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JULY 23, 2011 1:28PM

Transformations

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Somewhere around 8th or 9th grade I figure I must have missed a day of school. It was the day when all the girls were taken into another room and given the official "girl guide."  You know, the one where they tell you about make-up and clothes, and all the mysteries of feminine life.  I got the 5th grade talk, the one with the nurse about periods and the little sample box of Kotex. That was easy, that was basic biology. I could have learned that anywhere. But the "girl talk," that one I could have used. I needed it a lot more.

Years went by. I was lost. I had no idea how any of this stuff worked.  Why did everyone else know how to do this? Where did they learn?  Who taught them?  I had two older sisters, a mother; none of them seemed to notice that the rest of the women in the world did things differently than we did.  I looked around in amazement as women I considered my inferiors in almost every other arena managed to come to school or work with perfectly coifed hair, expertly applied make-up, and fashionable clothes.  From time to time I would buy a few supplies and lock myself in the bathroom to experiment, but I was never happy with the result. I was self-conscious, nervous, and, in the end, afraid of what might happen if anyone would actually, God forbid, notice me. My defense was to blend into the background--if no one looked, no one would notice my lack of beauty skills. I spent years avoiding detection, flying below the beauty radar.

Slowly, with some help, I started to see that change might be possible, that it was okay to be seen in the world, to want things, to have things.  I was buying the inner beauty/self-love line, but what about that external stuff? I still couldn't understand how to do that.  Now and then I would timidly circle the department store counters trying to gather the courage to ask a question (but, what question?) and any attempt at eye contact by a clerk would send me running in the other direction.  My first brave act was getting a manicure and pedicure. How hard could that be? I thought I was ready. I read articles about nail salons, watched YouTube videos.  But, somehow, I overlooked the fact that the first thing I would need to do was pick out a color.  Who knew that red could come in so many shades?  Faced with a wall of color I blindly picked out one and forged ahead. Luckily there was little need for small talk as the technicians seemed to have limited English, and an hour later I walked out with twenty bright red nails.  It was only months later that my nieces pointed out that red fingernails were so passé. Still, I had taken my first small step on the road to womanhood and I was still alive. Maybe there was hope.

Then last year I met two old high school friends, Anne and Kerry, for a short reunion.  The three of us had been friends since 6th grade but were now 35 years past our graduation and all successfully launched into careers, second careers, families, and full adult lives. As we sat sipping drinks on the rooftop patio bar of our Chicago hotel, we decided we needed a photo to commemorate the event.  Kerry declared that she would need to freshen her lipstick first and pulled an array of beauty supplies from her purse.  I fumbled and found an old Chapstick at the bottom of my bag.  Clearly, I was out of my league.  Clearly, they had gotten the girl guide back in middle school.  My friends, to their credit, decided that I was not a lost cause and declared that the next day they would take me to Sephora and begin my transformation.  I was nervous.

In the morning, before we left the hotel, Kerry gave me a short lesson on mascara and eyeliner. I watched, took a long drink of water, and picked up the tubes.  I made a few quick strokes and turned for her approval, only to hear her ask, "Which eye did you do?"  Perhaps then they saw the enormity of the task before them.

Undaunted, we set out. Walking into Sephora was like entering an alien land.  The music blared, the lights were bright, and the atmosphere frenetic. The array of beauty supplies was beyond my imagination and I was happy to have my trusty guides at my side.  Soon we were greeted by a young woman, eager to help the cause.  She had a flat mask-like layer of makeup with full, bright red lips and dark black eyes.  She was obviously not going for the "natural" look...But, she seemed genuinely friendly and I was entrusted to her care.  Anne had suggested Bare Minerals as an easy, low maintenance, introductory make-up ("You don't need to re-apply!" she gushed. Re-apply? You mean some people do this more than once a day!!).  Glenda, or whatever her name was, sat me down and started to work.  She did one side and then coached me on applying the other.  This meant a lot of looking in the mirror, always a danger, and my hands were shaking. Still, I survived, and actually thought I might be able to master these techniques. 

Okay, that seemed like about enough for me, but the girls weren't done shopping.  "Lipstick, she must have lipstick!"  They declared.  Thus began a search through the store for just the right application.  My experience with lipstick was pretty much limited to those tubes you would see in the shampoo aisle of the grocery store. Oh, little did I know!  There are stains and glosses, brushes and sponges, pots and tubes...and let's not start on the color chart.  By now, Glenda had sensed the scope of my need and called for reinforcements.  Soon we were assisted by the token gay guy clerk ...Brad?...who immediately declared that he knew exactly what was right for me.  Here I stood, silent, while my two faithful friends and two helpful clerks discussed my lips.  I was starting to lose touch with reality. 

And, reality did slip away, right in front of the lipstick display. I fought against the building panic and gathering tears, but when Kerry turned to me and said, "Are you going to cry?" any hope I had of control was gone. Glenda handed me a few tissues and walked away, Brad was nowhere to be seen.  Kerry and Anne gathered around and apologized, probed, and comforted.  "What was wrong?"  I couldn't say.  It was too much...too much attention, too much information, too many decisions, too dangerous.  Forty years of insecurities, doubts, and fears were poured out in the Sephora aisle.  I'm sure I was bad for business.  Kerry helped me quickly make my purchases and exit.  Over lunch we deconstructed the experience, the meaning make-up carried for women and how much our first boyfriends had shaped our views of ourselves as women.  I felt loved, but still unsure about make-up.

I went home and analyzed the situation. Out of the glare of the Sephora lights I decided that make-up was something I wanted to try, but I would have to do it on my own terms.  It took me six months to recover from Sephora, but I set New Years as my goal for making a visit to the make-up counter.  Kerry had suggested Bobbi Brown, so on a quiet day soon after the first of the year, I ventured into the department store and asked for help.  Having been through the experience once, I felt more comfortable this time.  It was quiet, low-key, and I found the clerk helpful and understanding.  She said if I had trouble with eye liner not to use it. Whew, why hadn't I considered that option?  I left with some basic supplies and new confidence.  Through the spring I tried to keep to the routine and soon found that I was getting more comfortable with my admittedly minimalist look. I did feel a little more confident, a little more self-assured. As shallow as it may sound, make-up made me feel different. I started to look around and feel like I belonged to the female tribe.

Feeling like I was getting a handle on the outward signs of femininity, Kerry decided we needed to move to a more intimate area--bras.  Recently I made a little trip to Boston and was promptly whisked by Kerry to Bloomingdale's for a bra fitting (well, there was a bottle or so of red wine first...).  I didn't catch the name of my fitter, but "Helga" seems appropriate.  While quite stylish, I'm sure she had a former life as a prison warden.  She was a 60ish woman with an Eastern European accent and firm approach. It was clear that she was all business and that bra fitting was her calling. 

Standing naked from the waist up in front of the 3 panel mirror she said curtly, "Let's see what we have going on here."  After the look of disdain for my current undergarments left her face, she was quick to return with an armful of possible options for me to try.  I mentioned a concern about a bit of bulging and she was quick to note that we did, indeed, have "a little drama" going on here and that a smaller band and larger cup, "if I could fill it out," might solve the issue.  Kerry kindly collected the possibles while the discards were promptly taken away by Helga. At one point, reminded of the previous year's meltdown, Kerry inquired, "How are you doing? You're looking a little flushed...”  I assured her that I was okay, despite the beads of sweat on my upper lip. I've never done so much gentle falling forward as I did in there, but luckily I have "strong shoulders" that provide "good support." 

After a bit Helga suggested we try a t-shirt to get the full effect of her work, and I had my single moment of panic.  For a second I completely forgot how to put a t-shirt on...do your arms go first or your head????  More embarrassed by possible flaws in my dressing technique than by my nakedness, I fumbled to get the shirt on.  Helga point out the lift, definition, and line she was creating, much to Kerry's approval.  In the end I walked out with 2 new bras, a cute little black one and a more basic functional beige.

Later that day, I had my eyebrows trimmed, waxed, and shaped by Caitlin.  I made her promise that she wouldn't change the way they look, and true to her word, all she did was clean things up a bit. She assured me that with a little tweezing here and there I would be able to maintain the new look for quite awhile. Another hurdle conquered. 

I'm running out of body parts to adjust, so perhaps by the time I'm 60 I may actually feel like I'm getting a handle on this whole girl thing.  With a fresh manicure and pedicure, my perky bra, neat eyebrows and gentle make-up who knows what I might be able to accomplish?

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feminism, fashion

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This is a very interesting and entertaining post. My mother never gave me the manual because she had nothing but disdain for it. I'm pretty sure I was born holding the manual in my tiny hand. My own daughter couldn't care less if a manual even exists... All women seem to find the way that's right for them.~r
Welcome to the world of makeup. It does help after, what the old Oil of Olay ads used to call, "a certain age." Nice story. Best of success in your navigation.
This was so sad. I'm sorry you let the idea that you aren't really a girl unless you slather makeup all over yourself creep into your brain. Some women use makeup because they find it fun and artistic to change their hair and face, in the same way they have different styles of clothes to wear. But to accept someone else's decree that what you look like naturally is unacceptable is a defeat, not a victory. The 60's were ridiculous in many ways, but one thing they did get right was the idea that women are beautiful in their natural state. You don't see men spending time and money and inflicting pain on themselves to meet an artificial standard of beauty. You don't have to, either.
I'm 54 and just learned about lipstick in the last year. For decades, I never wore it because when I drank diet coke out of a can, the lipstick would just end up on my chin. I no longer drink cases of soda, and it turns out there are tricks to lipstick that make a big difference. It may be a silly girly thing, but the color brightens my face and I love it. I recently figured out brow color too. I had no idea all these years that a tiny bit of light brown eye shadow brushed into my brows with a tiny angled brush would make my eye color seem more intense. Fun. Nobody notices the makeup. They think I changed my hair and lost weight. Thank you, Sephora, for the samples that got me to try something new.

So welcome to the world of slow learners and late adopters. It's fine.
It has been interesting to hear reactions to this story. I thought I was alone in feeling a little lost in the girl world for so many years. I don't find my experiences sad at all, and I was ahead of the fashion curve in embracing my naturally gray hair!
I enjoyed reading your post, although I find it wildly ironic. For many of us, reaching an age somewhere over 40 comes with a greater freedom to accept ourselves "as is" (unless you are a celebrity, "Real Housewife" or Kardashian). I still wear makeup daily at work - I would feel like I wasn't trying at all if I didn't - but I rarely touch it on the weekends unless we have social plans. However, I will occasionally go out for one of our monthly dinners with friends completely barefaced. It's wonderfully freeing. Having said that, undergarments that fit properly are more important now than ever before! Enjoy your journey.
I got the manual early but until 40 didn't really care. Now, it's injections, peels and lasers, oh my! Loved the story.
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I'm 52. I was an ardent feminist from age 12 on (thank you Ms Magazine, which I read while babysitting for a divorced mom attending law school). I never wanted to be objectified -- so I was only too happy with the little string ties and high-necked blouses I wore early in my career. Then I went through a decades-long baggy-clothes phase. It's wasn't until about age 45 that I wanted to be truly noticed for my appearance -- "objectify me now before it's too late!"

I highly recommend the TLC show What Not To Wear, not just for the style advice but to learn in a fun way how making the most of our appearance is actually empowering.
I'm 54 (not in my forties as Salon has portrayed me!) I, too, was a young feminist in many ways. I think it is with some age that I've been able to say "this is something I want" not something I'm doing because I think I need to conform to anyone else's ideas about me.
Thanks for the laugh-out-loud burst you gave me here at the coffee shop, everyone's now looking at me as coffee's dripping out my nose! FUN read! Thanks!