My mother, known in the family as Grandmother Doris, was a beautiful woman; petite but well-proportioned, coal black hair and green eyes. She could smile and light one’s heart up for a day. She liked being pretty, I think, but she was too busy just surviving to improve much on what she was born with and she never trusted it as an asset to build her life around. It got her into more trouble than she bargained for earlier in her life though she never talked about that to anyone. For very special occasions which were few in number she had a stick of pancake makeup from Merle Norman’s and a tube of whatever lipstick her budget could afford, always red. She kept these in the medicine cabinet on the top shelf. She couldn’t reach the top shelf without standing on the toilet but she didn’t need to makeup often so this was no problem. She worked in a textile mill sewing blankets all day, the wool tore at her nails and dried out her cuticles, So she also had a manicure kit and some hand cream, not strictly make-up, but she did add nail polish to the weekly routine, very expertly polishing around the moons of her nails as was the fashion then. All these accoutrements she kept on her dressing table. When the Avon Lady came by on Saturdays she’d invite her in and look at the catalog while they talked. All she ever ordered though was more red nail polish.
In those days the two ends of the spectrum of beauty were movie stars and women who had “let themselves go” after they got a wedding ring. The movie stars with their ruby red lips and lusciously long, curly hair looked like goddesses even in jungle scenes or riding down the dusty trails of the westerns. The women who were letting themselves go were beyond the pale…they were known to wander the streets in curlers, go to church with trousers under trench coats, answer the door in their slips. Mom would say if I ever even thought of such a thing she’d make sure my life was not worth the living of it.
We didn’t have UTube. (Yes, I saw you checking it out to see the right way to put a finish on lipstick.) We had Seventeen Magazine with rather obtuse directions for applying lipstick but that was about as much as we learned from “reliable” sources. Those models used pink lipstick, the color of innocence and the only acceptable color for, well, seventeen year-olds. I didn’t get an allowance, but if I did any babysitting an hour’s worth could just buy a tube of Tangee lipstick. I couldn’t wear it to school though so, really, why bother. Once babysitting I found a copy of True Romance with an ad for mascara. I got the idea to try what I thought would be a substitute. I waited and when Mom was gone I lit a match from the kitchen stove, blew it out and applied its black over my lashes. Yum. I’ve never felt so gorgeous since…and I never had the nerve to try it with Mom around.
I was nearly the magic age of seventeen before I noticed that all my friends and schoolmates were leaning toward the Goddess side of the equation. If they weren’t leaning that way they were being pushed by moms who had more time to worry about popularity and proms and stuff than mine did. I was self-conscious to the extreme, and rather abundantly proportioned myself. I didn’t dare try the movie star routine. Already the other mothers were tsk-tsking when they looked at me. Somehow I had to find a happy medium between goddess and god-awful. I didn’t have any sisters or girl cousins or even any precocious friends I could learn from, I didn’t have the right questions anyway. I did what I always did in every trying situation. I went to the library. I learned all about lipsticks, rouge, moisturizers, Clearasil for zits, powders, eyebrow plucking, eye shadow, underarm shaving, ratting my hair, everything. Eventually I tried it all, moderately successful. I even taught Mom a thing or two along the way. Here’s what I learned about make-up:
1. It’s fun.
2. It costs money.
3. The costs increase over time.
4. The time it takes takes longer every year.
5. If it takes longer than 10 minutes a day, its benefits reach a diminishing return on the first two items above.
6. There will be days that are not worth the make-up. Maybe more than you think.
7. If you are made up, you are made up. The mask that you wear may define the role you play, not who you are.
8. If you put the mask on early it will take longer to figure out who you are.
9. If you use make up regularly before long you may begin to believe you are ugly without it.
10. When you wear makeup you will have to work twice as hard or be twice as smart to be seen as a serious person. Not fair, but then that’s the way it is for women.
11. You will never look perfectly good or perfectly beautiful.
12. You will never look as good as you think you do, or for that matter as bad either.
13. If you did look too good or too perfect you would only be a target, something to aim at, not for.
14. The effects of makeup (other than on your own psyche) are extremely time-limited.15. You are beautiful without it, too.
Sandra Inskeep-Fox is a poet, an independent scholar and co-owner of Dorley House books in Clear Spring, Maryland. Sandra writes poetry, short stories, essays, and keeps voluminous journals. She has been published in the Chaffin Review, Facet, Cimarron Review, Commonweal Magazine, The Big Two-Hearted Review, the Aurorean, the Virginia Woolf Miscellany and others. She won several contests, including the 1st annual Marquette Monthly Short Story contest, and received Honorable mention in the Best of Ohio writers contests in 2001, 2004 and 2005. She is currently working to complete a manuscript on the creative process of Virginia Woolf and a manuscript of her own Bloomsbury-inspired poetry.