For Incarcerated Women, Makeup Can Symbolize Their Humanity


Over at Racked, Marien Komar has written a fascinating piece on both the history of contraband cosmetics in prisons (did you know that you can make lipstick from the dye of a book cover?), as well as the importance of makeup to incarcerated women today.

I recommend reading the entire article, but there were a few segments that felt especially worth highlighting, especially considering the current major flaws in our criminal justice system, which is more purposed for punishment and containment than it is rehabilitation. It’s through this lens that cosmetics—considered a (low-end) luxury item by most—becomes so much more to women inmates:

“We lost so much, and most women in the penitentiary have been abused and traumatized for most of their lives,” Monica Cosby, who has been previously incarcerated for 20 years and is now a prison reform activist, shares. Not being able to put on makeup feeds back into that abusive loop. “Having someone have that degree of control over you — deciding on whether or not you can wear makeup — is a power dynamic of taking choice away, and it’s abuse.”

The presence of beauty products and access in prisons can also have a positive impact on these women’s lives post incarceration.

The history of compacts in prisons shows us that allowing women beauty products has had positive reintegrating results. Pin curls and shampoo signified salvation in 1958, when the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village opened a hair salon inside its walls. The parlor was opened to teach the women a skill so they could quickly rejoin society once they were released, and seeing how they were freed with an average of 25 cents in cash — or a little over two dollars in today’s times — preparing them for work was a common-sense policy.
But the need for salon chairs wasn’t just about money; it was also necessary to help fix a much deeper problem. Mrs. Edith Imre, an owner of a successful beauty shop on 56th Street, was the one who advocated for the salon after she saw the conditions of the prison meant to house the 600 plus inmates. “No matter what she has done, every woman has a right to self-esteem,” Mrs. Imre said. And that’s what it’s all about: It’s not about having a new dye job on the taxpayer’s dollar, as the naysayers say, but holding onto a sense of control and learning how to rebuild (or even discover) one’s sense of worth.

Read the rest of Komar’s piece here.

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