Recently, I divulged to a friend that I had undergone a cosmetic procedure several years ago, a secret that I had only revealed to a small group of inner circle confidantes.
She shrugged, seemingly not fazed in the least by my confession. “Well, you’ve always been vain,” she commented casually.
Naturally, I was taken aback by her remark, not to mention a bit hurt. I did not think of myself as vain. Vain people, especially women, are villainous, self-obsessed and narcissistic – willing to stop at nothing to maintain their physical appearance, even if it means killing close family members that rival their own beauty. (See Snow White and possibly many other fairy tales…) Certainly I was no two dimensional cartoon character, but the exchange forced me to examine my own thoughts on what it meant to be proud versus conceited and where that line was drawn.
Like most little girls, my ideas on beauty came initially from my mother, who would drag me and my sisters to Macy’s and spend what seemed like hours trying on lipsticks and being up sold on eye shadow quads while my sisters and I languished at the Clinique counter playing with that weird slate/slide thing that determines your skin type. (“OK, now move it to ‘Tans, Never Burns’….) My mother wasn’t much of a clothes horse, but her sense of self was absolutely linked to how much eyeliner she was wearing.
She never split hairs (pun intended) when it came to her ideas on beauty and passing them along to me. She gave me a tutorial on shaving my legs when I was ten and advised me at the age of 11 that I ‘might want to do something about that mustache’. For years, we bonded during bleaching sessions in the bathroom. In fifth grade, when I was first allowed to wear eye shadow for a birthday party, I clawed through the powdery old cosmetic bag of my mother’s left over makeup past the mauves and beiges to pull out a slightly cracked baby blue shadow single. I smeared it over my lids keeping them half closed throughout the entire party which made me alluring but dangerous, as it was difficult to see in what direction I was roller skating.
Though some might disagree with the approach, I eventually came to terms with my mother demonstrating a preference for a certain level of artifice. Her lesson was: whatever your definition of beauty, it’s achievable with the right tools. And, certainly looks were not valued over intelligence or other internal qualities. I didn’t have to be smart OR pretty. I could be both.
Unfortunately, I was soon after hit by a debilitating and crippling illness that ravished my looks, emotional well-being and outlook on life. Adolescence. The killer of confidence and deliverer of doubts. As I watched many of my friends blossom into lady shaped flowers while I remained a tiny scrawny weed, my insecurities mounted and my identity as an emerging woman took a hit. I was teased and told I looked like a boy. I was called “Sweetchuck”, which apparently is a character from the Police Academy movies that I must have resembled because we all know how accurate teenage taunts are. Middle school is rough but it gets even rougher when you hear the phrase ‘The Young and the Chestless’ echoing through the hall and you know it’s directed at you.
It took some time, hormone surges and training bras to get me back in the saddle of feeling good about myself again. But, as I began to maneuver my way through my early twenties, I discovered what a little eyeliner and lip gloss could do and fell back on my mother’s training. I never rolled out of bed in the morning looking great, but I always had a plan on how to get there. I liked the feeling of ‘suiting up’ to look good and in turn looking good made me feel more put-together, more powerful, smarter, funnier, cooler, sexier.
At the risk of sounding horribly politically incorrect, I have to admit that I take a lot of pleasure in making myself look pretty – or whatever my interpretation of pretty is, I guess. I enjoy dressing up and being told my hair looks good and catching a glimpse of myself in a mirrored store front and liking what I see. I go to the gym and skip carbs mostly to stay trim, I wear sunscreen religiously to avoid wrinkles and make-up is my crack and Sephora my crack den. I work hard to make sure that my inside is as pretty as my outside, but they are both areas of pride. Whether that makes me vain is up to you.
This year I will turn 40 and no one needs to tell me that being an aging woman in this country brings its own unique set of anxieties and insecurities. We all know our society is obsessed with youth and I struggle with an evolving sense of what looking good in an age-appropriate way is for me. I’m no super model. I have cellulite and fine lines and bunions. I certainly don’t want to dress like I’m 25 anymore. But I do want to look as good as I can for as long as I can. Which I’m hoping to do for the rest of my life.