I don't remember exactly when my first purchase of makeup occurred, but because my mother enforced strict rules regarding the age she felt it was appropriate for young girls to begin painting their faces, I know it was sometime after my 13th birthday. I'm sure it was in a drugstore, as department stores were well beyond my 25-cents-an-hour babysitting income. I would guess that the cherry-popping purchase was a frosted pink Yardley lipstick and frosted blue Cover Girl eye shadow. No doubt I somehow believed — thank you, Mad Men — that using the two products together would magically transform me into some hybrid of Twiggy and Cybill Shepherd, the models tied to the respective brands.
Unsurprisingly — despite my blond hair and blue eyes — it did not. But that first disappointment did not deter me from signing on for a lifelong relationship with cosmetic companies and buying into the alluring promises they dangle before our mascara-laden eyes.
Like so many other things in our lives, we can point the first finger of blame at our mothers. Long before I was old enough to pore over magazines or be targeted by television commercials promising perfection via product, I sat on my parents' bed, hypnotized as my mother "made up" before a date with my dad, or "put on her face" before going out on her rounds as an Avon Lady, or even just to take her five kids shopping for new school clothes. Even today, one year shy of 80, my mother would sooner walk out of her house stark naked than without some shade of coral on her lips.
My own Life in Makeup is a meandering path. In my mid-teens — after a brief term as a white-booted, short-skirted, rolled-haired and fully made-up majorette — I committed myself to the hippie lifestyle. Though I never went so far as to stop shaving my legs or armpits or reject the thoughtful manners of deodorant, there was a period of time in the very serious early '70s when my friends and I considered wearing makeup to be the worst possible thing you could do. It would make you irrelevant — much like good grades, curfews, proms and parents.
I went to school, my job at a youth center, concerts, peace rallies and protest marches au naturel, just like all my girlfriends at the time. As one of the most-played hit records of 1970 reminded us, "Everybody's beautiful, in their own way."
When I got out of high school, I got a job as a Miss Messenger, one of a fleet of attractive young women couriers who delivered documents and packages by sporty yellow automobiles to offices in Wilmington, Del., and via Amtrak to more exotic locales like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. Aside from knowing how to drive and read a map or how to hop a cab from the train station to the package's destination, the most important attributes a Miss Messenger possessed were the figure to wear a very short, form-fitting orange dress with shiny patent boots and a pretty, well-made-up face for the clients. We fancied ourselves the on-land version of stewardesses, or slightly more covered Playboy bunnies, minus the tail and ears.
To be honest, I was glad to reconnect with the cosmetic culture; I only felt secure walking around barefaced when everyone else was doing it. Out in the real world, real women wore makeup.
When I moved to New York — where the most breathtaking girls on the planet populated office cubicles, retail counters, coffee shops, parks, bars, restaurants, clubs, delis and subway cars — I felt the pressure to up my game. As songwriters flock to Nashville and artists to Paris, stunning women set their compass to Manhattan to pursue a career as a model or actress. I did some casual modeling and was utterly humbled by the time and amount of products it took to turn me into something acceptable for even the most minimal standards of consumer-quality beauty.
All the city was a stage, and going without makeup within the orbit of your visage-gifted sisters was a surefire way to remain forever single, just one short step from turning into a haggard bag lady with a leathered face and hair like a tangled ball of steel wool.
When I moved south, I found in some quarters an embrace of artifice, with women of all ages masking their faces in near kabuki fashion. Heavy makeup on stage or at a black-tie gala is one thing, but full foundation, concealer, blush, powder, eye shadow, liner, mascara and lips at church, the office, PTSA meetings, college classrooms, the gym and even the pool was a disconcerting sight. I found myself staring intently at their faces, wondering what they really looked like.
It's the same question that supports the ever-popular tabloid headline "Stars Without Makeup!" I admit, I'm sucked in by that as much as "Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong!" and "Best and Worst Beach Bodies!" (I skip right to the worst. Who doesn't?)
What compels women to spend, over their lifetimes, the equivalent of a small country's annual budget to purchase enough cosmetics to fill a Florida sinkhole? History, tradition, ritual, convention and societal expectations are all part of the equation, though I suspect insecurity is at least as much a driving factor. I know it was for me, and it remains so.
Ironically, it is often the youngest women with the least to hide who overdo most egregiously. It's also a habit that is hard to break once one is accustomed to her covered skin, darkened lashes, lined eyes, rouged cheeks and painted lips. Perhaps that accounted for my mother's attempt to keep my virgin skin free of cosmetic tyranny for as long as possible; I know it played into the line of demarcation I set for my own daughter — the age of 13, the same one my mother set for me.
I buy makeup and I wear makeup, just not as habitually, heavily or mindlessly as I once did. It boosts my mood when I'm headed out on the town with more youthful pals, and comes in handy after a late night exercising the poor judgment I more easily recovered from in my 20s.
I'm nowhere near declaring that it's time for the long gray braid and sensible shoes — I'll outlive everybody expecting that moment. But the older I get, the more empowering it feels to turn a naked face to the world. It could be that I've gained self-confidence with age, or learned to see right through false promises. Or maybe when it comes to what in the long run are essentially irrelevant worries, my give-a-damn is fading as fast as last night's lipstick.
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