I don’t know what came over me the night, somewhere in the throes of adolescence, that I let my friends put make-up on me. I guess I thought I needed to keep their interest and was worried my charm and renowned sense of humor had a shelf life.
They all seemed so curious about what I’d look like fully made-up. I wasn’t curious at all. I knew what I’d look like: ridiculous.
Eventually I relented. It must have been after a football game or a school dance. We were all at Stephanie’s house, upstairs in her bedroom. The full array of make-up was out, and they had been doing the typical girly thing of trying on different colors of this and shades of that, while I’d stayed off to the side, making smartass comments.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to point the mascara wand at me, but soon they were speaking with what seemed like one clear voice: Just let us try it. Just let us see what you look like. Please.
I am nobody’s party pooper. I finally said OK and let them have their way with me. (Calm down, errant straight boys, it wasn’t like that.) It felt like it took forever, I as their guinea pig trying not to complain much, wondering when the torture would be over, hoping to god they didn’t laugh at me when it was all finished — and wondering how hard it would be to get that stuff off my face.
I told them I wouldn’t look at it when they were done; I knew I’d be mortified. I just wanted to wash it off as soon as they’d finished their ritual and had a chance to behold me. But then there was the begging again: You look so good! Just look at yourself! You’re so pretty! Look! Please.
It’s always the “please” that gets me. I looked in the mirror and I saw a circus clown. Ridiculous does not do justice to what I looked like. I was, as predicted, mortified as they kept trying to reassure me that I looked great. It took a good half-hour to convince them to show me where the secret make-up removing unguents were.
At some point before or after that — memory fails on the exact sequence of events — I had a stint of wearing eyeshadow. I even carried a purse. It must have been a very brief stint, because I remember it but I do not remember it in association with anything else. It was fleeting. It was desperate. I was trying to fit in, and before long realized I fit much better when I wasn’t trying so hard.
Those two episodes constitute the extent of my experience with make-up. Together, they were enough to convince me that I was best presented to the world in the way nature intended. I remember fondly the day, years later, when Stephanie — who may or may not have been the ringleader that one torturous night — told me I didn’t need to wear make-up.
I grew into myself, I guess. I started getting compliments on my skin and my eyes. People seemed more focused on what was there than what wasn’t.
I also remember the day my adolescent-era friends were visiting my home in D.C. when we were in our late 20s, and I got called out for performing what I thought was an innocent act of skin care maintenance.
“I saw you putting on moisturizer,” said Stephanie, a teasing lilt in her voice.
I froze. Was moisturizer part of the make-up family? Nobody had told me this. All I knew was I had dry skin and it was hampering the flow of beautiful-complexion compliments. I knew that regular lotion on my face would leave me greasy. I’d purchased a moisturizer for the face. I did not mean to commit an act of make-up conspiracy.
I also froze because for a second, I feared the lilt in Stephanie’s voice would turn into a question about whether they could try putting make-up on me again. Just this once, they’d say. Let’s just see how it looks, they’d urge. Please, they’d implore.
That didn’t happen. Stephanie told me she was teasing, and probably said again how I didn’t need to wear make-up and I have such beautiful skin, etc. etc. (You may think comments about beautiful skin never get tedious, but I am here to tell you that — well, OK, they don’t.)
I still don’t wear make-up. I don’t think I need it — I’m not sure anyone really does, although I’m guessing even my beloved Katie Couric would startle me if she popped up on my television tomorrow morning looking au naturale at 7 a.m. — and I can’t be bothered with something that would, for me, require such intensive maintenance.
I know I’d be a stickler about maintenance — always checking for smudges and adjusting this or that — because somewhere in the last several years, I became an eyebrow plucker, and I am practically obsessive about the upkeep of my brows.
For this I blame my mother, whose admonitions to me when I was a reluctant adolescent female had nothing to do with make-up. (Faithful readers of this column will remember that I had to write her a note to get her to take me bra-shopping; she was not exactly forcing feminine trappings on me.)
But she was constantly chiding me about one piece of my appearance: “Fix your eyebrows,” she’d say, and I’d realize — again and again — that I never even thought to look at my eyebrows. I figured they were doing whatever it was they were put there to do, and why would I mess with that? My mom told me — again and again — that I was wrong.
“Fix your eyebrows!” she’d repeat more urgently, and then the thumb would come out toward my face and brush one, and then the other, back into shape.
Even though it took a good 15 years or more before her message sunk in, it did eventually sink in. I am a master plucker now. I’ve been known to pluck the brows of friends and loved ones; I enjoy it that much.
If you think I’ve been staring at your eyebrows while we’re talking, you’re probably right. I’m checking them out, seeing where an adjustment — or a total shaping — should be made. I might ask you if you’d mind sitting down and leaning your head back under the light.
Kristina Campbell and her tweezers live in Takoma Park, Md. “Alphabet Soup” appears biweekly and its pluck-happy author can be reached at email@example.com.
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