Lessons from a newish makeup fan with SMA

Why self-expression is so important for people with disabilities

Sherry Toh avatar

by Sherry Toh |

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Makeup and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years.

We were introduced when I was a kid. Though I don’t remember much of my childhood because of relational and medical trauma, I do vividly remember my mum taking me to buy lip gloss when we were on vacation in Malaysia. It was a deep, almost glittery pink shade that smelled like strawberries. I loved it so much that I excitedly wanted to share it with my friends. My mum had to tell me it was unhygienic to share lip products, then promise me we’d buy the gloss for them on our next vacation.

As I grew into teenhood, my interest in makeup faded like cheap blush. I felt like no matter how hard I tried to look pretty, all people would focus on when they saw me were my wheelchair and hunchback. I stopped caring about my appearance entirely. It was pointless, I thought, to doll myself up for no one to appreciate.

Moreover, I lost the strength my arms and wrists required to apply makeup on my own. I didn’t want to bother my mum or the caregivers we hired with extra work.

There were blips in time where I snapped out of the aforementioned thoughts, but I was never as interested in makeup as the little girl who wanted to look like a princess.

Well, until I turned 20.

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Turning 20 was a huge milestone for me. At the time, I’d just joined a singles group on impulse. Why not? A friend of mine was telling me to dare putting myself out there if I desired romance, after all. It seemed like the right idea at the time.

I didn’t find my perfect match in the group. (That match would only be found a couple years later.) But I did find compassionate, wise people — such as my friend and fellow columnist Brianna Albers — who gave me reasons to confront my internalized ableism. Slowly but surely, I started to see things differently, and I thought I could maybe try caring about my appearance again. This time, not for others to admire, but for me to bring out a more confident version of myself — similar to how artists and writers show off different aspects of themselves by painting with colors and words on canvases and paper.

A birthday gift from my mum’s sister gave me the perfect nudge. She didn’t know what to get me for my 20th, so she picked up a gift set that included eyeshadow, highlighter, and glittery pink lip gloss from a European company. I later bought myself liquid eyeliner and liquid lipstick — products I’d always wanted to try thanks to Hollywood red carpets.

I didn’t expect what happened next.

Not only was I more willing to have photos taken of me, but learning how to apply makeup on my face became something I could bond over with caregivers. People even started complimenting how I presented myself. I felt much more confident, more like a 20-something figuring herself out, rather than nothing but a disabled body obscuring the person I was. All because I started seeing makeup as a tool of self-expression instead of a way to acquire positive attention.

The COVID-19 pandemic did throw a wrench in my healing relationship with makeup for a couple years, much as it did with many other things in our lives. Because we were all locked down and masked up, I didn’t want my caregivers to go through the extra trouble for no one to look at their work. But now that I’m vaccinated and the masking guidelines in Singapore, where I live, have been relaxed, I’m reaching for my glittery lip gloss again. I’ve even added a few products to my repertoire, and I was gifted my new prized mascara by my girlfriend recently.

An invitation to be bold, in color and in life

Aside from wanting a break from all the emotionally heavier columns I’ve been writing, I wanted to write this one for a couple other reasons. Firstly, I know many women my age have complicated relationships with makeup. We’re taught from a young age that we have to conform to whatever norm the cosmetics, skin care, and fashion industries have set for us. Secondly, I know many disabled folks struggle with asking for help with our self-expression.

But I’ve learned that things don’t have to be this way. We can enjoy painting our faces simply because the paint helps us reflect our personalities, and our loved ones can have fun with us in the endeavor. A lot of us had those experiences when we were kids. Why not as adults?

This Disability Pride Month, I dare you to express who you are in ways you’ve only dreamed of, just for you. You never know what could happen.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


Kathleen avatar


Hi Sherry! I’m delighted to have stumbled onto your blog. I’ve had ms since childhood and wheelchair bound since 2008. Lymphadema causes weight gain in my face/ neck so I stopped wearing makeup awhile a go. I used to love mascara, liner and lipstick but am afraid to now. My caregivers probably wouldn’t mind trying it as my hands don’t work as well anymore. You have motivated me to try again. Thank you for sharing! Best wishes to you. 🌸😊


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