On Makeup and Magic

I have a strange relationship with my looks. As a child, I could never quite remember what I looked like. I would go about my day, and be faintly surprised every time I caught a snatch of my reflection in a windowpane or in a puddle. “Oh yeah,” I’d think. “That’s who I am.”

I was a beautiful child. It always surprises me now to see pictures from that time. Feral, yes; I hated for anyone to cut my nails or hair, and living in a sunny climate, ran around all day in a bathing suit or less, so I was bronzed, with golden-white streaks bleached into my hair, but beautiful in a healthy, wild way.

When I was 11 or 12, I started to gain weight, the kind of weight that girls get before growing into height, the little bit of extra fat needed for the estrogen to take over, and push them over the brink. But my father was merciless about this. He worked in a profession obsessed with the female figure, with adorning female beauty, and sometimes even satirizing it in drag. When I was a toddler, I was another mannequin for him, a doll to dress up, to paint with too much makeup. When I got fat, he called me things like, “thunder thighs” and “fat ass.” From that time, I felt ugly, repulsive, even though in pictures I was even kind of a cute, round kid. But from then on, I developed character. I always have a sort of ironic look on my face, even then. And I wasn’t even really overweight.

I am not sure this is a bad thing. It helped me realize that I would never be a great beauty, and let me develop all kinds of other things. I got funny, sarcastic, and, following my body’s inadvertent rebellion against his idea of the perfect daughter, I got braver in rebelling in other ways. I wasn’t what he thought a woman should be in looks, so I could start to think that I wouldn’t be in character, either. I ironed out most of my femininity, and good riddance. I became androgynous.

And yet…when I grew out of that weight a year or two later, into a female body, and into a scarily, precociously pretty 14 year old with a hundred year old soul, the way I felt about how I looked never caught up. I still felt androgynous, rough, like “one of the boys,” but now I looked like a wild woman full of sex. While all of my friends’ parents were drawing lines in the sand about makeup, my father always encouraged excesses of dress and paint. His idea of the beautiful woman was stagy, and I was always encouraged to wear more makeup, not less. I developed a style of heavy makeup that did not fall into the category of goth or punk. Dark eye makeup, sharp, dark lips, more costume than rebel or harlot. I had a lion’s mane of ethnic long hair, nothing like all the girls around with their straight, orderly lines hanging smoothly down their backs. Other kids at school used to tell me that I reminded them of different actresses on popular TV shows, always the token ones who shared my ethnicity. They had no idea that they were recognizing ethnic lines, not personal ones.

This lesson about feminine wiles and tricks wasn’t a bad lesson for a headstrong, contrary daughter. The view he imparted to me was that it is hard enough to be a woman, let alone a smart, ambitious one, so I should use any advantage I could get – the fact that a pretty woman is less threatening, that sex appeal is a manipulative tool. Gloria Steinem versus Betty Friedan: Gloria can be radical, as long as she wears the miniskirt, while ugly, conciliatory Betty is shunned. My dark pouty lips became just another tool for my ambition. I bent male teachers to my will with my soft voice and softer breasts, and I liked the power in that. No matter how intellectual the milieu, how purportedly un-shallow, pretty women will always get away with more. I learned how easy it was to carry a cutlass, as long as it was kept well-hidden in feminine frills.

But it never quite felt like me. Underneath, I was still, in my own mind, androgynous, more boy than girl, still ugly and fat, even if I had mastered a woman’s enchantments and put them to good use. I still don’t think I am very pretty on my own. My heavy makeup is my warpaint.

This bred a strange duality: armed with my makeup, I feel ten times more beautiful than I really am. This feeling alone is enough to summon the illusion, to imbue me with power. In our culture, the cruel double-standard of misogyny and advertising convinces even the most beautiful woman that she is flawed. It is a distortion of reality, but in this strange world we live in, it may be a sign of health for a woman like me to truly believe and feel beautiful, and to recognize the politically incorrect power that that bestows.

Without my warpaint, I am none of these things. I am ugly again, and fragile. For all my feminism, all my pushing ahead in a rough, man’s field, making myself harder than the men around me, I cannot leave the house without makeup. It is a primordial magic; the ritual of application transforms me from impotent, rejected orphan to fiery sorceress. Like Eve, I cover my nakedness, and beyond. I paint myself a shield and sword.

And yet, I long for the day when the illusion will become real, when I know that the power is not conjured from without only through strange rituals and painted hieroglyphics around my eyes and lips. Now that my thousand and one mystical masks have brought me through storm and roiling sea, I have finally reached a calm shore, a place where I would like nothing more than to rest, respite from this amaranthine sorcery. In these calm latitudes, the ritual has become onerous, is no longer as imperative or as seductive as it once was. I feel a slave to the rituals of potions and dyes, but am afraid to risk offending the source of the protection that carried me safe through adolescence and across the seas. No one in this place I live even wears makeup anymore, except me. I no longer have to prove myself again and again and again. Sometimes, I want to be who I was before, naked. I don’t want to look invincible anymore. Having become the witch, I just want to be human again, now that I am in a place where female humans might be allowed to survive.

I have tried to trick the magic, but I cannot give it up entirely. I dress much more simply, even shabbily, reverting to boyish cuts of jeans, the clothes no longer my conspiratorial altar items. I have let myself go to work with very light makeup, light enough, in fact, that I’m sure it isn’t much different from not wearing any. But…I am. It is vastly different than not wearing any. I have tried to have people drop in on the weekends when I am theoretically not painted, to show them a glimpse of the woman behind the curtain, but I cheat, washing my face lightly, so smudges of smoke remain around my eyes, leaving traces of the mask, enough for me to know that it is there should I need it, that the dark lines surround my pale features that I am afraid would blend into nothingness without ritualistic demarcation.

Sometimes, when I feel unlike myself, I play with the idea of going about my day with no makeup, wearing my vulnerability and my fragility for all the world to see, perhaps even enticing someone to offer me consolation. I never do, though. The furthest I get is to the door, before I dash back, terrified of losing the source of my protection, of arousing the wrath of She who has kept me so well, to add a smudge of kohl around my eyes, a touch of pomegranate wine around my mouth, an ambivalent libation; the mark of my consecration to her cult on my face for all the world to see.


1 Comment

  1. I’m sold. Subscribing now. Much love!

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