O.Henry Ending

Painted Lady

The challenge of putting on a good face

By Janna McMahan

Iím a Southern woman with a daily makeup habit. I strive for the subtle illusion of perfection, no garish lipstick or dark slashes for eyebrows. I don’t want to look as if I’m trying too hard, just healthy and awake.

I was a pretty teenager who never had a problem getting dates, so I was stunned the day my mother suggested I might want to consider wearing makeup.

While I was partial to sour grape Lip Smackers, all the Avon samples she passed along sat untouched in a drawer. After her comment, I examined my face closely, wondering if my life could indeed be better with a little blush. After all, I certainly didn’t want to be the girl who doesn’t care. So, I bought a vanity mirror and began to put on my face every day before school. Sparkly blue eye shadow and mascara became a necessity. I contoured my thin cheeks into hollows. I spent hours in our hometown pharmacy looking at products and magazines for application tips guaranteed to make me popular.

In my 40s, I was sitting in front of my collection of tinctures, creams and color palettes teaching my own daughter about makeup when I suddenly questioned my ritual. I grew up in the South in a time when women were heavily judged on their appearance. Shouldn’t that be changing? Was I instilling in my beautiful daughter a sense that she was somehow incomplete without the façade?

A student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Madison saw makeup as an art form. She says, “Doing your hair is like sculpture and makeup is like painting. It’s how I express myself.” Where I had scoured Seventeen, Madison watches YouTube tutorials where makeup application is an elevated form of entertainment.

To wear or not wear makeup has become an interesting social phenomenon of late. This summer, while Olympic athletes sported bright red nail polish and lipstick, popular entertainers decided to go barefaced. Long terrified of being caught in public sans eyeliner, stars started posting no makeup selfies to thwart paparazzi who shame them for looking normal. Even Miss North Carolina pageant contestants got into the act, posting au naturel selfies in defense of one contestant who was singled out for a fresh-faced photo.

In general, most men I asked said women look better without makeup and that too much makeup was off-putting, particularly foundation and overdone eyeliner. But when shown photos with and without makeup, men waffled. One even pointed to the before and after shots and said, “If you went to bed with that and you woke up with that . . . well, wow.” It seems men like just the right amount of undetectable enhancement, but they also don’t seem to look too hard. Once, a male friend and I were served by a waitress with obvious heavy false eyelashes, but as she walked away he said, “She has the most amazing eyes.”

On the other hand, women seemed more accepting of makeup in all forms, although in the spirit of full disclosure, most I spoke with were Southern women. My sister-in-law, a diehard makeup lover, says if she goes out without makeup people ask her if she feels well. My niece, who is in nursing school, says putting on makeup is one of the few times during the day she has a contemplative moment. A girlfriend, who is a master gardener, says she enjoys seeing herself transform from dirty overalls and baseball cap into a lady.

I noticed when I started hanging out in Colorado that few women there wear makeup and it made me wonder if makeup (and sunscreen) were a Southern thing. But later, in New York, I saw plenty of women who could give a Texas woman pause. Obviously, Southern ladies aren’t the only ones who like a little war paint.

I’ve seen women on the treadmill at 7 a.m. in full makeup, but I’ve also watched super buff gals lifting weights without a thought about their lack of lip gloss. I admit it, I fall somewhere in between and rarely go to the Y without spending a few minutes in front of the mirror. Is it habit or vanity? Are we makeup mavens simply victims of social expectations or amazing trompe l’oeil artists?

I admire confident women who go into the world barefaced, but I feel better artificially enhanced. Lately, I’ve been adjusting my routine and reading the over-40 magazines for tips on aging skin. I’ve started to dye my eyebrows and Botox suddenly holds appeal. As an author, I fear the social media photos people post from book signings, so you’ll never see a barefaced selfie of me. I need my lipstick. And I make no apologies for my ritual.  OH

Janna McMahan is the author of numerous novels, short stories and personal essays. Follow her writing life at www.facebook.com/jannamcmahan.

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