Making Up For Lost Time

Nina MacLaughlin explains what happened when, as an adult, she started wearing makeup:

I was experimenting at age 30 the way I never had as a kid. In middle school, all my pals had bright, colored Caboodles full of makeup, like tackle boxes for black-cherry lip gloss, cotton balls, and squares of eye shadow in various shades of blue. I was never into it — not disdainful, just unmoved, the lot of it lost against more pressing concerns: crushes on boys, playing soccer. Plus, I had no one to model the behavior after. My mother wore no makeup. There were no lipsticks to smear, age 6, standing on a stool in the bathroom mirror. No eye shadow to smudge above the lids. My mother looked forward to going gray; to dye your hair, she believed, signaled a lack of confidence, a cowardly rejection of nature. … The message she conveyed to me from an early age was that beauty needed no adornment. I absorbed it, deeply, without knowing I had.

In some ways it’s a positive message to send to a girl: You don’t need this stuff to be attractive. And I’m relieved not to suffer the stress and time-consumption of having to manage my face with products every time I walk out the door. But a subtle strain of judgment exists at its base: If you need to use makeup, then you are not naturally beautiful. Red lips, blushed cheeks, lined eyes — they run the risk of making a woman look clownish, whorish, or — worst of all — like she was trying too hard.

Stacia L. Brown, seen above, recalls undergoing a similar change of heart around the same age:

New motherhood was exhausting, but I didn’t expect it to age me. I come from deep brown women, a grandmother routinely mistaken for 10 or more years younger than her age and a mother more often assumed to be my sister than my parent.

They each gave birth to one girl, but they were much younger than I was when they did so. At 17 and 19, respectively, their sexiest years were ahead of them. Even now, in their seventies and fifties, they shore up the veracity of the saying, “Black don’t crack.” Not only did I inherit too little of their melanin, I also got pregnant a few weeks before turning 30. I had no precedent for the hastened aging to come. …

Mothering alone has been a double-edge sword, sloughing off my vanity, but also wounding my sense of my own beauty. Often, I can’t really care too much how I look; there’s no time, everything else is more pressing, and most of it falls to me. For a while, this felt transcendent, like a flouting of beauty conventions, empowering and deeply feminist — even if it wasn’t quite intentional. But as soon as I was able to come up for air, I noticed the pitying glances at the dried milk and drool on the maternity shirts. Acquaintances leaned in with concern, their palms firmly planted on the back of my hand, and said, “But how are you?”

And Jessica Grose recently shared her own makeup trajectory:

“They didn’t teach me how to do hair at Harvard,” my doctor mom would sniff. She had a stylish pixie (Madonna, circa the “Rain” video) that she methodically maintained with visits to the hairdresser once every four weeks. She cared about her clothes, but she always used a minimal amount of makeup and had no skill with a curling iron. And while she would take me shopping when I was a kid, she never taught me how to do anything beauty-wise. When I asked her recently why she never imparted any of these skills, first she said, “It never occurred to me,” and then she added, “At least I taught you to shave your legs.”

My mother also always said that you don’t need makeup when you’re young: In your 20s, you have the best skin and hair you’ll ever have, so why gussy that up? In my experience, that was true. I never had acne until my late 20s, which is also when I started getting wrinkles (this seems like a cosmic joke). My hair got weird and stringy when I was pregnant with my daughter at 30. I came to a point where if I didn’t start learning how to do basic hair and makeup, like my friends had learned when we were teenagers, I was at risk of going out in public looking like a bridge troll.