Not so long ago, my mother-in-law took me to Bloomingdale’s so I could try on my first real makeup. I was 34. I had worn mascara and lipstick. I had owned eyeshadow. But I’d never thought to apply colored cream (or powder, or cream-to-powder) all over my face on a daily basis. Until I started looking old.
An hour later, I left the store transformed, my newly purchased makeup bouncing along in the brown bag like a first box of tampons. Back home, my husband smiled when he saw my face. Wow, he said, that’s a lot of makeup. I giggled. It was a lot, but I felt gorgeous and bold.
Then our three-year-old daughter, Sylvie, saw me. She stared for about two seconds before bursting into tears. “Mommy! Not Mommy!” she screamed.
I held her—trying not to smear her face with Luminizing Satin Face Color—and soothed her with calm words, even as part of me wondered if she was right: Had I become someone else? I wondered, too, if it was Sylvie who’d driven me to it. Wasn’t it she who made me feel so old, not only because of the sleepless nights she’d occasioned but also because, next to her poreless skin and smooth, compact body, I couldn’t look any other way? As I held her, I grew aware of the makeup, felt it stiffening my skin. That made me feel even older, as if instead of hiding my lines, it had revealed my desperation. “This is Mommy,” I said, rocking her. “I’m Mommy. I just painted my face.”
I came so late to cosmetics partly because of my temperament, partly because of my personal aesthetics but mostly because of my mother and her habits. I have no childhood memories of watching my mother put on makeup. She remembers “some moisturizer” she bought at the Harvard Coop when she was 40, and a particularly nice Lancôme eyeliner in aqua that a friend had let her try. She wore her hair frizzy. When she taught me how to shave my legs, she said it should be done only in a bathtub, which told me how often (not very) she shaved her own. My mother was—is—beautiful, but in an accidental, haphazard-seeming way. She was 36 when she had me and 40 when she had my sister, which in the late ’70s was so radical that our family appeared on Good Morning America, yet she never spoke about feeling or looking old. She wanted us to be confident and to that end instilled in us the idea that appearances were just that. What really mattered was inside us. In our bathroom, directly across from the toilet, hung an old-fashioned sampler that read a well-kept house is the sign of an ill-spent life.
We were sent to feminist summer camps and raised within a certain New England culture in which hair was usually allowed to go gray and the only statement clothing made, if it spoke at all, was one of natural, easy understatement. Makeup, jewelry, money: All of these could be deployed, but only if one did so quietly.
Even in this culture, of course, beauty was prized. Beauty is always prized. I must have known that even as a tween, because in private I despaired of my frizzy hair. But to admit that one put any real effort into appearing beautiful was seen as its own form of ugliness.
As it turned out, my mother’s apparent lack of effort, and her insistence that smart and strong trump pretty, were an act of rebellion (or, as she would say, survival). She’d been raised in Charleston, South Carolina, by a mother who spent most of her time putting on makeup and shopping for clothes. “You were either a girl or a lady,” my mother says, “and a lady is what I was raised to be.” She was still in grade school when her mother let her know that her nose was too Jewish and, later on, that her breasts were too large. Like other girls her age, my mother wore girdles and garter belts and even a little makeup. Then she went north to Mount Holyoke College, where the girls were in blue jeans. My mother closed her trunk of fancy suits and handbags, let her hair grow long and bought a wool crewneck sweater that she wore until spring.
That was the woman I knew: the one in the sweater. The one who didn’t bother with gardening or dish gloves, or any gloves at all. The one who’d left the South, gotten her doctorate and never looked back.