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.
It wasn’t until my mother was 62 and my father left their marriage that I recognized her tendency, in the company of certain men, to seem not very strong or smart at all but instead wide-eyed, almost worshipful. She listened with a charming tilt of her head. I felt as if I were glimpsing her at a Citadel hop, circa 1957.
My mother was devastated by my father’s leaving, and not just because it left her alone for the first time in 28 years. It also peeled back the cloak of marriage, the seeming safety of forever. It made clear that she had aged and that her age was not, in fact, irrelevant. She was an older woman in a society that likes its women young. My mother spent a lot of time in bed in the early months. Sorrow and a colitis flare-up took off 20 pounds, and she decided to keep the weight off. She got out of bed and bought nicer clothes. Sometimes I would see her in front of a mirror, pulling back the skin from her jawline, letting it fall again and frowning. She consulted her most put-together friends on makeup and started wearing it every day.
By the time my daughter was born, my mother’s makeup seemed like part of her complexion. And one morning, soon after the Bloomingdale’s trauma, Sylvie went to wake my mother in our guest room, found her sans maquillage and once again burst into tears. My mother understood immediately. It made her feel a little bad, but she understood. “Wait just a second, I’ll put on a little makeup,” she said. Sylvie nodded gratefully. “OK,” she sniffed.
When they came downstairs a short while later, Sylvie kept looking from my mother to me. We were familiar to her now—my mother made up, me not—but back and forth she went, her mouth open, as if at any second we might transform. She seemed to be silently exclaiming, “How many faces these women wear!” I felt a pang of sorrow. Some trust had been stretched, but that wasn’t all. Sylvie is a girl, after all. She knows that she, too, will become a woman someday. And here she was getting a glimpse of how strange and mysterious and possibly scary that might be. She stared and stared at us, too young even to feel shame.
Between that morning and now, I’ve managed to develop a beauty regimen as unique and haphazard as my mother’s. Many days, I wear no makeup at all. Others, I use under-eye highlighter and a flick of mascara. For social or professional events, I break out the foundation, layer on some shadow and line my eyes and lips (thanks to the Bobbi Brown whiz who patiently showed me how).
Each version of my face has become familiar enough to Sylvie that she rarely comments. Yet recently, when I heard her coming down the hall as I was putting on mascara, I panicked and shoved the tube into a drawer. That made me realize I’d gotten comfortable with a double standard: Her knowing about my makeup was one thing, but seeing me apply it? I thought of my mother self-correcting her sagging jawline in the mirror and how she might have felt equally uncomfortable if she’d seen me watching her. Then I wondered, But why? Does hiding our own insecurities and efforts actually encourage our daughters to be stronger women? Could pretending not to care about our beauty or age be just as corrosive as caring too much? Maybe the point isn’t to model total, unattainable confidence for Sylvie but to let her see the real me, with all my contradictions intact.
The next time I heard her coming, I continued applying my mascara.
“Is that grownup stuff?” she asked.
I told her it was.
“Can I put on lipstick?”
I smiled apologetically. “You mean lip balm?”
“Lipstick. Just for pretend?”
I sat down on her step stool, opened a tube of bright pink lipstick and showed her how to hold her mouth. “Now press your lips together,” I said once I was done. Sylvie pursed her lips, wiggled them this way and that and somehow spread the lipstick an inch wide around her mouth. She dabbed at it with her finger, then touched her cheeks, her forehead, her chin. She smiled, pink faced and radiant. “Do I look beautiful?”
A year before, I might have nodded yes, then said, “But what’s important is on the inside!” Now, though, I was overcome by just how beautiful Sylvie really is. I let it all in: her skin, her eyes, her teeth, her perfect ears. I felt as if this was why I’d had her: to be close to that kind of beauty as often as I can.
“Yes,” I answered. “You look so, so beautiful.”
Anna Solomon is the author of the novel The Little Bride.
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