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Make-up and making up 

One woman's complicated history with cosmetics

When I was in first grade, I wrote a book titled Beuty Tips: And How to Catch Guys. I wrote this book for my teacher because she was single and 24, so obviously she needed my help. I figured if she followed my expert advice, such as "always match your eye makeup to your clothing" — it was 1986, give me a break — she'd have a man in no time. Of course, I would then be the hero, and well on my way to becoming a famous writer. Once I learned how to spell, that is.

While I'm sure it's totally adorable and not in the least bit insulting to have a child offer you her unsolicited opinion as to why you're still single, in retrospect, it's kind of funny. But like most funny things in life, this incident has a dark side. At what age do we learn that beauty is such a valued commodity? And at what point do we conclude that's what it takes to "catch" a guy?

I have no idea, because for as long as I can remember, I believed that being pretty led to better things in life. Even in first grade, I carefully studied the women in fashion magazines or the ones I saw on MTV (which I totally wasn't supposed to be watching). Those women looked so glamorous and happy — duh, their best accessory was a hot rock star — and surely they lived an exciting life. A life that was a world apart from what my boring Midwestern hometown offered. I wanted an exciting, glamorous life, too.

So, since preparation is the key to success, I was determined to get an early start. I'd meticulously shadow my eyes — the only rule of thumb being that the more colors you can fit on one eyelid, the better. In an almost ritualistic manner, I'd apply the brightest lipstick in my mother's makeup case and gaze at my new, improved self in the mirror, dreaming of all the fabulous things I'd do when I was old enough.

My mom was surely tired of having her makeup bag ransacked by nascent, clumsy hands, but she figured this was just innocuous playtime, so she allowed me to build my own arsenal of supplies. I filled a Caboodle with cheap cosmetics I bought at the drugstore, and my ever-expanding collection soon edged out Barbie or any other toy. Why would I need a coloring book when I could color on my own face?

The neighbors grew accustomed to seeing me swing from the monkey bars, never smearing my perfectly applied hot-pink lipstick. I'd frequently take advantage of the fact that my mom might not notice my fully painted face as she hustled us out the door to the grocery store, where I'd prance down the frozen foods aisle of Randalls like it was my own personal red carpet, much to the humiliation of my older sister. It may not have been glamorous, but it was exciting.

Once I got a little older, this stopped being cute, and my mother enforced a strict makeup ban until junior high. Of course, this cosmetics fatwa coincided with that awesome awkward phase Mother Nature inflicts upon adolescent girls, which is surely intended to encourage humility and ensure that young ladies learn algebra and how to dissect frogs by themselves. I was livid, and I counted down the days until I could access the treasures in my Caboodle.

Turns out my mother was right, because once the ban was lifted, I'd learned the art of restraint — to an extent, anyway. In high school, I wore lipstick to gym class, because I could. In college, I'd wear glitter eyeliner to 8 a.m. economics lectures, because I could. At night, I'd gather with my friends in the dorm rooms, a community of girls bonding in ceremonial fashion over liquid eyeliner techniques, hunting through each other's makeup bags for the perfect lipstick to match one's backless shirt. (It was 1999, give me a break.) We'd emerge from the dorm feeling fearless, pretty and ready to take on the campus bars, if not the world.

But once you graduate and become a professional woman, all of this seems a little frivolous. Wearing glitter eyeliner to a job interview is inappropriate — unless you're that kind of professional — and who has time to perfectly apply liquid eyeliner every morning?

And then you reach the point when wearing a lot of makeup just makes you look old, and you'll wonder exactly when you passed the point of "old enough." Now you have Father Time to deal with, and he's marching across your face. With each passing day, it takes more and more to look like you did less and less. The art of makeup has changed — it's now more like an extensive archaeological excavation in reverse — and your trusted rituals don't work like they used to.

A bleak reality faces you in the mirror, especially if the lighting is harsh. And it's not pretty.

When you're a little girl, playing with makeup is just another form of make-believe, allowing you to fantasize about who you will be when you grow up. But maybe you grew up and didn't do all the fabulous, glamorous things you thought you'd do. Maybe you didn't find the man of your dreams, no matter how many tubes of lipstick you have in your purse. Maybe pretty doesn't matter like you thought it did, and if you've been baselining everything on appearances, what you saw isn't necessarily what you got.

And maybe — no, definitely — it's time to extend an official apology to your first-grade teacher.

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