On the wall in my mom’s home office, there’s a plastic box frame that holds a yellowing page from McCall’s magazine. A 22-year-old has just been given a makeover, her waist-length hair cut into a fluffy mass of ’80s feathering, courtesy of cowboy-hatted superstar stylist Jose Eber. Her eyebrows have been groomed, her skin foundation’d, her oversized glasses removed, and her eyelashes mascara’d. She wears a strapless bodysuit, a plastic necklace that took its design cues from molten lava, and a big smile.
“I look in the mirror and I see this glamorous, sophisticated woman,” the caption reads. “I can’t believe it’s really me!”
I was misquoted.
What I actually said was, “I look like a hooker.”
Yes, that was me, wearing a smock and looking sheepishly at my reflection as Jose picked up my long hair in both hands and held it out to the sides, as if measuring my wingspan. (The master of disdain, Jose was unimpressed.) That was me, mortified by the yellow polka-dot outfit that made me look like a back-up singer for Shaun Cassidy. And that was me, driving away from the photo session and hoping the police didn’t pick me up on suspicion of solicitation at traffic lights.
I’ve always had a tense relationship with cosmetics. Mascara feels like I’ve drizzled my eyelashes with Elmer’s Glue. Foundation feels like a death mask. Lipstick wears me. Basically, I don’t like stuff on my face. (That feathery haircut, constantly wisping my forehead, ugh.)
Which was a perfectly plausible attitude from age 22 until about age 35, when I could get by with a 10-minute morning routine, including the shower.
But now I’m 52, and no chapter in Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck resonates more emphatically with me than “On Maintenance”:
“You know what maintenance is, I’m sure. Maintenance is what they mean when they say, ‘After a certain point, it’s just patch patch patch.’ Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won’t have to hide behind a stack of canned food.”
By now, I’ve had to make cosmetic concessions. I won’t ride the elevator the six floors down to the lobby to get the mail without first applying my $1 eye pencil, for fear of running into someone I may or may not know.
I look at the unfamiliar landscape that used to be my skin, and try my best to smooth it over with a few drops of Clinique ‘Almost Makeup.’ I even bought a drugstore lipstick in a shade that most closely approximates the color I used to achieve by biting my lower lip.
The problem is, I’m an old dog now, and this new trick may be beyond me. I just don’t know what I’m doing. I once watched a young woman apply her makeup while holding on to the pole on a rattling subway train who did it better than I do.
I live in fear of ending up with that jittery trail of eyeliner that breaks my heart when I see it on an old woman—the kind of whom you think, “God bless ’er, she’s still trying.”
Today my getting-dressed routine lasts about 45 minutes and generally ends with my flipping off the bathroom light and making a little ucchh sound in the back of my throat. The cosmetic equivalent of, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
God bless me, I’m still trying. I’d even be open to another magazine makeover. But wouldn’t you know, McCall’s magazine is long gone. And so is that 22-year-old glamorous, sophisticated hooker in polka dots.