Bree Benz remembers the exact moment when makeup changed her life.
It was 4:30 p.m. July 1, 2015, in New York. Benz has chills just thinking about it.
She was sitting in Monica Prata’s makeup chair, and she glanced in the mirror.
Gone were any traces of masculinity from Benz’s face. And a five o’clock shadow? Totally erased.
As of 4:30 p.m., Benz was 100 percent woman, she said.
“I’ve always been a woman, but it’s about how do I make it come to life?” asked Benz, who had been born a boy and started a hormone therapy treatment two years before the New York makeover. When she had her makeup done, she hadn’t done her facial feminization surgery yet.
“But on that one appointment, she did my makeup, we found a wig and I realized that I could do this,” Benz said. “And then (Prata) became crucial, at least for me, in developing the confidence needed to conform and style, and I started living full time as a woman in October. That initial appointment in July was this magic moment where I could see myself.”
Cosmetics have long been used to help people look like better versions of themselves, but for a smaller group of the population, it showcases, contorts or hides deeper aspects of their lives.
This came to the forefront recently, when a state-owned Moroccan TV channel did a segment showing a makeup artist explaining how to cover domestic-violence bruises on the face of a model.
The occasion: International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
“It’s a topic we lack the courage to discuss,” said the smiling makeup artist as she painted makeup over the bruises of the battered woman.
An instant later, the woman went from abused and battered to smiling and fine, at least superficially.
In a 2011 study by the High Commission for Planning, Morocco, more than 60 percent of women ages 18 to 64 were victims of violence that year alone, and 55 percent of them said their husbands beat them. Only 3 percent of these women reported the abuse.
Makeup helped, and was widely accepted and demanded to cover up the beatings, said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“One Lebanese nurse told me how she repeatedly went to work with injuries and bruises as a result of beatings by her husband,” Begum said. “Rather than her employer trying to find out how to support her, he told her she had to stop coming in with such bruises. Otherwise, she would lose her job.”
The Middle East isn’t the only place where women are using makeup to cover up their abuse, however.
There are victims in the United States and throughout other parts of the world who are covering up their beatings out of shame or because their partner forces them to use the makeup, said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“You may have a victim in a workplace, where it’s not acceptable, or she has a family member she hasn’t disclosed it to, or she’s going to church when she has a black eye, and it’s not OK,” Glenn said.
But while makeup is a necessary evil in these cases for these women, it’s more regularly used to enrich one’s lives in a more positive manner.
Jaime Abraham, owner and makeup artist at Bride Eyes Salon in Oak Park, said she can expect at least one bridesmaid per party to ask her to use makeup to cover up a scar or bruise, though these bruises are from drunken falls or something similar, she said.
“There’s always one person who has something,” Abraham said.
Beyond scars, she said, she’s used makeup to help clients with alopecia, with an obsessive compulsive issue that compelled her to pull out her lashes and eyebrows, and for someone with cancer.
“They all just want to feel like a typical person,” Abraham said. “Or the best version of themselves.”
For most of these, Abraham draws on a thicker brow, adds fake eyelashes and corrects their skin tone. (Many patients going through chemotherapy find that their skin tone gets gaunt and has a pale yellow hue, Abraham said.)
“They always say, ‘Oh my God, I feel like myself again,'” Abraham said.
That’s what happened to Leigh Kminek, who saw Abraham in the midst of her treatment for breast cancer in June 2015. (She’s currently in remission.)
Kminek lost her eyebrows and lashes during chemotherapy, and it was the low point during her treatment.
“It’s amazing how you take for granted what eyelashes and eyebrows can do for a look,” she said. “When I lost my eyelashes and brows, that’s when I felt like I really looked sick.”
So Abraham applied false eyelashes and brows, and did light makeup for Kminek. When she got home, her daughter’s friend, who was 6 or 7 at the time, turned to her daughter to tell her how pretty her mother looked.
Kminek’s instant confidence is the reason Lipstick Angels was formed.
The nonprofit sends makeup volunteers to patients while they’re getting chemotherapy infusions at hospitals (they’re in four hospitals in Los Angeles and in New York, but are working to expand), and they do organic beauty treatments, including makeup.
“Sometimes, putting their makeup on and feeling dignified is the last thing on their list,” said Renata Helfman, founder and executive director of Lipstick Angels.
Lipstick Angels helps them look healthy: not so dry, red and scaly, with eyebrows and eyelashes. It’s a reminder of their former selves, and it gives them a burst of confidence.
Many of the women going through cancer treatments give up on makeup because they’re worried about the chemicals, said Helfman, who is a professional makeup artist who formed the organization because she was feeling empty and wanted to give back. She searched for a long time to find chemical-free makeup that wouldn’t disturb the skin of cancer patients. Many of them will continue using the chemical-free makeup throughout their treatment.
“It can be a strength, and they leave there feeling so much better,” Helfman said. “We feel like we’re part of the healing.”
Danielle Braff is a freelancer.