Mirror Mirror: Harnessing the Magic of Makeup on My Own Terms
As a child, I would sit perched on the edge of my grandparents’ bed, mystified as I watched my grandmother perform her daily ritual in front of the broad mirror of her carved, wooden vanity. Sponges, brushes, powders and creams swirled together in the air, on the counter, on her face. She held a round magnifying mirror up close to see the details. The cycle came to a close inside a floral cloud of hairspray. It sent me into fits of giggles to hear her say that she needed to “put on her face.” I imagined her peeling off her rosy smile like a latex mask in a monster movie.
“A little bit of powder and a little bit of paint makes a lady what she ain’t,” she would smile and say to me in her warm, poised, English voice. It was a phrase she’d repeated a thousand times.
At the time, I didn’t notice much difference in my grandmother with and without her “face.” Yet, she refused to leave the house without performing the transformation. I was certain she was practicing a magic I didn’t yet understand. I would sneak into her room and examine the potions. I taught myself the names: concealer for the face, blush for the cheeks, mascara for the lashes, lipstick and eyeliner and a pencil for her brows. Each day she pulled the items out of a silky, discolored black bag, did her tricks and returned the items to their home. That bag sat on her vanity amidst faded photographs, an old fashioned perfume bottle no longer in use, and a heavy silver hairbrush. These things were relics, but the makeup was alive. It lived through the happiest and saddest moments of her days. I’d seen her leave Granny-colored imprints on people she loved: remnants of lipstick on my mother's cheek, foundation on my grandfather's sweaters. Wherever she traveled, her makeup bag was a companion.
My grandmother was not unique in this sense. I realized that many of the women I looked up to had their own rituals, their own bag of cosmetics as a companion, and I was fascinated by the details of each and every one. I sifted through my mother’s bathroom. She didn’t have a vanity and a black bag like my grandmother. She haphazardly tossed her makeup into a long drawer next to the sink in my parents bathroom, although the drawer was arranged with plastic dividers that suggested there was once hope for organization. Still, she had potions and tools of her own. She sat me on her lap to show me how she filed her nails into neat little squares before carefully coating them in a paint, shimmering, dark and pink. She let me watch as she opened a small, teal box of Jolen Creme Bleach and spread the white paste across her lip, laughing as she explained, “... so I don’t have a mustache like daddy.” Somehow, even this seemed seeped in magic and glamour, encompassing a world of femininity I had yet to unlock.
I was twelve when I started developing a cosmetic collection of my own. The beginning of a slow transition into womanhood, this was the same age that I lost my father and my family home was filled with more feminine energy than ever before. My front door spun round and round to welcome my mother’s sisters, friends and confidants who came to help her to remember to take care of herself, and to take care of my brother and me. Our guest room only ever seemed empty long enough for us to change the sheets before welcoming in someone new. Some stayed for days or weeks or months. Each woman I helped settle in to their temporary home brought their own bag of magic tricks to show me.
My aunt Fiona brought a big bag with lots of pockets, full of makeup from a singular cosmetics counter. The little pots and vials were labeled to indicate exactly where each pigment should go so she could adorn her face in the exact way the makeup artist at the mall had instructed to be most flattering. My mother’s best friend Marie wore little makeup. She spent all her time traveling and didn’t get attached to possessions. Yet, she was always excited to tell me about a new organic cream for her face or new ways to define her curls. When she and I went grocery shopping, she let me wander the aisle with lipsticks, a thousand varieties of pink, as she peeled the plastic off a fresh bottle of nail polish to paint her fingers on the supermarket floor.
As much as I studied it, the magic of womanhood wasn’t easily emulated. Rather than evolving into the elegant young lady I envisioned, I transitioned from a precocious twelve-year- old to an awkward thirteen-year-old. My skin erupted into blotches and blemishes and my friends convinced me to chop off my long hair to a blunt, unflattering length. My friends and I wouldn’t prepare for dances and parties perched in front of private vanities; we lined our makeup bags across singular bathroom counters and elbowed each other as we tried to get a better view of the mirror. Often, I’d glance at my friends’ reflections and then back at my own before realizing I no longer wanted to look in the mirror at all. No matter what I did, their hair always seemed sleeker, their skin always seemed smoother, and their eyes always seemed brighter. After everyone was ready, I would sneak back into the bathroom to examine the bags. I’d skim the labels, hold the colors up to the light, searching for the secret to beauty that was still out of my grasp.
At 15, I learned that that the magic in a makeup bag wasn’t at all what I thought. I tagged along with my mom and her friend Kathy to a department store in the mall. I had snooped through Kathy’s makeup before. I knew she only bought Chanel. My mother didn’t buy expensive makeup, neither did my friends. I was certain this is what I had been missing. I had seen the products on makeup blogs and in Youtube tutorials. I had memorized the names. I daydreamed about brushing the pigments across my own face; I would become as smooth and glossy as the cover on a magazine. I was certain this day would change everything, as Kathy, fair-haired, slim, and perpetually polished, sauntered over to the Chanel counter.
“Victoria,” she said, “Why don’t you let my friend do your makeup?”
Elated, I sat down in the chair in front of the makeup artist. She was an older woman, with dark hair and an inescapable aura of floral perfume. I cringed as I felt her dab concealer on zit after zit, but I was certain she’d have that problem all sorted out. She moved on to other parts of my face: shimmering green eyeshadow, black liner, and pale lipstick. At last, she handed me a mirror.
“What do you think?”
I looked closely. My skin was just as bumpy, but covered in splotches of paint too dark and orange against my skin. My eyes were lined with kohl, making them appear dark and beady like those of a crow. My eyes began to water; the promise of beauty had been shattered and I felt uglier than ever before.
“So,” she said, “Would you like to get anything?”
Defeated, I realized that putting on makeup didn’t mean taking off your old face and replacing it with a new one like my grandmother had led me to believe. No amount of powder and paint would make me believe I was something I wasn’t. No amount would transform me from the uncertain girl I was into the confident woman I was trying to be.
Makeup is magical in the things it can reveal, not in what it can hide. Sneaking through makeup bags taught me about one of the most intimate rituals in a woman’s day. These were things they use and touch and feel again and again and again, in the privacy of their bathrooms or vanities, in moments that belonged only to them. What they cary reveals their values, as well as their most persistent insecurities. Fiona did her face just as instructed by a makeup artist because she always valued other people’s approval over her own. Marie enjoyed a selective number of things, as she was always careful not to get attached to anything in a way that would tie her down. Kathy used Chanel because luxury was something she had trust in.
What I didn’t understand at five or ten or fifteen is that womanhood is not formulaic; there is no perscription or magic potion or makeup line that can cure insecurity or uncertainty. As I have become to take ownership of my womanhood, to feel comfortable in my own body and identity, I have had to define beauty on my own terms. Trying to be a glossy magazine cover never brought me strength, but I began to feel beautiful when I learned that I could take inspiration from figures I looked up to, in movies, in music, and in life, and incorporate that into a routine of my own. The goal is no longer to make myself pretty, but to make myself me.
My grandmother had her own routine that she refined throughout decades. She refused to deviate from the exact products she relied on, even when she stopped driving and certain brands became harder and harder for the rest of us to find. This routine was her comfort and her strength. Regardless of the hardship she faced, she faced it in the same way: refined, elegant, prepared. I held her hand throughout the funeral her husband, my grandfather, and at the funeral of her daughter, my aunt. On both occasions, I felt her tremble, yet her makeup never ran. She spoke of keeping a “stiff upper lip,” and her beauty routine was one more way of showing the world and herself that there was no suffering that could break her.
Two summers ago, my grandmother had a series of heart attacks. My aunt Fiona called as my mother and I rushed to the hospital. She sighed.
“Mom won’t go into surgery without putting on her face.”
About the Author
Victoria Middleton (she/her) is a third year student at The George Washington University studying journalism and mass communication with a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She discovered her love for writing as a little girl, typing fairytale stories on her parents old Dell and printing them out before taping them into glitter-glue-encrusted cardboard covers. These days, she thinks honest and fully developed stories about women are even better than fairy tales. When she’s not scheming against the male hegemony of the media industry, she can be found thrifting, watching cult films and TV and badly dancing to good music. She has been known to get overly excited about intersectional feminism, astrology and David Lynch.