Cosmetics as self care

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

This article raises the question of self-care and cosmetics:

n 1908 guards stormed into a cell in Milan, tearing away bed sheets, flipping over mattresses, and yanking off pillowcases for a piece of contraband that had left the warden mystified for the preceding couple of weeks. The prisoner stood to the side, patiently watching her cell get turned inside out, her cheeks painted in cheerful red circles like a ballerina.

They were after her blush like it was a brick of cocaine.

No one could understand how she did it. While the compact wasn’t found during the ransack, the guards watched her closely and soon discovered her MO: The inside stitching of the prison nightgowns were made with red thread, and she would patiently pull them out one by one, soak them in water, and dab the stain onto her cheeks like rouge.

But that wasn’t the only beauty hack circling inside the walls of the penitentiary. To buff away a dull pallor, women made their own face powder by licking the whitewashed walls of their cells, chewing the lime dust to make a white paste, and delicately dabbing it onto their faces with their fingers. Another woman regularly broke the prison rules so she could be sent down to confinement, where she stole wire from a window grate to make a corset. But the question remained, from both the guards and the newspaper readers at home: Why? Why go through all that trouble if the women were separated from the public, with no regular visitors, no callers, and no one to see them but the others serving time?

The same question holds today. While commissary lists sell small-ticket items like foundation and lip gloss, inmates still DIY their own beauty supplies to make up for the limited options, using everything from Kool-Aid, to make hair dye, to melted Jolly Ranchers, for gel. But while interesting, recent reporting on fakeup hacks opened an important dialogue about incarcerated women and what we expect from the prison system, triggered by a seemingly small-potatoes question: Why should the incarcerated be allowed access to makeup?

Scroll to the comment section of these articles and you’ll see angry readers take to their keyboards, firing off opinions like “It’s prison, not a vacation,” or “They broke the law, they don’t deserve CoverGirl,” stressing the point that the penitentiary is meant to punish the people inside it, not give them beauty salons and mascara wands.

And therein lies the problem. Makeup is a much bigger analogy for other issues in our society and prison system. Is the point of incarceration to rehabilitate, or to break?