I had three best friends throughout most of school, all of whom were thin. Like most teenagers in our tiny suburban town, their favourite thing to do on weekends was go to the epicentre of adolescent culture: the shopping centre.
It was there that they began experimenting with fashion, trying on new styles and corresponding new personas to go with them. It was there that they all purchased their first thongs. They rhinestoned their cute little denim jackets back when that was a cool thing to do. At sizes 4, 6 and 10, they felt the ecstasy of infinite sartorial possibilities — a privilege I don’t believe they ever realised I didn’t have.
Weighing approximately twice as much as the largest of the three, usually wearing between a size 18 and 22 (depending on how strictly I’d been dieting that month), there weren't any clothes for me to try on with them. Most often, I’d pretend not to be bothered. I’d cheer them on in the fitting rooms while brushing off any suggestions that I participate in the experience. Deep down, I wanted to. I just couldn’t.
The only thing I could participate in during these trips was makeup. At department store beauty counters or on the local high street, there were no limitations based on the width of my bottom; no size 16 cut-off point. Just dozens and dozens of products to play with and to enjoy.
In clothes, I was limited to the rare "husky" section of matronly shops. Through makeup, however, I could emulate all the styles I wished to evoke. There was thick black eyeliner when I was feeling especially emo, and pink lip gloss on my more feminine days. I could channel the vintage vixens I’d watched in 1950s films with a messy cat-eye. I had an outlet.
In the years before plus-size fashion began making notable strides towards diversification of style and price point, and more inclusive size ranges (a recent development, and one that still has a long way to go), makeup was the only way many plus-size people could feel part of the fashion and beauty industries. Yet even so, makeup brands largely ignore plus-size consumers in their imagery. The exclusion feels impossible to justify when one considers that lipstick and eyeshadow have no size limit.
To be fair, there are a few exceptions. Curve model Paloma Elsesser is one of the most beloved faces of Glossier. Plus-size influencer Callie Thorpe recently featured in a Clinique campaign. Supermodel Tess Holliday has partnered with Sebastian Pro — a hair brand, but part of the beauty world all the same. Curve model Marquita Pring featured in a L'Oréal campaign in 2017. These are but a handful of examples, though, and there aren’t all that many more. Even on Instagram — one of the biggest of-the-moment platforms for beauty — it’s rare to encounter plus-size beauty influencers.
"Growing up seeing [beauty] advertisements and magazines, I noticed that I couldn’t relate to the models because they didn’t look like me," says Rainbow Chatman, a plus-size makeup artist. "Working behind the scenes, I saw fuller-figured beauty industry professionals like myself wearing the same brands as the models and didn’t understand why they weren’t also in the campaigns because the makeup looked just as beautiful. When I booked my first gigs as a makeup artist, I felt a tremendous satisfaction showcasing makeup inspired by the looks models wore during fashion week on my clientele of all shapes and sizes."
It’s undeniable that makeup’s clientele includes people of all shapes and sizes, which makes it all the more inexplicable that so many brands continue to leave us out of their marketing. As Sydney Lim, plus-size content creator, asks: "Why are [they only] promoting skinny bodies when all we need is a face?"
Historically, plus-size faces in particular have an important and intimate relationship with cosmetics. "I always loved fashion, but it never really loved me," explains Sophie S. "I remember that in my family when we turned 10 years old, we got to spend a weekend with my grandmother. I was asked what I wanted to do with her and I said no shopping. I knew that I wouldn't be able to find anything, so why bother? I would pretend like I didn't think anything was cute, or I didn't want it all to avoid trying it on. To avoid the shame of my body."
Sophie continues: "Makeup was the only way I could feel any proper expression of myself. A friend was having a 1960s-themed 16th birthday party and I remember crying because no dress fit me properly or looked good. It was only when I did winged eyeliner for the first time (it was horrible and totally not smooth) that made me feel like me. I felt beautiful and cool when all my friends complimented the look. All my thin friends wanted something that I had; they wanted to look like me. That was unheard of."
Channelling how one feels on the inside via makeup is a phenomenon plus-size babes, who gravitate towards alternative styles, can arguably relate to all the more. "On turning 13, I had been bullied for years, so I decided to kind of tell the world to go f*ck itself and ended up a very angry goth," says Carolyn. "My first foray into 'beautification' was donning heavy black eyeliner and dyeing my hair over the sink. As a teenager, my makeup brand of choice was Stargazer because I could get white foundation and they did an incredible array of coloured mica powder, lipstick and mascara when the other drugstore brands were all about orange foundations."
"My relationship with makeup was spawned from necessity," Carolyn adds. "I guess to give me a sense of identity and style in a '90s Britain that I just did not fit into. When I was growing up, there were no supermarket brands, no ASOS, no curve ranges. All there was back then was Evans, which, believe me when I tell you, was not good for anyone below the age of 50."
Even so, the beauty industry itself still doesn’t always make us feel that it’s 'our' place. As Annemarie explains: "I still don’t always feel welcome in makeup stores, especially if I show up with a bare face. I’m usually looked at and treated as though I’m experiencing makeup for the first time."
In reality, we are well acquainted with makeup. We are familiar with the possibilities it creates. We know that it can make us feel close to magic.
There are undoubtedly conversations to be had about the demand put upon plus-size babes to present in hyperfeminine ways. Annemarie says: "While I did stage and costume makeup for fun, I did a full face of makeup every day because of the pressure I felt to be pretty." There are also conversations to be had about the positive impact of these products on our lives, though.
When it comes to makeup, every face should have a place. As plus-size people, makeup has very often allowed us to tell our own stories on our own terms. It has helped acquaint us with our individuality. It has helped our creativity burst through in colour, shimmer and gold highlight. By better representing us, beauty brands will make it clear that these possibilities are for anyone who wishes to participate.