my mind off of everything else that was going on in my life. I had discovered a delightful parallel universe in which there was no problem that the right eyeshadow base (Urban Decay Primer Potion) couldn’t solve, and where the worst thing that could happen was your liquid liner drying out. Already an overly-serious kid with a penchant for taking on too much responsibility, I matured five years in the first few months of my mother’s illness. These colorful tutorials filled with beautiful people and luxurious cosmetics infused my life with a sense of excitement and fun that was sorely lacking.

I had discovered a delightful parallel universe in which there was no problem that the right eyeshadow base (Urban Decay Primer Potion) couldn’t solve, and where the worst thing that could happen was your liquid liner drying out.

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After spending hours immersed in online cancer communities where problems were literally life or death, these beauty videos were an escape to a place where everything wasn’t so serious anymore. Watching them became a nightly ritual: I would get into bed with my giant laptop, plug my headphones in, and fall asleep to the dulcet tones of my favorite Filipino beauty blogger’s voice as he described the best way to apply liquid foundation (with a damp sponge, apparently).

Although I had already been wearing makeup for quite a few years by the time I discovered YouTube’s beauty channels, I hadn’t yet reached the point of feeling entirely competent or confident in my skills. (Looking back, this might have had something to do with an incident in seventh grade involving a classmate asking me in a horrified tone if I had put highlighter on my eyes — referring to what I thought was my bitchin’ yellow eyeshadow.)

But thanks to this new online education, my confidence was soaring and I was eager to add another layer of sophistication to my new “adult” life: a more elaborate, thoughtful beauty regimen.

Off I would go to the local pharmacy to buy the cheapest drugstore version of whatever product I had learned about the prior evening. After practicing with it under the fluorescent lights of my bathroom, I would debut the new look the next time I went to visit my mother in the hospital. The halls of the hematological oncology ward became my catwalk as I proudly strutted down the hallway with my new face.

At first, I was worried about what my mother would think. She was a notoriously frugal and low-maintenance woman who loathed shopping and whose Tupperware container of makeup under the sink always held the same three basic products (Aveda tinted moisturizer, Body Shop lip liner in “Beech,” and a beigey-pink lipstick). Would she dismiss my new hobby as silly? Would she think I was wasting my money?
As it turns out, my newfound passion brought my mother almost as much joy and comfort as it brought me. I think it made her feel good to see her daughter, an overachiever prone to stress and anxiety, feeling happy and pretty and light. When a family is dealing with cancer, it can sometimes feel as though there isn’t much to be joyful about, so the small things — like seeing your daughter confidently rock aqua-blue eyeliner — become worthy of celebration.

No matter how sick my mother was, she always noticed when I was trying something new with my makeup — and when I had foundation in my hairline. The former was always met with a loving compliment, the latter with the unwelcome swipe of a wet thumb against my temple. “Oh sweetheart, I love the way that eyeshadow makes your eyes look nice and bright,” she would say, referring to the shimmery-white highlighting powder I carefully dabbed on the inner corners of my eyes that morning.

In a way, I think it let her know that, in spite of what we were going through, I would be okay. That my youthful joie de vivre would survive the grueling test that is parental illness. My newfound amateur beauty skills also gave me the opportunity to take care of my mother in a whole new way: making her feel beautiful as she dealt with the indignities of cancer treatment. When she began to lose her eyelashes, we found other ways to define her beautiful, pale-green eyes. I would sit her down on the red stool in her bathroom, gently tilting her chin up towards the light with my left hand as I brushed soft-pink eyeshadow (a poor color choice, in hindsight) over her soft, wrinkled eyelids. Those are some of my favorite memories from the last few years of her life.

Nothing could have prepared me for my mother’s death two weeks after my 21st birthday. And, if I’m being perfectly candid, nothing could ever, truly, have made me feel better. For a long time after she passed away, I was unable to resonate at the same frequency of joy, and no amount of cosmetics could lift my spirit. This was a problem that concealer could not solve.

In these times, delight can feel uncomfortable and bliss can feel outright unacceptable. But they’re not.

But what I did carry with me in that period of mourning was the knowledge that the small, seemingly unimportant things — like a beautiful new lipstick or a $20 brow wax — can make a difference when you are living in the black hole of grief. In these times, delight can feel uncomfortable and bliss can feel outright unacceptable. But they’re not. For me, it was the small, joyful rituals, like taking the time to apply my eyeliner in a way that made me feel beautiful, that allowed me to practice the habit of happiness again. Thanks for that, YouTube.
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