My Pretty Addiction

Ok, I admit it. Booze and drugs do nothing for me. But leave me alone with a clean Amex card in the cosmetics department and things can go horribly wrong very quickly.

You can call it vanity; you can call it materialism or being brainwashed by the peddlers of paint and powder. But I don’t. For me, looking “pretty” is about defiance and rebellion. Here’s why.

Coming out as a lesbian in the radical seventies, the party line was clear—wearing make-up, perfume, non-political jewelry or nice clothes, particularly those that implied you had a shape beneath them, was collusion with the enemy. It was heterosexist conditioning. It was something women did to be acceptable to men. (Truth was, the women I was interested in liked me looking and smelling like a girl, but those things just weren’t said back then.)

But I just wasn’t willing to give up something as personal as my own grooming. If I was brave enough to refuse to let the (then) majority of society tell me who I could love, then I’d be damned if a bunch of strangers in flannel shirts and the kind of boots that hurt my feet tell me how to dress.

For many years. I waged that rebellion in secret, hiding the lotions and potions that crowded my bathroom when more militant guests arrived, changing into something more androgynous and wiping off my make-up before entering political spaces. Ironically, I gave up trying to hide my love of cosmetics about the same time it stopped being an issue—for the most part anyway. These days, strutting our femaleness is almost a badge of honor for some of the women of my community. I guess they finally caught up to me.

Like many people my age, I’ve decided to blame my love of prettifying pots and jars on my upbringing. When I smell Cover Girl powder, I think of my mom and how she smelled when she’d carry me in from the car when I fell asleep. I remember countless trips on the New York State Thruway and the New Jersey turnpike, where within the women’s restrooms at the rest-stop eateries along the way, huge vending machines dispensed, in addition to women’s rain bonnets and purse-sized tins of aspirin, tiny tubes of garish leaf green or turquoise eye shadow for a handful of coins. The only way for my parents to guarantee a quiet trip was to buy me one. Later, my mom and I had a ritual on the Friday nights when my dad was working out of town. We would eat chop suey buns or fish and chips or club sandwiches and huge wedges of coconut cream pie at the local Chinese restaurant, then stock up on reading material at the town’s one confectionary. After sitting in the car, drinking Cokes and watching shoppers (it was very small town and you took your recreation where you found it), we’d get home in time to read our magazines in front of Sonny and Cher. My treasured copies of Seventeen and Mademoiselle not only stroked my desire to write, the advertisements were colorful and lush—the sea green tones of the Bluegrass perfume ads, the frosty ice-cream colors of Yardley lipsticks, the potential of flawless skin inherent in the Bonnie Bell Ten-O-Six ads. I loved them all.

I don’t believe I’m obsessed, but I did consider taking time off work when the first Sephora opened in my city. Instead, I managed to get downtown and back in a lunch hour, bypassing the youngsters lacking serious shopping skills who were wasting time lining up for a free plastic make-up bag. I raced past them to scoop up armloads of Philosophy skin products, Benetint, a shiny compact of Cargo lip-gloss and a huge bottle of Marc Jacob’s Après Bath that smelled like new mown grass.

Fragrance too, is an issue. I remember the sapphire bottles of Evening in Paris that I received every Christmas as a child, the 70s era scent Charlie, hailed as smelling differently on everyone. It smelled like rubbing alcohol on me. There was the disappointment that I simply didn’t care for my namesake scent and the cruel twist of fate of falling in love with someone who can barely breathe if she gets trapped in the fragrance-filled air of a cosmetic department.  She can tolerate three scents, the lightly floral classic White Linen and the fresh apple green of DKNY’s Be Delicious. More to come on the third.

For years, I spent most of my disposable income on books. But eventually, as someone who writes about books and authors, I realized that publishers would happily give me books just for being me. All I had to do was ask. A tube of Fresh’s new Passion lip tint requires folding cash. That was an easy choice.

I have always loathed the dowdy, bland image of women writers, pale and bloodless in sensible shoes. As a girl, I wanted to write like a constantly lengthening list of women scribes, but I wanted to look like Erica Jong—colorful, juiced up and electric, eyes shining, just a touch risqué, with her just-f—-ked hair, and never without lipstick.  To this day, I can’t write unless I’m wearing perfume. Lipstick is necessary if I’m writing fiction; dark, dangerous cherry red lipstick if I happen to be writing erotic fiction. I don’t question why. I just follow my muse.

Last week, my love mentioned that she missed a particular scent I used to wear, a natural cucumber perfume oil. It’s the third scent she can handle. Wanting to please—and hearing an obvious opportunity for self-indulgence—I went straight to the website of the only place I know where it’s available, a natural cosmetic store in Portland, Oregon. It’s actually costing me more to have it shipped to Canada from the Pacific Northwest than it did for a couple of bottles of the scent. But I don’t care. It should be here tomorrow. I’m going to spend a long cold winter smelling crisp and fresh and green like summer.

I often can’t recognize the faces of people with whom I went to grade school. But I know that the first shade of lipstick I owned was Carnaby Mauve. It was the late 60s and anything British was huge. I’ve even gone so far as to have the nerve to ask a feminist magazine to run an essay of mine on clothing and make-up. It’s attached if anyone’s interested.

No. Not obsessed at all.

(Here’s my essay–FashionStatement–first published in Herizons.)

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