Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Meditation on Makeup

Pussycat, Pussycat,
You're so thrilling
And I'm so willing
To care for you.
So go and make up your cute little pussycat eyes!

-- Burt Bacharach, 1965

A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman who lacks an eye.

-- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, ca 1790

This last week I did something I have never done before, in spite of the fact that I am a modern woman in the modern world.  I wore makeup.  A lot of it.

It happened because of THE RIVER OF NO RETURN.  I was filmed for a book trailer, and apparently you have to wear a full face of slap when you are on camera or else you look horrible.   So there I sat, in fear and trepidation, while the makeup artist opened her magical suitcase, pulled out her pots and potions, and began waving her wand.  After 45 minutes I had a whole new face.  Including false eyelashes – but not the kind that come in a strip.  She planted little sprigs of three lashes each in among my own meager crop.  When finally I looked at myself in the mirror I saw . . .

But let me back up.   

My mother doesn’t wear makeup because she was raised by a woman who thought makeup was for Ladies of the Night.  My mother doesn’t think that, but she never owned any and didn’t teach her daughters how to use it. 

Me and Andrea in our everyday girl wear
Also I grew up in New England in the 1970s, and the girl-boy thing was a little different back then.  The aisles of the toy stores weren’t divided by the Great Pink Wall of Gender. We all wore jeans and t-shirts and sneakers to school and they weren’t color coded, i.e., girls did not wear primarily and predominantly pink at all times.  Which is not to say we were all Baby X.  Our parents did their best to ensure that our genders matched our sexes, and we, ourselves, were belligerent little gender police.  Woe betide the girl with a GI Joe lunchbox or the boy who chose to play the flute.  No, I’m not saying gender wasn’t a thing – merely that it was a different thing in that place and time than it is now.  “Tomboy” was so much the norm for girls that it wasn’t even a word anyone used.  It was therefore perfectly possible to get through a girlhood without ever once thinking about lipstick.

But that all came to a crashing halt with the end of childhood.  Being thirteen is all about gender, and has been ever since the first cave children started seventh grade in the first cave junior high.

I hit seventh grade like a bird hitting a glass window, and one skill I did not have in order to pick myself up and start inventing myself as a teenager was the ancient and venerable art of using makeup.

Me at 13.  I've only punched one eye hole in my mask!
Why didn’t I learn to wield the brushes and pencils at that point?  I was only thirteen.  My brain was still a sponge.  My fine motor skills were still precisely tuned.  I wanted, like everyone else on the planet when they are thirteen, to fit in.  And like everyone else on the planet when they are thirteen, I didn’t realize that no one fits in and that all thirteen-year-olds are equally miserable, with or without strawberry flavored lip-gloss.

I think my excuses are unassailable.  I failed to achieve makeup competency because of physical disability and criminal tendency.

It was like this.  When I went to junior high my parents wanted me to have a job, so one night I agreed to babysit for the couple who lived behind us.  They had a very nice house:  he was a professor, she was a psychiatrist.  They introduced me to their angelically sleeping progeny and left.  Hours passed, they had no TV, they had no novels.  They were readers of newspapers and non-fiction.  I wandered from room to room, peering at everything.  Eventually I found myself in the psychiatrist’s personal bathroom, playing with her makeup collection.

Needless to say, it ended in mascara-stained tears.  Not only because I’d never learned how to put the stuff on in the first place, but because I am also blind in one eye.

Think about the impossible mechanics of that for a second. 

So the scenario is, a half-blind girl tries makeup for the first time, including eyeliner and mascara on and around and in both eyes.  She does so by stealing the supplies of a woman who has hired her in good faith to look after a six-month-old baby.  She fails to erase the evidence because she doesn’t know that soap and water won't wash off oil-based cosmetics. 

Needless to say I never babysat again.  Nor did I ever dabble in the cosmetic arts.  Until last week.

Which brings us back to the moment where, after being brushed and primped and false-eyelashed for three quarters of an hour, I looked at myself in the mirror.  I expected to see Tammy Faye Baker, may she rest in peace.  

Usually I would say of myself that my face has character.  I use it all day long to communicate what is in my head and my heart, and it does its job willingly.  I like my face, I wouldn’t trade it. 

Now I saw what that face might look like had I actually learned how to – and been physically capable of – using makeup.  I looked the same . . . but different.  I understood for the first time what people mean when they say that makeup makes them feel like they have their armor on.   With “my face on” I, who had been dreading the filming, was ready, indeed I was happy, to go in front of the camera.  The false eyelashes and eyeliner – which I had expected to make me look freakish – were the best part.  They made my brown eyes, which usually have a greenish tint to them, glow with a chestnut warmth that I really liked.  I had a fantastic day. 

I doubt I'll suddenly start wearing makeup regularly now.  There's the problem of the blind eye, and to be honest, I'm really just a bare-faced, roll-out-of-bed-and-start-the-day kind of son-of-a-gun.  But now I know what makeup is for, I know how it feels, and -- I like it.

Early the next morning, face washed (I knew to use makeup remover this time), eyelashes all mine, I sat in the little Pret A Manger that faces onto Trafalgar Square.  I was perched on a stool at the bar, looking out the window, eating porridge and thinking about not very much at all, when I realized that the roundabout, usually chock-a-block with double decker busses and taxis, was empty.  A motorcade was coming through the massive iron gates that lead to the mall.  Two motorcycles with blue lights flashing went slowly past, followed by a black Rolls.  The Rolls didn’t have shaded windows. There in the back seat sat Queen Elizabeth II.    

The big car sailed smoothly past, carrying the monarch in solitary state the wrong way round the deserted roundabout.  She was looking straight ahead, but then, like that moment in the subway when the person you are staring at looks up and catches your glance, she turned her face and it seemed that she looked right at me.  It was a shocking feeling. But why it should be shocking, I don’t know.  After all I was gawping at her, and if a cat can look at a king, a king can look at a cat.  Funnily enough, thinking back on it, the only detail I can really remember about the Queen’s face was the shade of her lipstick.  It was a very distinctive coral pink.  

I believe I could pick that shade out of the 64 pack of Crayola crayons I had back in the 1970s, back before I knew what lipstick really was.

Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

 -- Nursery Rhyme, first published 1805


  1. Make-up is all in the news right now-- celebrity women braving taking it off. And here you are, bravely putting it on! I'm also a product of the no-make-up generation and I find the whole floor of Macys dedicated to the art thoroughly intimidating. But maybe that is really because the last time someone did my face was when I was in a high school drama production, and well, that didn't exactly impress me in the mirror.

    1. Yes, I suppose I am usually contrary that way. And I think it's nice to come to makeup late in life. I certainly don't think I have to wear it, or that it is the real me or that I'm ugly without it. Which is good because it really is impossible to put it on myself, at least if I want to have my eyes done! I could go around with one eye fixed up and one eye plain . . . I'd look like Petey the dog in The Little Rascals!

  2. I never wore make up either until my daughter taught me what to buy, where to buy it, and how to use it. I never would have managed to enter, let alone navigate a cosmetics store. She learned all her technique from You Tube.

    1. Isn't YouTube amazing? I love the fact that your daughter taught you. I like to think that I have taught my mother many things . . . !

  3. What a beautifully written post Bee... thanks so much for sharing your thoughts

    Eleanor put me in touch with your little piece and I am so thrilled that she did! On a number of levels - mainly becuase I got to take 5 minutes out with my cup of herbal tea and read a beautifully written piece of work but also because you have found the power of makeup and the beauty behind it! I am a hair and makeup artist working in the film&television industry so I work with it at every level on a daily basis on other people

    But for me and my own personal makeup love, it gives me a sense of power and yes as you put it "armour" which allows me to put my "best face forward". There's no need for makeup to receive the bad press that it still does - it needs people like yourself to write so beautifully about the power of it :)

    Thank you again and have a wonderful week

    I will be keeping my eye out for your book when it is published

    Lucy, Makeup Like A Pro

    1. Thank you so very much, Lucy! I'm delighted that you enjoyed my post. It really was a revelation -- and a lot of it was because an artist like you worked so long and carefully on me.

  4. You definitely put a brand new spin on a topic that's been written about for years. Nice stuff, just great!MEDITATION.

  5. Incredible post I might want to thank you for the endeavors you have made in composing this fascinating and proficient article. long hairstyles for women

  6. Fine Posting, We're an important believer around writing commentary for web pages so that you can allow the site freelancers realise that theyĆ¢€™ve increased a little something valuable so that you can the ether!