By Marie Holmes
At the drugstore, I usually have both of my children in tow, and they usually run straight for the toys, followed by the candy. But today it’s just me and my two-year-old daughter, and the first thing she sees are gleaming rows of nail polish: pink and peach, red and purple and even blue. An entire rainbow, right there at the level of her gaze. She turns and finds the lipsticks, and then the eye shadows. She grabs one bottle, then a compact, and another, focusing intently in order to hold each of the small, shimmering items in her chubby little fingers. She is entranced.
I shouldn’t be surprised. I may now be a thirty-five year old married lesbian whose beauty routine consists of sunscreen and chapstick, but, for a long time—for my whole childhood—no one would’ve seen that coming. Just like my daughter, I was once enthralled by all things shiny, sparkling and pink. I can still feel the residual twinge of an urge to push bottles of nail polish between my fingers, comparing shades.
My daughter soon collects more items than she can carry, and weighs each one, turning it in the light, trying to decide which glimmering package to set aside. She could go on with this for an hour, I realize, wishing I had thought to bring a book with me.
Instead, I think of all the hours I spent in the aisles of the Payless drug store. It was the one of the few places that I could walk to by myself, at age twelve. I knew all the make-up lines, cheapest to priciest. I tested colors and textures on the back of my hand. Over time, I amassed a cornucopia of beauty products. The adult in me wants to reach back in time and shake that child, to tell her that she doesn’t need any makeup to discover who she is, to beg her to instead go read a book, climb a tree, do something of real value with all those hours of leisure.
My feet shift in the aisle next to my daughter. Inside of me, somewhere, is still that restless girl, chasing anything that shone with the promise of a brighter life.
Starting in the sixth grade, I wore full make-up: foundation, concealer, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. Were the other girls doing it, too? I wonder, now, that none of my teachers said anything, that my parents weren’t alarmed. Or perhaps they were, and just couldn’t find a way to tell me.
I can’t imagine allowing my daughter to wear make-up. Not at two or twelve or twenty. But her single-mindedness is already more than apparent, and I can all-too-easily imagine the losing battle of trying to stop her. Perhaps it was wise of my mother not to mention my make-up. Maybe if she had said something I would’ve just worn more.
I knew that make-up attracted attention, and as a young adolescent, attention is what I wanted. Or at least what I thought I wanted. Sometimes it was thrilling and sometimes it was frightening, with the line between the two entirely blurred. Around age fifteen, I would say, I reached a peak in terms of people—older men, mostly—stopping me on the street to tell me I was beautiful. It was my eyes, they would say. It was the pinnacle, too, of my being sexually harassed. Groped at a party, grabbed by a stranger while walking to school. How much, he demanded. How much did I cost?
That was as far as it went. I was never assaulted, but that was simply a stroke of luck on my part.
Somewhere in my early twenties, I aged out of the cat calls, the creepy compliments, the seedy invitations. Right around the time I stopped looking like a teenager.
I think of that girl now as I examine the shining cardboard displays of bronzers and enhancers and plumpers. The models are so young. Closer to my daughter’s age than my own. And even the older women, actresses I recognize, have had their skin digitally softened to look like a child’s.
This is beauty, I think, as I learned it: teenagers made up as adult women, thinner and more beautiful than we adult women will ever be.
No one stops me on the street anymore. It’s not nostalgia, but there is the feeling of a missed opportunity. Because now I would have a comeback.
The compliment was never really about my eyes, or even my skill with the make-up. It was my youth. It was the same gangly, doe-eyed innocence of the cardboard display girls in these drugstore aisles, their skin baby-soft like my daughter’s.
I let her play with her shiny little bottles and tubes and compacts for a while, and then take her by the hand and lead her toward the toys—and eventually the laundry detergent, which is what we came for. Slowly, I distract her and take hold of one of her treasures, depositing blusher amidst the greeting cards, nail polish behind the discounted Easter candy. I don’t want her hanging out too much in this drugstore. Not now and not when she’s a teenager. I want her to pick up these things just once in a while, just for fun. I don’t want her to confuse the project of constructing her identity with the much smaller, optional task of making up her face.
Marie Holmes’ essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Refinery 29, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her family.