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The Mascara Massacre

by Nicola Dormer

11th February 2009

February is the month of Valentine's Day, though the freezing cold weather is anything but romantic. While I would much prefer to observe the occasion by just staying indoors and eating heart-shaped marshmallows, I thought I'd best get into the spirit of things.
Nicola Dormer looking aghast at an eyebrow pencil
At this time of year, some women will be dating their Valentine, and my marshmallow heart goes out to those who are disabled. Why? Not just because we are inherently tragic people - so it's okay, you can stop crying now. No, it's because pre-date beautification can become an ugly ordeal if, like me, your dexterity or coordination is a bit ... off.

So I decided to set myself a challenge, and find out whether putting on make-up has to necessarily end in a massacre of mascara? Are their methods you can use to avoid getting an eyeliner pencil in the eye, or is the beauty ritual fundamentally inaccessible to many disabled women? What follows is my step-by-step insight into the Perils of Preening when Physically Disabled.

Click here for a photo slideshow of Nicola's make-up challenge


Nicola tries plucking her eyebrows
First then, my eyebrows. I knew from the moment the tweezers touched my nose that this was a bad idea. Brow was indeed plucked, but from all the wrong places, as was skin. Clearly, the hand-eye coordination required for this was beyond my capabilities.

I genuinely don't know how this would be remedied for people with similar issues. Maybe you've got some ideas? Enlisting a trained professional to shape your eyebrows might work for special occasions, but I appreciate that there are more often pressing things to spend your Disability Living Allowance on.


Nicola applies foundation, aiming for an 'even skin tone'
Defeated, and with my eyebrows still tingling, I set about overhauling my complexion with foundation. The instructions on the pot said that I should apply it with 'small circular movements'. Such a graceful description, but the reality for me felt much more like sponge painting. I found it hard to achieve the 'even skin tone' promised; my clumsy fingers meant I was more likely to smear the product across my face rather than blend it.

I suppose the key to this is to persevere, and not to panic by layering foundation on only to rake it back off again. I would also probably stick to makeup that is powdery as opposed to gloopy.

Mascara and eyeliner

There's a tricky manoeuvre required to apply eyeliner, as Nicola discovers
I moved on to my eyes, aware that mascara and eyeliner are traumatic for me because of my 'startle reflex'. My understanding is that this is a protective reflex, where the arms flail a bit at sudden movements or noises. It affects people with CP and similar conditions, and is mostly triggered in unreasonable circumstances. I discovered mine aged five, listening to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. However, I do feel it is entirely reasonable to startle at a pointed object such as a mascara brush looming on your eyeball.

As for eyeliner, I was told that it should be applied by pulling down my eyelid with one hand and drawing on it with the other. Draw on it!? So I put my elbow on the desk, in the belief that my pencil control would be better supported. The arm movements might well have been more precise, but it was my brain’s compulsion to jolt that made me poke my eye out.

Click here for a photo slideshow of Nicola's make-up challenge

If you do want to attempt this, my advice is to just breathe deeply and relax. Or possibly get drunk beforehand, if you are that way inclined; everyone knows that alcohol slows your reflexes.

By this point, I had red stubbly eyebrows, a purple line in the vicinity of my left eye and a fetching black mascara clump on my nose. If Britain is Missing a Top Model, that model was certainly not me.


Nicola finishes straightening her fringe, but looks less than impressed
Having tired of torturing my face, I moved on to the matter of my hair. Regrettably for disabled women, the only way to achieve sleek tresses is to use a heated metal appliance, so this was the first of my tasks that could result in actual burning.

My hair straighteners are fairly chunky with, by sweet coincidence, a non-slip handle; I think this is the way to go. In fact, I found ironing my fringe fairly straightforward, since it hung down conveniently in front of my face. But straightening only those sections of hair I could easily reach made for a style that was nothing if not bohemian. I had to hope that my hypothetical date would be bohemian too.

Again, I don’t know a practical solution to this one. I am basically useless to you all. If you can suggest an answer, that would be great. But as for me, I moved swiftly away from the hot metal irons and brought my preening ritual to a close.

The end result

A close-up of Nicola's face at the end of the beauty ritual, complete with skewed eyeliner streak, and a mascara stain on her nose
The process of plucking eyebrows, applying foundation, eyeliner and all the rest took me about 45 minutes, which is certainly too long to fit into your routine every morning. It was also stressful, at times hazardous, and certainly far too awkward.

Any preoccupation with these tasks is, naturally, all tied up in a woman's self-image, particularly where romantic interest is concerned. That's why a lot of us think it is worth the effort to brandish the mascara once in a while. And if it ends up on your nose, that's what make-up remover is for.
• All photographs by Sarah Dormer.
So what are your disability-friendly tips for applying make-up without mishap? Or do you sympathise with Nicola's dexterity and co-ordination difficulties and prefer not to try your luck with the eyeliner pencil? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


    • 1. At 6:11pm on 12 Feb 2009, batsgirl wrote:


      Eyebrow tweezing: skip it, unless you've got a major monobrow in which case yes, invest in permanent hair removal with a professional. Even if you succeed in tweezing properly, you have to keep messing about with the regrowth and you have to be super-careful about exfoliation so that the pore where the root of the hair was doesn't get infected (which is an even worse look than the monobrow).

      Foundation: Buy a tinted moisturiser instead. Squirt some on your hands, rub your hands together, then rub them over your face until your face feels moisturised. It's not a precision job, just try and touch every part of your face at least once, including just under the jawline so you don't have an obvious line on your face where the makeup stops. Then wash the remainder off your hands (this is important. Beige handprints don't look good on a party dress).

      Next get a big brush, as big as you can get, and some powder. Also, tuck some tissues into your collar. Load the brush up with powder, close your eyes, and dust it all over your face. Finally, get a clean dry tissue and lightly wipe all over your face, so you're not scrubbing the makeup off, but you're removing any excess and any clumps. Give an extra wipe around your hairline and jawline. Done.

      Mascara: Find a windowsill and a reasonable-size mirror (about the size of an A4 piece of paper is ideal). Prop the mirror against the window so your face will be lit, and sit or stand or kneel facing it, with your elbows on the windowsill. Hold the top of the mascara brush like a pen in your fingers. Put the thumb-side of your hand against the hinge of your jaw. This gets the brush in about the right place and at about the right angle. Now, breathing gently, move your face (not your hand!) towards the brush and then breathe out as you close your eyes. Hopefully the eyelashes wipe against the brush as you do so. Move the brush away, open your eyes, and check.

      Eyeliner: this is not the 80s. But if you really feel the need, point the pencil towards the bit of your nose where glasses rest, and use very short strokes. Warm the pencil first.

      Finally: in the process of putting makeup on, you've been examining your face in great detail, so you can see every blob and blotch as you examine yourself in a mirror two inches from your nose. However no one else is paying that much attention and if they're *that* close they have other things on their mind.

      The hair, on the other hand, I share your sympathy and bafflement.

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    • 2. At 8:06pm on 12 Feb 2009, TraumaDoll wrote:

      The only piece of advice I can share is specifically for those of a wobbly disposition: in the name of all that's holy, SIT DOWN. Falling over with an open bottle of liquid eyeliner in your hands will give you nothing more than an interesting, and above all sudden, lesson in fluid dynamics. And it never comes out of the carpet.

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    • 3. At 09:55am on 02 Mar 2009, Wheelwrite wrote:

      I get my eyelashes permed and dyed - local colleges sometimes provide this really cheaply. I also get my brows waxed.
      College students will also do hair very cheaply.

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    • 4. At 1:11pm on 08 Apr 2009, Kristin wrote:

      A bit after the fact, but I have fallen in love with an alternative for most of the issues - mineral make up! - I use the bare escentuals range which is available online, which I chose for many reasons, but the foremost one was that it is made up with no preservatives, talcs or anything else like that. It is just very finely ground powdered chalk, iron oxide and similar. When was the last time you had foundation with only 5 ingredients, all of them identifiable natural products?!

      What is so great is that you can get the starter packs really cheap, and they work by using a very big brush and slowly building up coverage. No fluids or creams means no splodges or blending issues - the foundation brush is also too big to go on your eye (except during a bad bout of bells palsy!)

      But it isnt just foundation, you can also get blushes, illuminators, tans, etc for your base.

      If you are feeling extra brave then there are the eye shadows, which can also be built up naturally. Add this to a set of tinted lashes, either done by yourself or a friend, and some nice lip gloss that wont show up the edges too much, and voila.

      Everyone keeps telling me I look so much better, which though I am not really makes me feel a bit better to just hear it.

      I am now ditching all my liquids and creams onto a grateful teenager, and also loving the fact that I have stopped getting spots and eczema :)

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