The One Self-Care Routine That Changed My Life Postpartum

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Like many new moms, I was not happy with my appearance after I had my baby.  I'd gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy, and at least 15 of those pounds stuck around after I gave birth. I felt like one of those fetishists you see in the British tabloids who wear lifelike, full-body rubber suits, and I happened to be stuck in the suit of a woman who looked nothing like me. And as much as I'd love to be so body-positive that I view every stretch mark as a badge of honor, years of internalizing cultural beauty standards had taken their toll, and I hated my postpartum body. But that was before I discovered makeup.

Even though I'd been told by countless smug hot mommies in my gynecologist's office that I'd lose the baby weight ASAP if I breastfed, here I was, pumping multiple times daily, exercising, and not letting myself eat very much or very frequently — in other words, not being very kind to myself at all — and I couldn't lose the baby weight.

If I'm being honest, the issue wasn't that I couldn't lose weight, so much as I just didn't feel like myself anymore. Now that I was constantly exhausted and stressed-out and covered in my baby's saag paneer poops, the person who had put on crop tops and high-waisted jeans and straightened her hair to go flirt with idiots at bars was a distant memory. It felt like some fairy sent by a vengeful ex had waved her magic wand, and I'd gone from being cute and fun to totally unbangable overnight.

Then I discovered makeup.

Courtesy of Ej Dickson

I'd never been a big fan of makeup. Yes, I'd worn the same black eyeliner since my days smoking Newports and lounging outside Hot Topic in ninth grade, and from time to time I'd pair a matte red lip with ballet flats, a turtleneck, and skinny jeans, a la Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (or, alternatively, Taylor Swift copping Audrey Hepburn's look in Funny Face). But I'd never been a product junkie, and buying non-drugstore products seemed like an outrageous waste of money. Plus, if I'm being really, really, really honest, hot people like my husband seemed to want to bone me regardless of whether I wore bronzer or not, so I didn't see much point in spending the time and energy to do a full face of makeup every day.

As I got older and my schedule got busier, I went from wearing only one or two products to not wearing makeup altogether. Then I had a baby, and everything changed.

I went down an hours-long internet rabbit hole that was only paralleled by the time I discovered the "serial killers in the United States" category on Wikipedia.

To be honest, it probably never would have occurred to me to wear makeup postpartum if I hadn't had to buy a few products for a work-related project, which involved showing off my nighttime skincare routine on Romper's Instagram. Since I barely had time to wash my face, let alone develop a nighttime skincare routine, I had to put a callout on social media for some products to buy. Someone recommended Milk Makeup's matcha toner and cleanser, so I went on the Sephora website to buy them, which led me down an hours-long internet rabbit hole that was only paralleled by the time I discovered the "serial killers in the United States" category on Wikipedia.

Milk Makeup Matcha Toner, $26, Sephora;  Milk Makeup Matcha Cleanser, $26, Sephora

Milk Makeup on YouTube

I really, really liked Milk Makeup. I liked the way it marketed itself as a makeup brand for cool girls who don't need to wear makeup. I liked the packaging of the matcha toner and cleanser, which are two pudgy little tubes that are sleek and portable and Kermit the Frog-colored. I liked that they used models of color and trans models in their hip little makeup tutorials, which show you how to use every product and incorporate it into your daily looks, which had sexy Gen Z names like "Freshhh" and "Astro Boi" and "Wavvy Baby."

Thanks to makeup, you could literally travel through time, from one iconic Drew Barrymore era to another. It had that kind of power.

But mostly, I was blown away by the fact that you could use makeup to craft different looks to begin with. It had honestly never occurred to me that you could use makeup the same way you used clothes: to express yourself in different ways, depending on your mood and the context. And it blew my fucking mind that you could use the same bright red lip pigment to transform yourself from a clean-cut, '80s-style prep, à la Drew Barrymore in The Wedding Singer, to a sultry '90s vamp, à la Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy. Thanks to makeup, you could literally travel through time, from one iconic Drew Barrymore era to another. It had that kind of power.

Milk Makeup Lip Pigment, $24, Urban Outfitters

Courtesy of Ej Dickson

What followed next was a full-on Instagram-following spree, where I started obsessively scrolling through the feeds of every MUA or influencer or Parisian It Girl I could find. That was inevitably followed by an actual shopping spree: if someone I thought was cool recommended a product, I would buy it. I was a makeup brand's dream consumer: social media-savvy, but hopelessly susceptible to marketing, with plenty of (OK, some) disposable income.

I felt a little bit like Maria from that scene in The Sound of Music when she sees the curtains in her room and decides to use them to make new playclothes for the Von Trapp children: revitalized, like I suddenly had a new purpose.

I had no idea that many of the products I bought even existed before, let alone that they were considered must-haves. A highlighter by BECCA in Champagne Glow? I didn't know what highlighter was or where it went or what it did, but OK. A $40 tube of BB cream by the Korean brand Dr. Jart+? Well, this famous British makeup artist had said it would make my skin "glow" and look "dewy," and "dewy" was both the name of my favorite Malcolm in the Middle character and something that I wanted my skin to be, so sure.

BECCA Highlighter In Champagne Pop, $38, Sephora;  Dr. Jart + BB Cream, $39, Sephora

My husband thought my newfound obsession was cute. My mom was relieved that I had finally taken her advice and started giving a sh*t about looking polished and put-together for a change. I felt a little bit like Maria from that scene in The Sound of Music when she sees the curtains in her room and decides to use them to make new playclothes for the Von Trapp children: revitalized, like I suddenly had a new purpose.

Courtesy of Ej Dickson

There are lots of things I like about buying makeup. I like obsessing over new product reviews the way techies do over consumer write-ups of new Apple products (and I like defending the intellectual value of the former, to sexist morons who think the latter is somehow more worthwhile). I like the routine of applying a dab or two of primer (No. 7's hypoallergenic colour calming primer) before putting on a full face in the morning, or Milk Makeup's matcha toner when I get out of the shower. In high school, I smoked a sh*t ton of weed (I know — so cool, right?), and as much as I loved the actual feeling of being stoned, I enjoyed the routine of smoking pot — grinding up the weed, sprinkling it into the papers, trying to convince the smokers in the circle to surrender one of their Parliaments to make a spliff before free period ended — even more. (Kids who vape are totally missing out.) It's kinda the same thing with makeup: I prefer the routine of putting it on and taking it off more than the actual byproduct.

No. 7 Hypoallergenic Colour Calming Primer, $13, Boots

Most of all, though, I like that it makes me feel beautiful, but I don't mean that in the conventional sense. I don't believe that using the right bronzer can make pale, sallow skin look like it glows from within or that contouring can make your nose look smaller or that $200 La Mer cream gets rid of undereye circles or that buying the creme blush Gal Gadot's makeup artist used in Wonder Woman will make you look like Gal Gadot. I don't think that makeup has the power to make a plain girl pretty, or even a pretty girl prettier. Unless you're blessed with the skills of a YouTube MUA, I don't even think it can "transform" your look. If you don't resemble Drew Barrymore in either her early- or late-90s incarnations, then buying a $40 lip tint isn't going to change that.

I don't think that makeup has the power to make a plain girl pretty, or even a pretty girl prettier. But I do think that makeup makes me feel like I'm at least trying to retain the vestiges of the person I used to be, like I am carving out the space to be more than just a mom.

But I do know the value that makeup has had for me: at a time when my body has changed and I feel like I have no control over it, and at a time when our culture is telling me that my identity as a sexually attractive woman has been permanently subsumed into my identity as a mother, using makeup makes me feel like I'm at least trying to retain the vestiges of the person I used to be. That person had no responsibilities and no interests other than wearing low-cut tops and taking selfies and going to bars and trying to get stockbrokers she would never, ever date to ask for her number. I don't particularly like that person; she wasn't very smart or interesting, and I am much wiser and more mature and fulfilled now. But goddamn if that person, that vain, silly, ridiculous person, wasn't a lot of fun.

Using makeup makes me feel like I am that person again, or at least, that I am making an effort to try to be that person again. It makes me feel like I am carving out the space and energy to be more than just a mom. And even if I never lose the baby weight and never figure out how to properly contour, I think carving out that space is important.