In the summer of ’88, my mother handed me some Avon samples and told me to go put them on in the way she had instructed. Excitedly, I skipped to the bathroom. I was thirteen and not yet allowed to wear makeup, unattended. However, my mother was headed to the other side of town to sell quite a bit of eyeliner to my friend’s mom, and she wanted me to model “appropriate makeup for a young girl,” in case my friend was allowed to wear makeup before I was. (No fair!) It was for the sale, she said.
I liked seeing my mother bustle around the living room, preparing for work. She was a good saleswoman, talented at convincing people they could not live without summer’s citrus-scented lotion or a florescent, pink bangle. Unfortunately, she also struggled with mental illness, which usually caused her to oscillate between abusive behavior and unavailability. Sometimes, though, she was able to pull herself out of bed (a Herculean effort in her condition) and sell Avon. These were my favorite times. It meant that she was out of bed, talking to other human beings, and “fixing herself up.” However, for an “Avon lady,” she didn’t wear that much makeup, even when at a client’s house with her train case of nail polish. She only wore foundation, rouge, mascara (which she didn’t even need), and 80s bubble gum pink lipstick.
Sometimes, she’d allow my younger sister and I to play with the samples. We’d run off to our room, do something terrible to our faces, and come back, smiling in amethyst, liquid eyeliner and maroon gloss. My mother was never a tender woman, but she could, at least, deftly point out when you were wearing too much blush. It was in this manner that I learned to apply makeup.
My mother was a firm believer that makeup had only two purposes: to hide flaws and to accentuate natural beauty. I always wanted her to wear red lipstick, but she informed me that “red lipstick is for fun girls,” only she didn’t call them “fun girls.” Look, it was the 80s and “fun girls” were totally in! Stripper fashion and sexy, music videos writhed and tempted her young daughters, and she hated it. Yet, the legitimacy of red lipstick is the only makeup disagreement we ever had. I still think the right shade looks pretty on anyone, and with her pale skin; dark, brown hair; and green eyes; red lipstick would have made her look like a beautiful vampire from an Anne Rice novel.
Because of my mother’s attitude toward makeup (less is more) I never got that into it. I wore “cover-up” for my teenage acne and, occasionally, bright, blue eyeshadow. In college, I used face powder on my oily skin, and on a pretty day or when I liked a boy, I’d don the forbidden, ruby lip. I’ve never owned mascara or blush.
I still normally wear very little makeup, although it is a comfort to apply a bit each morning. Growing up, I watched as my mother emerged, less and less often, from her darkened bedroom. She had blocked the windows with boards, and she ran the air conditioner—for white noise—all year round. Visiting her was like entering a freezing, black void. Since she rarely joined us, she also rarely got dressed, and years went by without a haircut.
It became important to me that I get dressed in the morning and fix myself up a bit each day. It’s funny; some of my friends say that they love staying in pajamas or not showering because it makes them feel rebellious and satisfied, but these people all had parents who made them breakfast and were still awake when they got home from school. Lounging, unwashed, must feel like a forbidden freedom, but for me, remaining in pajamas feels depressing and uncomfortable, like I’m missing out. I felt so isolated in childhood; the last thing I want to feel, now, is unprepared for company.
Recently, I’ve become more interested in makeup. Before the pandemic, I hardly ever wore eye shadow or lipstick unless I was teaching that day. (I think academia warrants an extra shield.) But these days, I find myself experimenting with highlighter and wearing tinted gloss. I recently found Jaime French’s YouTube channel where she does makeup tutorials and reviews. I particularly like “Makeup and Movie Mondays,” where she pokes fun at movies with daft characters and extreme plot holes, all while she applies her makeup. I don’t know why, but it comforts me to watch her lacquer her lids with lily pad green and to watch how she transforms her fresh, natural face into a glimmering, cat-eyed goddess.
These days, I take my time blending eyeshadow and arching my brow. Now that I don’t commute much for work (or for anything, really) I have extra time in the morning. On most days, it’s likely that no one but my wife (who appreciates but wouldn’t care if I never wore makeup again) will see my curled lashes or berry lips, but I don’t need them to. This year has seen so much pain, it feels right—human even—to create something pretty and unnecessary. I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or the reflection of a window—gold shimmer on my eyes, faint sparkle on my cheeks. I’ll recall my mother’s isolation, how often I would give her a mental make over (fresh haircut, form-fitting jeans, red lips) as I sat alone in the tension of our living room. Powerless. But I also realize then, with a subtle, satisfying flash, that I am an adult now, and I got up this morning, curled my hair and highlighted my cheeks. I brewed coffee and sat on my porch, greeted neighbors and their dogs. The air is crisp, and I am part of this world, of this neighborhood, of a story outside of my home. I’m alive, and I look pretty.
Today, I leave you with Dora Malech’s “Makeup,” which expresses the speaker’s relationship with makeup and with her mother. I particularly like the final image that describes nature’s cosmetics:
Even the earth claims color
once a year, dressed in red leaves
as the trees play Grieving.