The relationship between our identity and the make-up we use to shape this, is about far more than a superficial notion of ‘vanity’. In this probing essay, and the intimate photos accompanying it, Maxine Leonard celebrates the rituals her mother continued to uphold as she lived through the physically devastating effects of MND.
Words Maxine Leonard
I commissioned photographer Alastair Strong to document the contents of my mother’s make-up bag. The interpretation of her identity manifested itself through the products she kept there and her emotional attachment to them allowed her to create a persona to present to the world. These were the tools we used to recreate my mother’s vision of how she presented herself when Motor Neurone Disease (MND) entered our lives in 2007.
MND is a rapidly progressing neurological disease that causes increasing disability. This infirmity would result in my mother having to depend on her partner and myself to translate how she liked to look. She would curse, laugh and cry when looking at this woman with little resemblance to her former self staring back at her in the mirror. We did not leave that room until she was happy.
My mother was called Antonia Sanchez. I grew up watching her lengthy daily beauty routine. It fascinated me. She was unapologetically vain and took pride in her appearance. Her eyelashes were coated heavily with mascara; she would define her eyes using the tip of a mascara wand and complete her fine over-plucked brows the same way. Lips were Mum’s signature. Red. Always. Concealer, lip liner, then lipstick, with a fine layer of lip coat applied for longevity. This ritual was completed with gallons of Chanel No 5 – enough to make you choke if you stood too near.
Make-up and hair are worn like emotional armour, giving us a chance to connect with people while protecting our inner selves. These powerful tools define who we are and what we say about ourselves. Beauty is strong and personal. What is good for the soul is good for the shell and recognition of this power is an important observation missing from glossy media imagery.
Vanity is a positive response to illness. It can get you out of bed in the morning to fight. Mum would not receive visitors without the routine being completed to her satisfaction. For decades she had painted her face with her own hand. The stroke of a brush reinforcing her selfness. That freedom and self-expression had been taken away. But that make-up characterised who she was. It was about her state of mind. It was her physicality that was failing her. MND was not my mother’s identity – her Russian Red MAC lipstick was, and it could not be taken away without a riot. Beauty is not one dimensional, it is the passionate and positive expression we use to complete the self. The power that lipstick illustrated when I applied it to my mother’s mouth was astonishing. It was war paint. She was ready for combat. Watching this was an almighty lesson for me in understanding the significance of the role cosmetics play and the emotionality attached to them. This wasn’t about vanity. It was a confrontation with herself, to prevent a disease reducing her to something she was not. Her triumphs in this war were of great momentary pride to her and greater importance to us. It is very easy to dismiss the materialistic and superficial approach we have to beauty. You can intellectualise and debate, question ideals, re-examine what it is to be defined by the brands we buy into, but the emotional response is far greater and of tremendous value. Beauty is broader than that. There is a functionality to make-up and hair. We rarely consider the benefits or what they represent until the liberty of applying them is taken away.
Expressing ourselves visually is every human being’s birthright. Beauty is a powerful weapon and we undervalue its emotional effects. This is very personal to me. The images of these products humanise a journey I went on with my mother. A pencil sharpener with the remnants of pencil shavings stuck to the blade; dirty cotton buds; a foundation bottle with drip marks from zealously squeezing out the liquid in a rush – the stains of beauty that mark these images are significant and powerful. They are very real and portray the consciousness of my mother’s dignity.
The idea that beauty is unimportant is the real beauty myth.