What I Learned From 12 Hours As a Bombshell
Welcome to the Pussycat Dollhouse.
For a woman who grew up dabbling in her mother's makeup kit, a makeover might not have been a big deal. But the closest thing to makeup my mother had was Vaseline, which I would smear all over my face as "makeup" when I was 5. She never told me that makeup was wrong, but it was something Other People Did, the same way Other People might buy Reese's Peanut Butter Cups even when it wasn't Halloween. (Our family, on the other hand, ate "carob surprise" from the natural foods co-op.) Makeup wasn't for us; it was for them.
Still, I always loved reading makeovers in magazines -- in part because my knee-jerk contrarian reaction was usually to think that the subject looked better in the "before" pictures, or at least to suspect that she would look better if the lighting were different or if she weren't slouching. I took pride in what I saw as my ability to detect someone's beauty underneath the artifice of lip liner -- I thought it meant that I was more in tune with the real meaning of beauty.
I applied the same thinking to my own face: I have a super-laid-back look, and people are usually surprised to find out I wear makeup. Concealer to cover acne scars, blush to fake a good night's sleep, a hint of liner to open up my eyes -- that's just about it. And mascara to darken my lashes' tips, and maybe a touch of foundation to even out my skin tone. While we're at it, powder so I don't look too shiny, and maybe illuminator so that I have the right kind of shine. Oh! Primer! And bronzer. Are we counting nail polish too?
Point is: I aim for a natural, oops-I-just-fell-out-of-bed-looking-this-way vibe, but it actually takes work. It was all just behind-the-scenes work designed to make it seem like I didn't care that much, even though I did. My hope was that my natural look would make me seem confident, but all I was doing with my makeup routine was covering up things I thought were wrong with my face -- the scars, the pallor, the shine. I wasn't doing much to highlight what I thought was right with it. Doesn't sound much like carefree confidence, does it?
So when makeup artist Eden DiBianco offered to give me a makeover, I took her up on it -- in the name of research, of course.
When I saw my reflection in her mirror two long hours later, my first thought was: Wow. My second thought was: I cannot leave this chair, ever. Upon seeing my face scream "look at me!" louder than I'd ever allowed it to, I felt terrified. Terrified of asking the world for attention, and terrified of any answer the world might give to this request I was making with these false lashes, these overdrawn lips, this tumble of curls.
I didn't want a leering, lascivious "yes"; I didn't want the blatant rejection of "no." It was only then that I realized that I chose my normal low-key look in part to avoid asking the world for attention: Instead of yes or no, I was willing to accept the "What? Who?" non-response that my muted self-presentation receives all too often.
For some women who have broken free of thinking all they have to offer the world is their beauty, it might be a mark of confidence to back away from that mind-set. For me, who'd never broken free of that mind-set because I'd never had it in the first place, it was partly cowardice. I'm proud that my greatest gifts to this world have nothing to do with my looks, and I'm not eager for us to return to an era when a woman's gifts would forever be secondary to whether she was considered pretty.
The thing is, I've never really doubted that my inner gifts will shine through within five minutes of meeting me; you'd probably guess that I'm friendly, curious, and warm, and you'd be correct. But you wouldn't guess that there's a siren inside me who -- just every so often! -- wants to be seen, because I've taken great pains to tamp her down.
With my makeover, that siren was singing. Loudly. I did leave Eden's chair; I did walk through the streets of New York. I had a hard time meeting anyone's eye, and the few times I did, I quickly looked away. I didn't want to know anyone's reaction to my grand experiment. I met up with friends for drinks that night thinking the experiment had been a failure. I looked great, sure. Yet I felt anything but.
Through the evening, though, something began to shift. Every time someone commented on my new look, I began to accept that maybe I didn't look like a Pussycat Doll, but instead looked like a part of myself that I'd worked hard to silence. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw more of myself emerging: My eyelashes were false, but the expression beneath them was mine, now accented. My lips were overdrawn, but instead of seeming comical they began to emphasize the words I was saying -- the friendly, curious, warm words I'd been saying all along.
My makeover didn't change me; it just realigned me a little, performed a sort of chiropractic adjustment on my self-image. I went out that week and bought red lipstick -- my first-and though I don't overdraw my lips, I now take a joy in seeing a bright little Cupid's-bow whenever I peek in the mirror. I take the extra 15 seconds and shade in my eyebrows -- it's barely perceptible, but it makes me feel a little closer to my inner 1940s bombshell, the woman who asks -- no, demands -- that you notice her. It's no accident that we call these women sirens: I got a little louder after 12 hours as one, and even if it's just me who notices that I'm cranking up the volume, it's enough.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano examines beauty and what it means for women at The Beheld.
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