The first visual that I have of myself wearing makeup was on a family trip when I was 13 years old. I had shiny, white-ish lips, and heavy, smoky shadow under my eyes. They were the first tentative, cringe worthy steps of my journey with products. Since then I invested considerably in pharmaceutical pursuit of more beauty. Products for eyes and lips, and skin. Lotions and powders. Gel and sprays for hair. I would eventually learn a thousand tricks to brighter eyes, plumper lips, smoother skin. Logging hours in front of the mirror.
I wore it at first to appear more grown up. I was 13 after all and a 13 year old girl wants nothing more than to be 16. Then I kept wearing it because I liked the way it looked. It made me feel better, when all other pubescent experiences seemed to pummeling my self-esteem into oblivion. But somewhere shortly after, my relationship with make-up took a turn. It began to own me instead of the other way around. In the telltale sign of all addictions, I found myself needing it to feel like… myself.
I trained myself really. I bought all in. The makeup and magazine industry didn't have to push much. There is not really anybody else to blame. After all, make-up application is an almost hypnotic ritual of sprucing and enhancing and defining and coloring in. Each morning I made pathways in my brain that told me I needed it. That I looked better this way. That I couldn't go out without it. It's now been decades of changing myself every day.
My pre-teen daughter has just begun to experiment with make-up. Before I had kids, I thought that I would rejoice in this stage. I thought that I would be giving her eyeshadow tutorials and having fun browsing the cosmetics aisle together. But we surprised even ourselves after she born – we were the type of parents who never made a big deal about what she wore. We played with gender neutral toys and forbade her from watching Disney princess movies, lest she feel she needed to be rescued. We searched the library for board books with strong female protagonists. We were those annoying parents at the park.
But last week she came home from the store with lipstick and pencils and blush. And, because I know the power of forbidden fruit, we have let her play with it. I am startled anew every time I see her with it on, because just as my own father told me – which is now too far away and too long ago to make a difference – she looks better without it. She looks like my girl and the only true “her” that I have ever known. How could I want to change what is perfect to my eye? But she likes it. She says she likes how it makes her feel. She feels happy and giddy and sort of in love with herself, as only those in this stage of life are… She says it lifts her up.
I watch with slight dismay. I don't want to denigrate or shame her feelings when she says she feels good. It is not my place to tell someone who loves the way they look that they shouldn't… But there is a part of me that fears that she might lose herself a little bit. That she might come to not recognize her own face, her own self. That she is slowly teaching herself that the way she is underneath that makeup is not good enough. That gradually, day-to-day, it will change the way she feels about herself, the way she loves herself. The power of the habit of “fixing” yourself should not be underestimated, I know.
How do I tell her to stop feeling good now, so that she will still feel good later? How can you explain to someone this age that kindness and passion and dreams are not just cliches, but the things she should spend her time meditating on, instead of the perfect shade? That healthy skin and good posture are worth a hundred times more than any cosmetic can claim?
It doesn't make much sense, because like a sad smoker who is sick but can't stop puffing, I am still “putting on my face” every morning to meet the world. You don't have to tell me – the hypocrisy, I know, is a bit sickening. But this relationship I have with make-up is a bit sick after all.
These days when I see her examining herself in the mirror I pipe up with affirmations:
Love the way you look, I tell her.
Smile at yourself when you look in the mirror, I tell her. You're beautiful.
Be gentle to yourself, I say.
She doesn't say much. Does it fall on deaf ears? It's hard to know what is happening in that developing brain of hers. Can my gentle cooing compete with the rushing, roaring voice of the media? The subtle insinuations of society? Can it compete with her own voice? Our self-talk can be so scathing and so cruel.
I recently read a quote from Brené Brown who said that compassion is not a virtue, it's a conscious act. You choose to be kind to others. I hope whether she is wearing lipstick or not, she chooses to have compassion for herself. I think THAT is beautiful.