Written by Abigail Burdess


Painting By Numbers

Abigail Burdess on the meaning of makeup, the joy of face painting, and why bus journeys make her feel like a middle-aged nudist.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

I was watching my kid painting her face as a witch and I realised, to my shame, that I was envious of the fun she was having and turning a little bit green myself.

I don’t wear makeup day to day. Probably because, having to wear it as an actor, it can feel like work – a bit like an astronaut choosing not to sport a massive white onesie in her downtime. Except an astronaut’s job can only be done by a scientific genius with decades of training, and my job can be done by Calum Best with a hangover. Although he’d have to wear makeup.

Also, I’m rubbish at putting it on. To go on TV someone good at it does it for you. When I do it myself I end up looking like an eight-year-old’s drawing of an airhostess. Basically, I have two modes: none, or Strictly Come Dancing. It’s all been a bit of fun. But as I envied my kid, I realised the fun, for me, has worn a little thin. Something is happening.

My own occasional makeup mode – “1970s perfume counter” – is everywhere. Everybody’s doing it: newsreaders, telly scientists and, of course, all the young youth. You know the look I mean: two sets of lashes, lip gloss, bronzer. It’s loads and loads of makeup.

As a daytime look I do find it faintly unsettling. It’s that moment on the number 72 when you think, “Am I on the number 72? Or am I on ITV on a Saturday Night?”

Maybe it’s my age. I’m about to be 40. Maybe I notice all the paint on the lovely girls when I catch sight of my own sallow unpainted 40ish face in that number 72 window, and it looks so very, very underdressed by comparison. It looks, in fact, freakishly naked: a middle-aged nudist on the bus.

It makes me want to shout what you’d want to shout at any middle-aged nudist, “For God’s sake! Put something on!”

It’d be different if I were a naked 25 year-old. But my nude old face looks less and less like the pictures of women I see around me. The only time I see a face like mine it has an arrow on it: you know, to point out which bit is wrong. Usually in a pop-up ad when I’m just trying to buy a lawnmower.

I sometimes think I’d be happier sporting a Strictly mask every day too. But what would I be painted as? The Goths pretended to be vampires: “I eschew the daylight and I live for masturbating alone”, they said with their painted faces. The New Romantics pretended to be pirates, or clowns, or Native American neon highwaymen from the future. If I went the full ITV every day what would I be pretending to be? I’m worried I’d be pretending to be a woman. You know, like people who aren’t women do.

It’s probably Facebook’s fault. Most things are. Someone – let’s call her Patient Zero – put on foundation for a selfie and her friend added a layer and her friend added another and come 2017 we’ll all be RuPaul. Maybe it was me? Maybe I am Patient Zero! God, I hope not.

Because I’ve started to see those arrows when I look in the mirror, too. I think, “I look tired – I’ll just put on some mascara. I look washed out – I’ll just give myself a bit of colour”. And that’s one step away from not leaving the house before I’ve “put my face on”. I mean, presumably RuPaul is only “RuPaul” for show time. I don’t want show time to last all day long.

Face-painting is only enjoyable if we don’t have to do it. If we must wear makeup – to get a job as a receptionist, or to talk about comets on the telly, or to find our own naked faces acceptable, because we’ve bought some bullshit that we’re not really women without it – well, it’s no fun at all. And most men aren’t diligently sponging on five o’ clock shadow to work at B&Q. Most men aren’t drawing on a jawline to leave the house. I think it’s just Craig David and Boy George. And I don’t want to be either of those guys.

So to reclaim the fun, I was thinking that, for the next party, I might go as a wicked witch. I may or may not wear loads and loads of makeup to achieve this look.


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Written by Abigail Burdess

Abigail writes comedy for the telly, radio and stage. She is also sometimes allowed on them. But not so’s you’d notice. @AbigailBurdess