“Why are you doing that, Mama?”
I think about her question. And for a brief moment, I lose myself in contemplating the why of the skin care and beauty rituals that make up my life as a woman who wants to be seen a certain way.
Why do I pluck hairs from places our culture tells me they shouldn’t grow? Why do I slather my skin in something that promises to peel it? Why am I clamping down so hard on my eyelashes with this tiny silver guillotine? Why did anyone make a guillotine so tiny it could only realistically behead bugs and baby mice?
I find solace in comparing and contrasting user reviews of Glossier’s Cloud Paint, a pillowy cream blush. Meditative reflections on the joys of an especially viscous serum allow me to turn off the voices in my head that scream about writing deadlines, kindergarten registration and smoothies disguising kale as dinosaur food. I regularly discuss the virtues of skin care with my peers. But when my daughter witnesses my daily attempts to minimize my pores and make my cheeks glow as if they’re lit from within and asks why, I stumble over answers.
“Mama, why are you doing that?” she asks again.
I look at her reflection. She’s staring up at me, staring harder still at the eyelash curler. Her hair is snarled from the unconscious joy of childhood, and I can almost see the wheels turning inside her brain, and that makes me panic. She is still innocent, still layers three skirts on top of one another because she likes wearing three skirts, not because anyone has told her layering three skirts will make her look a certain way. She is gloriously unaware that hair grows on her legs.
“It’s like painting!” I say, “It’s fun! It’s how Mama expresses herself!” But before I can finish with my exclamation points, my daughter’s forehead is wrinkled, her doubts have been cast, and I know I’m failing to convince either of us that makeup or even skin care can ever be fully detached from the insidious workings of the patriarchy.
Why am I curling my eyelashes? What’s the honest answer? Curled eyelashes make my eyes look bigger, which makes me look more awake, which I think makes me look younger and prettier, and the world values me more when I look younger and prettier. Because this is so ingrained in me, I feel more confident and calm presenting my face to the world with curled eyelashes. It is not fun to hold this mini guillotine against my eyelids, nor is it fun to wash the mascara off at the end of the day. Is it fun to look pretty? I guess. Should it be? I don’t know.
For me, several aspects of skin care and makeup feel fun. Reading articles in Allure about the new science of caffeine as used in eye cream feels like a momentary mind massage; chatting with friends about our latest miracle concealers or beachy texturizing sprays feels similarly restoring. Lying on a soft table while someone rubs magical elixirs onto my face in the somnolent haze of essential oils is heaven. And I guess my line about makeup being like art is also partially true. I feel satisfaction watching my face transform from wan to bright.
My enjoyment of skin care and beauty cannot be divorced from the fact that I am participating in a youth-obsessed culture that was largely and deliberately shaped by men, or from the fact that most skin care and beauty lines are owned by men. The money I spend on bronzer goes directly into the hands of a man, and this fact tempers the fun I’m having in front of the mirror with something else that makes me feel altogether icky.
I put down the eyelash curler and turn to face my daughter.
I want to be a good feminist mother and raise a good feminist daughter who loves and values herself, her strengths, her joy. I want her to feel proud when she learns to read or ride a bike, happy when she plays with her friends or draws a green fox, and secure in her knowledge that she is enough just the way she is. Do I want her to feel beautiful?
I guess it depends on what “beautiful” means. If it means loved, respected and strong, then, yes, I want her to feel beautiful. If it means attaining momentary happiness because her face feels soft and supple by way of squalane oil, that’s fine too. What I don’t want is for her to be driven by an insatiable desire for physical beauty without understanding the troubling contexts behind the pursuit of such standards. And I certainly do not want her perception of beauty to stem solely from a male-dominated and controlled beauty industry.
I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t think any of us do. Patriarchy has shoved us all squarely between a rock (preferably a natural lava pumice stone) and a very hard place. Sometimes this makes me feel powerless, but if I continue to educate myself, if I strive to have honest conversations with myself and my daughter, and, at the very least, support female-owned and operated companies, then hopefully, my example will smooth my daughter’s path just enough for her to grow into a woman who loves herself (and her skin). May she rock three skirts for as long as her little heart desires.
Sara Petersen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Redivider, Ploughshares, Catapult, Hippocampus, The Lily, Vol.1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. She lives on the Seacoast in New Hampshire, where she’s working on a collection of personal essays about the difficulties of living up to both feminine and feminist ideals only to end up somewhere in the messy middle. Find her @slouisepetersen on Twitter, and at sara-petersen.com.