LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE.
by Catherine Spinley
Every so often I’ve been known to say something sarcastic like, “In my next life I’d trade a few IQ points to be prettier,” implying beauty gets you everywhere and cankles gets you a lifetime subscription to “Reader’s Digest.” Perhaps I’ve worked in the beauty industry too long or have observed too many unremarkable men fawn over breathtaking models but, I understand what it’s like to feel invisible in the presence of otherworldly beauty. As a result, I make these sarcastic barters with myself but, in reality, I know this line of thought is sometimes the rule and at other times the exception.
Beauty only gets you so far.
But, how far? There are differing opinions but a lifetime spent painting, bleaching, plumping and curling rather than throwing these external and self-imposed expectations into an imaginary pink dumpster, flipping them the bird and letting my eyebrows grow together as nature intended, makes me think somewhere, deep inside, I must believe outward beauty has the ability to get me a great distance from here.
My father says in his next life he wants to come back as a librarian. I don’t know what that’s about; maybe he likes cardigans, or half-glasses on a chain around his neck or card catalogs. Think about it - my father, if granted a wish, wouldn’t change anything about his appearance and I’m sure many men wouldn’t. Perhaps they’d wish for more money or power but I’m fairly certain I’d have to look far and wide to find a man who’d say, “This life was good but in my next life a thick, wavy Kennedy-esque head of hair would be nice.” I’ll set aside the gender and beauty divide discussion for another time but what’s clear is my father isn’t wasting any time in this life (or in any other life) fretting about his looks. In fact, he’s too busy shoving his large nose into a book to even consider rhinoplasty.
On the contrary, the women in my family are known to give their looks a great deal of consideration.
My maternal grandmother was a short, rotund woman with a noble, Italian nose able to cast a shadow at high noon. Her presence was so contradictory in nature; the voice so meek and lilting in the presence of strangers was equally forceful and authoritative behind closed doors. She was outwardly pious and sure of her standing with her maker but privately questioned “what she had done to deserve such suffering.”
Grandma, known as Mary to her friends, had worked hard her entire life as a seamstress at the local clothing factory. She worked on the Johnny Carson suiting collection, which is ironic because Grandma had no sense of humor whatsoever . Any joke made at her expense was met swiftly with a disapproving frown and frosty glare. After years of working the sewing machines her fingers became riddled with arthritis; spindly and bent like winter tree branches, knuckles swollen and knotty. On one of her hands, she was missing her pointer finger nail which always caused some awkwardness when she’d ask me to give her a manicure. I always left that particular finger unpainted, spreading two coats of frosted mauve polish on every other nail until, finally, she’d order me to “just paint the skin.” I recall her telling me she lost the nail during a childhood bout of pneumonia she got from walking home from school on a brutally cold Great-Lake winter afternoon, having wet her pants earlier in the day. After Grandma let me in on that gruesome backstory I decided to refrain from asking questions - it felt safer to stay silent and keep painting.
What my grandmother lacked in fingernail, she made up for in hair. She made weekly pilgrimages to Arlene’s Beauty Parlor for a small-town gossip session and a wash and set, which is just a fancy way of describing a headful of small curls frozen in place with a liberal dose of Elnett. Mary’s helmut head was off limits; we were allowed to get close enough to give her a hug but if our hands went within six inches of her skull a high-pitched, “OOOOOOHHHH CAREFUL - DON’T RUIN MY ‘DO!!!!” would quickly move our arms right back to our sides.
On her deathbed, Mary made sure the nurses at the retirement home applied her blush and lipstick daily. This is what some people refer to as dignity. Had I been chosen to deliver the eulogy at her funeral, I would have shared these stories with the crowd along with her belief that “skinny grandmas are mean” and “redheads have body odor.”
I had strawberry blond hair as a child.
Naturally my mother was raised to believe one’s outward presentation was highly indicative of one’s inner character. From a young age, my mom was primped and preened as if she was a delicate porcelain doll to be admired. School outfits were prepared the night before; always a dress with pinafore, lace socks or knee socks, Mary Janes and a matching hair bow to be perched, like a crown, atop her head. In the mornings, Grandma would wrap my mom’s hair around her fingers to form thick, Shirley Temple-inspired ringlets, attach the bow and send her off to school in her tiny hometown where everyone knew one another. As a teen my mother developed a mind and style all her own. She preferred having long, manicured nails to playing the piano and quit taking lessons when the piano instructor demanded she cut her nails to the quick if she was serious about her musical endeavors. Instead, my mom took up cheerleading and smoking.
As a child I remember sitting on the floor of my mom’s closet, mesmerized by the rows and rows of neatly labeled shoe boxes and endless questions marks of hangers holding clothes arranged by category and season. The only thing I loved more than my mom’s closet were her drawers of makeup and cabinets of perfume. On any given weekday a soft cloud of Jean Nate After Bath Splash followed my mother around our house and on special occasions, a fancier haze of Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps.
When my mother was not around to police and corale, I was free to graze her stash of cosmetic bits and bobs. I began with the eyelash curler but quickly moved on to the Cover Girl liquid foundation which, at the time, smelled a bit like Noxema. A quarter-sized dollop smeared across my face seemed appropriate, I thought, taking care to skip the ears and neck. Next came the pressed powder in the brown tortoise shell compact, followed by a pink blush and frosted eye shadow. I’d spend hours lining and curling and combing, sometimes copying the looks in my mom’s latest “Good Housekeeping Magazine.” It would be years until I perfected my No-Makeup Makeup look.
Clearly, my mom didn’t approve of me painting myself in the style of Tammi Faye Baker but she was very much okay with putting makeup on me herself. Don’t get any Jon Benet Ramsey ideas - she wasn’t glue gunning caterpillars-like fake eyelashes on me or shoving me into an at-home tanning bed but, she did like to apply what she called “under eye” to my dark circles, which are genetic and have been with me since birth.
“Dolly,” she’d coo, “Come here and let me cover up those circles so you don’t look so tired.” She’d dab a few dots of concealer under my eyes and pat away. Thank goodness this was the eighties because the shade was a pasty nude and accentuated my overly-rosy, red cheeks. Once in her grasp, she’d dab on some blush to give my cheeks even more color. Makeup complete, she’d send her little Mary Magdalene off to the bus stop and get cracking on her own face.
My love for makeup only grew stronger with age. I spent money I received for my 10th birthday on an drugstore eyeshadow palette and a Lancome eyeliner - the only item I could afford in the fancy Cosmetics Department of the local department store. I discovered the Bobbi Brown counter my sophomore year of college and regularly sat in front of my dorm room mirror applying makeup despite having no plans whatsoever. I saved all of my empty MAC containers so one day, I’d be able to redeem them for a free lipstick. I read Vogue and Mademoiselle, devouring the beauty content and memorizing every step and tip.
If I’ve given you some idyllic impression of my path towards Beauty Addict, you must understand, mistakes were made. I spent much of 1997 obsessed with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and getting an ethereal glow, which I thought I achieved by applying copious amounts of Ultima II Glotion. I was unaware of my bioluminescence until a friend kindly asked me to stop covering my face in sparkles when we went out together.
I had virtually no eyebrows from 1995 to 2003 when, one day, my then-boss suggested what she called “Eyebrow Rehab” at Frederic Fekkai where, every two weeks, I paid a technician $53 plus tax and tip to tweeze five eyebrow hairs and threaten me with bodily harm if I dared touch my brows in-between appointments. I felt like I was in deep with the Eyebrow Mafia.
As long as we’re going there - I had a Lancome Juicy Tube stage, as well. I collected every pink, mauve, red and brown shade Lancome produced - in gloss or glitter - I had no prejudice. Fully lacquered up, my lips were visible from the Google Earth app. When a mighty wind blew, strands of my hair could be found glued to my lips in a gloss / mustache mixed media work of art. I also wasn’t strong enough to “just say no” to the overly bronzed face of the early aughts. I jumped on the Proactive subscription bandwagon and continued for nearly two years until my mother, the local beauty queen referenced above, told me that although my skin was blemish-free, it was also the color of a ripe tomato. I paid way too much money to get the only haircut that could possibly make my already-tiny head and face look smaller - a side-swept bang with long layers - at Arrojo because I loved What Not to Wear and was convinced if Nick Arrojo could make some matted-hair hippie from Seattle with a penchant for patchouli look refined, surely I’d walk out looking better than when I walked in. I was mistaken.
About 10 years ago, I found my look: healthy skin, full eyebrows and a bold lip. Around the same time I found my first white hair. It was right at the front of my hairline and soon thereafter, six more moved in. I plucked them all while screaming a Hail Mary and dousing myself with Holy Water in a makeshift gray hair exorcism. Never before had I been self-conscious of the aging process. I wasn’t upset when I turned 30 and now, on the brink of 40, I’m still cool as a cucumber. Wrinkles - what wrinkles? I refer to those as laugh lines and smile lines. Creaky joints, stiff necks, bursitis? Inevitable exercise-induced injuries, I reasoned.
When I confessed my white hair plucking situation to a co-worker she urged me to stop immediately. “I know, I know,” I said, “Two more will grow in place of one, right?”
“No, if you keep plucking them you’ll be bald. There’s only more to come and you can’t pluck ‘em all, can you?”
Could I? Of course not but I continued to tweeze those seven dead dreams from my scalp every few weeks until one day, in a well-lit Club Monaco dressing room, I noticed a growing patch of white hair on the left side of my head. I spent 10 minutes conducting a thorough examination despite a 15-person deep line for the room. When finished, I sat on the bench and sobbed - one day you’re graduating from Brow Rehab and the next you’re headed to Arlene’s for a Wash and Set.
It took a long time to sort out why crow’s feet and stretch marks didn’t bother me but white hair did took me a long time to sort through.sent me to the brink of insanity. Crow’s feet, laugh lines, smile lines - those badges of aging told a story. I had grinned and giggled and frowned and cried and knitted my eyebrows with uncertainty and pursed my lips in deep thought. Those lines were the old maps of a trip taken and the souvenirs I’d collected along the way. Furthermore, to me, white hair said nothing but, “Awww, you poor thing.” *head tilt*
Thus began my own personal war on my dying follicles - the one outward sign of aging I couldn’t psychologically resolve. My mother, though I love her, was of no help in this department. This is the woman who spent her entire life in “outfits,” and putting on makeup just to run to the store. At 75, she is at her colorist every three weeks without fail. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could stop her from getting her roots touched up. Whenever I call her she’s either just come from the salon, is on her way to the salon or is preparing for an upcoming color appointment at the salon. My love for (outer) beauty was learned and I see my future - a 21 day cycle of salon visits - and it scares me.
As the brunette continues to fade, people freely offer their permission or admonishment, “Your white streak is badass, why do you cover it up?” say some. “You need a touchup,” say others. I feel watched and judged and old. I also feel ashamed - aren’t I more than my hair color? Isn’t aging a privilege? I thought I possessed more confidence than this. There is no denying that I, like my mother before me and her mother before her, feel pressure to maintain a socially-acceptable facade of youth and beauty.
All of this to say, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll keep those IQ points in my next life, thank you very much. I prefer to come back as a fluffy Golden Retriever - cute as a puppy, lovable as an old dog (although unable to learn new tricks, I’ve heard) and always ready for a hug, a walk, a snuggle or a snack. But, most importantly, too busy living it’s life to care about everyone else’s beauty bullshit.