“Now, girls, there is no way that this mascara is ever going to fully coat your lashes if you just put it on one side. You have to paint both sides of your lashes, like this. Close your eyes, dear.”
My friends and I looked at each other in shock and horror. “I never even thought of that!” I said, and was greeted with a murmured chorus of me neithers. We were thirteen and fourteen years old and we had been bravely, even boldly making up our faces before school, at lunch, after PE, in the bathroom before classes for which we dared to show up tardy. Just a month before, in fact, I had been re-applying my makeup in the bathroom before fourth period because I wanted to feel confident before our quiz; when the bell rang, I tossed my compact and brushes into my purse–yes, I carried a purse at all times–and ran to class, falling down the stairs and ripping all the tendons in my left ankle in the process. But my make up looked great.
The presenter continued and we leaned in to listen from our seats in the multi-purpose room. All 8th grade girls were seated in rows, surrounded by teachers and staff, as we were given instruction on how to apply our makeup and pick the most flattering clothes for our “season.” The guest speaker was from Nordstrom, an upper-end retailer most of us never entered. She had talked to us already about how to select our best colors and how to flatter our various body types.
“Now, you’re going to need to line your lips or you might as well not even wear lipstick.” This statement triggered my first negative thought of the hour. ‘I don’t have time for some of this,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I could do this just for special occasions like school dances,’ I decided.
I was an honors student, a spelling bee champion, a student of the month, and a tiny little girl living below the poverty line, walking more than two and a half miles to Shumway Junior High so that I could still walk to school and see my friends from my old neighborhood. And I wasn’t bothered by the presumption that fashion and makeup were not a luxury but a necessity, nor by the notion that it was deemed appropriate by the principal (whose name I never knew) to take time from our instruction to “learn” these things. I was bothered by the fact that I might not be able to live up to the standard being set in this assembly.
Applying my makeup this morning before even stepping out to get my coffee and the paper, I am reminded of that moment in junior high when I felt not demeaned, but motivated. I increasingly improved in my make up and hair and fashion skills. I grew to love getting ready in the morning. I found cheap ways to emulate the look I was supposed to create. I studied the styles of the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and Susanna Hoffs to develop my own look–that, we had been told, was very important. I convinced my mom to help me buy Seventeen and Young Miss magazines so I could research the latest trends and learn more fashion tips each month. And, in our home of liberal political activists, no one questioned this or felt it inappropriate not just for society to set such standards, but for my school to have done so.
I had actually been told, since my first day of kindergarten, to hold in my stomach, stand up straight, and smile whenever I entered a room. It’s funny how it never occurred to me to share this advice with the children I later nannied or raised. But I still think of it ever time I enter a room, just like I know to apply my makeup and fix my hair before leaving the house–to go to the supermarket, even.
As a high school principal, I rarely found girls in the bathrooms applying make up or fixing their hair. They’d be late because they were standing in one of those circles all fiends make when sharing stories and gossip, but never because of hair or makeup. I wonder what they would think of my friends and I. Were we more vain, more superficial? Was it just the 80’s? I don’t know. But, even at 42, I hear the voice of the stunning fashionista telling me, each morning, to make sure I coat both lashes fully with mascara.
Even today, I recall that day I sat listening and learning how to make my lips look properly pouty and my eyes to look sufficiently sultry. I should have been listening about how to report the acts that I was being put through by a trusted adult male each week, or how to feel strong enough to run away, or how to study for the SAT so I could get the education I so desired so I could escape from the life I feared I was being sucked into. But I wasn’t taught these things. And I wasn’t questioning why. I was just worried about my makeup.
I’ve come a long way since junior high. But I still have the scars. And, try though I might, I can never cover them all with makeup.