Last weekend, I took the early morning train down to southwest London to meet an image stylist named J. For a service swap, I would receive my colour analysis and she a full Thai Yoga massage. Neither of us had either work done, but both were open to the experience. J had had her colours done twenty years ago when she worked in the City, transforming her wardrobe, but more importantly, enabling her to feel completely confident in any male-dominated corporate boardroom. As for myself, after twenty years of fumbling about retail stores and dodging make-up counters, I was about to receive the opinion of a professional. This was exactly my kind of “girly” activity.

I arrived with my massage gear and J greeted me, looking sharp in a teal green top with black skirt, jewellery, and sandals. Her silvery hair was swept up and perfectly coiffed. She promptly whisked me up to her office which was a pleasant white room filled with framed fabric swatches grouped in Autumn, Summer, Spring, and Winter, an immaculately displayed wall of long scarves and jewellery, a variety of belts, a clothes rack filled with hanging tops of different shapes and colours, a tall cabinet full of make-up, and a floor rack of neck scarves the spectrum of the rainbow. In front of the window where the sunlight weakly shone was a mirror.

After an initial introduction, she got to work and asked me to sit in front of the mirror. “Now, most women, at least the English ones, make disparaging remarks about their appearance,” she said, neatly cutting off any emanation from me. In the natural sunlight, I looked haggard, noticing the dark circles under my eyes and crinkling skin. She deftly matched my skin tone with the proper shade of foundation, while I told her my utter avoidance of make-up counters, confessing my lifetime of tomboyishness which was further reinforced by a mother who did not support any exploration into makeup, and downplayed her own femininity completely.

“I have felt out of step with most women, despite being one myself, simply because I never had any desire to play with make-up, nor have anyone come near me with a foundation-covered sponge,” I said. In fact, the few times friends have urged me into the make-up chair, I had to resist the violent temptation to elbow the attendant as she dabbed over my face, my spine rigid and not relaxed at something considered indulgent. More than once, I’ve come out of those chairs looking like a battered transvestite, feeling nothing but the urge to run into the nearest shower. Now with J gently blending the correct makeup to my face, I lost my inhibition and desire to inflict physical injury, because I finally felt at ease. “Those department stores prey on women’s insecurities and are in it for the sales,” I told her, “I’ve always felt like I was being taken for a ride.”

J said, “If you don’t know what colours are good on you, then yes, you are walking into the situation blind.” I reflected on the sheer amount of money the fashion and cosmetic industries made off of women who did not know their perfect shade, or the magazines that touted the latest trends that brainwashed women into thinking they could have “that look”.

Using coloured neckerchief after contrasting neckerchief, J determined that because I was of Chinese descent, my pigmentation held more yellow undertones. “You are a Winter colour,” she intoned, “Therefore, you need colours of a bluer tone to offset what nature has given you.” Winter colours are “clear, bright, vivid, icy, and have high contrast value.” She then matched a shade of lipstick I never would have picked: a very bright fuchsia. Then a bright burgundy. And finally, a cool red. I stared at my mouth, astonished at the gaudiness of the colour. J said, “Most women recoil when I apply their correct shade of lipstick simply because it stands out and that’s all they are focusing on. It’s like when you buy a new piece of furniture, say an armchair. And every time you enter your living room, all you can focus on is that armchair. Then pretty soon, you stop noticing it, and start absorbing the room as a whole. That’s how it is initially with new lipstick. Focus not on your mouth, but how it accents the rest of you.” I must admit, her advice was hard to digest, since looking at my reflection, all I could think about were those red-lipped Shanghai postered women of the 1940s. All I needed to complete the image was to wear a cheongsam. The colour heightened the bows and curves of my lips, making them look simultaneously healthy and pouty.

J then layered each Winter colour neckerchief around my neck. She started with the basics: bright white, silver, light grey, charcoal, and black. Then indigo, royal purple, navy, electric blue, stone, fuchsia, magenta, shocking pink, raspberry, carmine, scarlet. These deep, vibrant colours flashed around my face. As she added Chinese Blue, Light Emerald, and Pine Green, I told her, “You’re really going to have to help me, because I’ve blinders on against greens all my life, and I just won’t be able to see them.” J nodded. As she laid Lagoon Blue over Dark Emerald, I found it difficult to raise my eyes, having mentally associated these hues as “ugly”. I forced myself to look in the mirror. Finally, J added the Ice colours. I found myself a bit dazed, and confessed to J, “There are some colours that I have never had close to my face…and yet, they work!” When she lifted the neckerchiefs in reverse order, I asked her to slow down on the greens. True enough, the second time around, my eyes saw objectively the colour range I never envisioned matching my skin tone.

What a revelation! My mind revolted against the maternal notions that I’d been raised with, “No blues or greens for Chinese skin. Stick with reds and browns. Yellow is great for you!” All this time, I’d been wearing the wrong colours, sublimating myself. J said, “Well, the purples really rank well,” as she rated me a Sultry Winter. Indeed, with the rich jewel-like tones, I was beginning to feel rather good about myself! My imagination started to fly with the colour combinations available.

I won’t bore you with a description of the Thai Yoga massage I gave J. I’ll only say that afterwards, she sat up slowly as I handed her a glass of water, and exclaimed, “That was amazing!” Really, she stole the words out of my mouth, as we both enjoyed this mutual exchange. Each woman was transformed by what the other had to offer, and when we parted ways, I felt we had touched each other’s lives deeply.

Leaving J’s house, I’d gotten used to the bright red lipstick outlining my mouth, and as I walked up to order a cheeseburger for the tube ride home, I began feeling the slight internal shift in confidence level. It was as if my spirit had absorbed all those colours she’d laid upon me, and knowing that they were personally my palette, the colours shone out from deep inside me, projecting a new self-assurance, femininity, and sensuality I’d not possessed before.

Erica, 34, London UK