What Orange Is the New Black Gets so Right About Prison

Thankfully for those of us that can't seem to get enough of the women of Litchfield Correctional Institution, the fourth season of Orange Is The New Black showed up on Netflix on Friday. And the perfect companion for binge-watching the new season? Chandra Bozelko's Elle piece, "Orange is the New Black Gets Prison Beauty Culture Right (and I Should Know)".

Bozelko spent more than six years in a maximum security prison for identity-theft-related crimes, and she says "Although OITNB's Litchfield Correctional Institution's cosmetology room is somewhat romanticized— Sophia rules it with such extravagant beauty contraband as extensions and hair dye, and inmates can never wear sunglasses à la Lorna Morello— prison beauty culture is one of the realities that the show portrays best."

Think about Piper and how pale she looks in prison versus how she looks in the flashbacks. The women of Litchfield have nothing, but they'll do anything to maintain their sense of self and, just like it does for a lot of women outside of prison, that includes makeup. Alex needs her black eyeliner and Morello needs her red lipstick in order to feel like themselves.

When Bozelko entered prison at 35 years old, she says it "was the first time in my life when I didn't care what I looked like, mostly because I didn't know what I looked like." The mirrors weren't mirrors at all, but steel rectangles. "I could make out that I had hair and a white face," she writes. "Shadows here and there showed I had eyes, nose, and a mouth, but details remained elusive. It might have bothered me, but I was lucky to be totally under the delusion that I was leaving any day. I could return to myself when I returned home." Any day turned out to be six years later.

"I wish I could say that not wanting or being able to focus on my appearance freed me to see inner beauty, but prison's an ugly place no matter what the view."

Bozelko explains that women in her prison would get creative just like the women on OITNB. One woman, Roxie, trimmed her own hair with nail clippers and "used the brush from a broken nail polish bottle to paint her cupid's bow with the red coating from Fireball candies." Roxie became the Macgyver of cosmetics. "She made eye shadow from crushed pastel crayons she pilfered from craft classes, created bronzer from instant coffee grounds mixed into a lotion base, blusher from a child's watercolor paint set, and lipliner from colored pencils," Bozelko explains.

Amazing and innovative, but also against the rules.

"In jail, using anything for an unintended purpose—using crayons on your eyes instead of paper, putting coffee up on your cheeks rather than down your gullet—makes it contraband," writes Bozelko. "There's no way that you have some semblance of a beauty routine without breaking some rules." For that reason she stuck to the limited selection of makeup in the commissary.

But even makeup from the commissary can be an issue. The guards consider all makeup, even that sold legally, to be some sort of contraband. Bozelko writes that many times she had to explain that her black eyeliner was bought from the commissary and was not in fact contraband.

Tensions around makeup in prisons in real life and on TV are high, but Bozelko thinks it's not about cosmetics at all. "It's about our behavior and how we got to the lowest points in our lives," Bozelko explains. Most of the characters on OITNB ended up where they were because they were "somehow rejected or couldn't measure up, and they found acceptance in criminal enterprise", she writes.

 Bozelko thinks that the more than 200,000 women prisoners in the United States are there "partly because the expectations that are placed on women to appear a certain way, to act a certain way, to succeed a certain way don't help us float through life. Instead, they drag us down and can cause us to make serious mistakes and poor decisions. Some of us aren't as lucky or as swift or as self-confident as the women who can escape this undertow." She says those women, the ones that can't live up to society's expectations of them, they're "the ones using black mascara and eyeliner like a life raft."