Henna, kohl, and sacred makeup

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While makeup in modern American culture is often considered frivolous, throughout history it has been a powerful indicator of identity, often with spiritual significance.

My first thought of makeup as indicator of identity was of geisha women in Japan, whose white face makeup is instantly recognizable. In fact, the elaborate hair styles, beautiful kimonos, and full makeup that I associate with the word geisha is worn primarily by maiko, or apprentice geisha. Geisha wear more subdued makeup to accentuate their natural beauty, usually only applying the full makeup–faces painted white with rice powder, teeth blackened, lips reddened with safflower–for the most formal occasions.

Henna designs on a bride's hands

Henna is used for formal occasions throughout the world. Brides from India to Morocco are painted with elaborate henna tattoos just before their weddings. The intricate patterns of mehndi, the name of these henna paintings in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are more than just ornamentation. They are described in the Vedas, ancient ritual books dating back three thousand years, as being symbolic of the Inner and Outer Sun (traditional mehndi designs include a sun drawn on the palm of one’s hand). Henna is believed to contain some of the goddess Lakshmi’s essence and thus the wearer is imparted with Lakshmi’s sacred protection.

The Prophet Mohammad dyed his beard with henna, and thus some Muslim men use henna in their beards to emulate Mohammad. This practice is considered sunnah, or fortunate, due to its relation to the Prophet. While some Muslim men dye their beards only after making the hajj to Mecca, it is more commonplace in certain cultures. For instance, we have a large Somali population in the Twin Cities and many elderly Somalian men here have bright orange beards (local blogger Ifrah Jimale addressed this question in her “Ask a Somali” column; she noted that henna was a luxury in Somalia and thus it might carry some cache in the United States).

Rock that eyeliner, girl

Other cosmetic substances were used not only for religious reasons but also medicinally. Galena, or kohl, worn ubiquitously in ancient Egypt, possesses disinfectant and fly-deterrent properties. Also, much like modern day athletes wearing black stripes below their eyes to reduce glare, Egyptians wore kohl to protect their eyes from intense sun. But eye makeup in ancient Egypt had other protective characteristics; the Egyptian word for eye-palette even derives from their word for “protect.” Powdered green malachite when applied to the eyes was thought to imbue the wearer with protection from Hathor, the goddess of beauty, joy, and love.

Man, it’s time for my makeup to do a little more work; all it boasts is SPF. When I go to the cosmetic aisle at CVS tomorrow, I should look instead for makeup that boasts a high GPF: Goddess Protection Factor.

Made up like Marilyn

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As the Oscar-nominated lead in My Week With Marilyn, actress Michelle Williams became only the latest starlet to pay homage to the woman for whom the term “sex symbol” was created. Isn’t it amazing what makeup can do?

Doppelgängers Williams and Monroe

Scarlett Johansson must have been confused why she didn’t get the role…

More doppelgängers...

…especially after her Dolce and Gabbana campaign directly inspired by Ms. Monroe:

What more do I have to do to convince you that I'M Marilyn?!?

Lindsay Lohan must have been equally bummed, since she’s reportedly a little obsessed with the star (if you count “a little” as owning Monroe’s former LA apartment, having two tattoos devoted to her, and a line of clothing labelled after Monroe’s birthday…yikes). Lohan has done at least two photo shoots directly trying to emulate her idol. Unfortunately, Lohan gets “sexy” confused with “naked.” While Williams invokes Monroe’s vulnerability and Johansson and Marilyn are similarly comfortable in their own bodies, Lohan is just awkward. Makeup can only get you so close, sometimes…

How to be a makeup artist

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What you’ll need: brushes, palette

Songlist: Lip Gloss by Lil’ Mama, Red Lipstick by Rihanna

Further reading: Making Faces by Kevyn Aucoin

Last night after my final performance of Zorro in the Land of Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, all the flamenco dancers and musicians went out to dinner, for which I kept my stage makeup on.

You see, I don’t normally do a lot of makeup. Usually a little blush and mascara. Maybe some lip gloss. Every once in a while, for a party or dinner, I might wear eye shadow as well (I know, getting crazy).

As a raven in the performance I had to go a little above and beyond my normal routines. I bought false eyelashes–a first for me–and blue and black sparkle eye liners. The six of us ravens lined our lips in black and filled them in with dark purple, and we lucked out that one of our fellow ravens is, in fact, a makeup artist. She created dramatic dark-blue swoops on our eyelids to mimic bird wings and made us dust our faces with plenty of sparkle powder. Though we joked that we looked more like drag queens than ravens, I think we were all excited by the dramatic transformation we all went through.

I’ve always wanted to be better at makeup. At slumber parties in elementary school, girlfriends and I would smear on the darkest blush we could find and bright red lipstick just to laugh at the effect. I still have the makeup kit for girls that my grandmother bought me when I was about 12 and, embarrassingly, I still use some of those items.

I kind of wish I had a makeup artist with me at all times, like last night’s Oscar winning team of Meryl Streep and J. Roy Helland who both mentioned their 37 years together. Failing that, though, I might just need to get better at it myself. Makeup is just too much fun not to play with.