Applying her cool ivory No7 foundation with a brush in the bathroom mirror after our shopping spree, my mum had a glint in her eye.
It was one of happiness, excitement and a renewed sense of confidence.
At that moment, I realised the power of makeup was more than just a superficial thing. For my mother with cancer, it was transformative and, in turn, my love for it was reinvigorated.
My mum has always been the strongest person I know and I’m not just saying that because of how she’s handled her cancer diagnosis.
As a strong Welsh woman to the depths of her bones, she’s always been fiercely independent and resilient. She grew up a second-generation Irish immigrant in west Wales during a time filled with anti-Irish sentiment.
She also singlehandedly raised me and my sister, which wasn’t always an easy job to do.
Yet, she always made sure we were happy and never went without – even though times were sometimes financially difficult. She has been the singular constant source of stability throughout my entire life.
My mum has always been a very glamorous woman. Oscar Wilde’s quote that says you ‘can never be overeducated or overdressed’ is what she has always lived by.
We once went for an evening meal as a family when I was six years old and I’ll never forget my mum wore a smart black top coupled with her diamante choker, paired with immaculately straightened blonde hair and her dewy skin, which was adorned with Rimmel London Perfect Match foundation.
She always smelt of glamour too. You always knew when Mum was near because you could smell Jean Paul Gaultier.
As a child, I thought she was the most beautiful person. Growing up, I developed my own relationship with makeup but I would often try to emulate my mum.
As a teenager, my passion for beauty products all started with wearing that same Rimmel London Perfect Match Foundation, but mine was embarrassingly a shade or two too dark.
Over time, my passion for makeup artistry diminished and I fell out of love with it. That is, until my mum’s cancer diagnosis.
I was 23 when my 50-year-old mum told me doctors had found cancerous cells in her ovaries during her post-op biopsy. When she got back into the car with myself and our dog, she was visibly upset.
This was a strange occurrence because I had only seen her cry two times my entire life before this. She waited until we arrived home from the hospital to say what was wrong and that was when the flood gates of tears burst open.
Hearing her say these words felt very surreal and I couldn’t believe it. The reality of just how much it would change all of our lives didn’t fully set in until she started chemotherapy though.
When people think of chemotherapy, their minds probably go straight to hair loss, but it’s so much more than that. It’s extreme nausea, debilitating pain, emergency hospital trips in the early hours of the mornings, and – in a Covid-19 world – a life filled with extreme precaution and isolation.
It was a difficult adjustment. Selfishly, it felt like a sense of limbo for our life as a family. It was a pause button looming over our lives that was often filled with loneliness and moments of despair.
One of the hardest parts of the cancer diagnosis was watching my fiercely tenacious mum – a woman who took pride in her appearance – not want to go into the shop because she was self-conscious about her thinning hair.
As she lost her hair, she also lost her relationship with glamour. Initially, she wore a headscarf, which she hated. It made her uncomfortable. She spent most days tired on the sofa with the dog watching Doctors on BBC One.
In an effort to change this, I insisted on a trip to the beauty store that became a significant moment for Mum and I. My mum was eager to go to Boots to get some new products that would be appropriate for her extremely drying skin.
We went to the foundation section and explored all the shades and formulas to see which one would fit her changing appearance. The beauty advisor was so helpful in assisting us with the perfect one. She also helped us choose out a concealer and a rosy blush to breathe life back into her skin.
We then made our way to Wigs & Co, where my mum was greeted by one of the loveliest sales associates.
She let my mum trial boxes and boxes of wigs, different styles, colours, and the occasional Rod Stewart-esque one. Mum took her time to make sure she felt confident.
She found the perfect one – blonde balayage, short, smart but captivating. She fell in love with this wig. It transformed her from a woman uneasy about leaving the house to happy and excited to show off her new look.
When we got home, she was so ecstatic to try on these new products to see how they all coupled together. She was so eager for a sense of normality and a sense of self. When she first put her makeup and wig together, she was so vibrant.
But it was my sister’s graduation when she truly radiated pure beauty. This was her first major public outing since her starting chemo and she looked incredible in her new look.
When it was all put together, she beamed. It filled my heart with joy to see her so self-assured and comfortable in her skin.
I was witnessing first-hand, not only the physical transformation that make-up and the wig gave her, but also the shift in energy that was eons apart from how she felt before. It was like magic.
She was not the same mum that was extremely unwell at the beginning of this difficult journey. She was happier and she seemed more excited and filled with life.
I’ve seen chemotherapy steal aspects of my mother’s confidence, but I also saw this restored with new hair and makeup.
It made me want to explore the artistry of makeup again.
By this point, I had abandoned glam but also creativity. I never tried any SFX or graphic liners anymore. I never pushed myself out of my comfort zone with my craft.
I began to experiment with more colour, more graphic liners, and more creative looks for my everyday.
Too often, makeup and hair are seen as materialistic and surface-level – a tool to make others superficially perceive people more positively.
However, seeing it restore my mum’s confidence and make her feel better during a time filled with ill-health, it’s redefined for me where makeup’s power lies.
Today my mum’s relationship with makeup is renewed.
Since the day we invested in her new wig and expanded her makeup collection, she has a new energy. She is no longer apprehensive about leaving the house.
Makeup is sometimes not skin-deep, and hair isn’t just ‘hair’. They can make us feel better, even when we are gravely unwell.
It’s not just about how others perceive us, but how it can make us feel sunshine on our skin during our darkest moments.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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