I have a problem. Maybe it’s vanity, maybe it’s rigidity of routine, but whatever the cause, it’s this: I cannot leave my home without makeup. In fact, if I don’t apply makeup even on a day I plan to spend home alone with kids and no husband, washing dishes and digging in the garden, I still feel oddly incomplete. It feels like something minor yet nearly essential is missing, like a fingertip or an earlobe. It feels simply wrong.
I wish I weren’t like this. I wish I didn’t feel the need to extra-feminize and perfect my face for even the most simple human encounter. I wish I weren’t still writhing in shame for having greeted the UPS carrier yesterday with a face bare of makeup except for mascara and tinted lip balm (plus, unfortunately, Capri-length yoga pants paired unflatteringly with too-long socks). I wish I could wear cosmetics as a deliberate, occasional choice, rather than a compulsion.
I remember when my rigid routine began. I was maybe fourteen. Makeup was new to me, and I was at the age when kids on the Christian commune where I grew up were sometimes given occasional, informal lessons on etiquette and rather old-fashioned comportment. For girls, this involved exercises like walking with books on our heads, standing with our feet angled just so, practicing lowering ourselves gracefully with knees together and spines straight to retrieve a dropped item, and setting a table correctly.
And we learned to apply makeup. Just like the lessons in comportment, this was informal — and not, I realize now, meant to be part of that curriculum. One of the “aunts,” as we called many of the women around our mothers’ ages, was a Mary Kay consultant, and she would sometimes hold parties at which the teenage girls were especially welcome. She’d show us, step by step, exactly what to do: how to apply makeup in a ladylike and reasonably modest manner. She gave us pointers like “Never wear eyeliner without lipstick” and “Always put on foundation.” And she told us, gently, firmly, and repeatedly, that a lady always applies makeup before leaving her home.
I know she wanted to give us an edge in life, the advantage of beauty and confidence. She couldn’t have known to what ridiculous extent I would internalize her advice. I don’t know why I was so susceptible to suggestion in this area, but somehow her iron-strong will, clothed as it was in charm and elegance, imposed itself on me.
My mother rarely wore any significant amount of makeup, but she had no problem with my own dabbling. She even showed me the basics and helped me buy and apply my first cosmetics. And, possibly knowing that I was in danger of being influenced away from her nearly-feminist tendencies, she gave me her own makeup advice: “Use makeup to highlight your best features, not to paint on a new face.” It’s good advice, I think. Thanks to her, I keep my makeup minimal, sometimes nearly invisible. But it’s there.
These days, Sofie is extra-needy in the morning before breakfast, and I often find myself applying makeup with her on my hip. She watches in the mirror, smiling to see our faces together. Her baby hands reach out for my tools. Occasionally her success results in mascara-blackened fingers or a scraping of blush under her tiny fingernails. Sometimes I hand her a fluffy brush, and she chuckles as she strokes first her face, then mine. I love sharing these moments, but part of me cringes.
I want you to be braver than I am, I want to tell her. I want you to be bold. I want your confidence in yourself to be unconnected to your makeup skills. I want you to show the world your real face without shame.
But another part of me looks forward to teaching her how it all works. First foundation, next cover-up, now blush… Never wear eyeliner without lipstick… Use lip liner so your lipstick doesn’t smudge. I want to dive with her into a new world of grown-up glamour. Nail polish, high heels, the perfect stockings for that special party dress.
In the best scenario, we’ll find balance. She won’t hear a lovingly firm, well-meaning, Southern-tinged voice in her head, telling her that a lady should never leave her house without makeup. I’ll remind her that cosmetics should be used to complement her best features, not give herself a new face. And I’ll give her my own advice: “Only wear makeup if you feel like it. Take a break now and then. Be brave. Don’t let anyone else tell you how your face should look.”
And maybe, just maybe, Sofia will go into the world with confidence and beauty, free from the need to change her face to satisfy someone else’s idea of what women should look like.