Performing Beauty (Or Not)

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Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Digital Skilleti
What I want to tell her is that no action is required of her to be worthy of love—mine or anyone else’s. What I want to tell her is that what she sees in the mirror is not a problem to be solved.

They catch my eye as I walk into the drugstore: the little bottles of polish, vials of liquid, and tubes filled with cream.

But it is with shame that I navigated this vast pharmacopoeia that promises to solve the problem of being and aging, human woman–because this is the problem I have so consistently failed to solve.

When I was growing up, my mother didn’t shave or wear much makeup. She grudgingly taught me how to use a razor when I entered junior high and we both realized it was expected of me.

On the few occasions when she did wear makeup, she offered an explanation that sounded more like an excuse. Her lips and lashes, she said, were losing their color as she aged. I think now about her lips, made rosy by gloss, and I feel a tug, a sense that I am supposed to be doing something about the fact that I am growing older. Some action seems to be required.

I have tried to perform what seemed to be expected of me. I have bought the things in the drugstore that promised to help solve my problems. I have put on lipstick and worn high heels. I have painted my nails and had my eyebrows waxed. I have tried, and failed, to fight stubborn belly fat.

When my daughter was born six years ago, I discovered that I had no time, energy, or interest to cling to the last few tethers holding me to conventional womanhood–things like wearing makeup and shaving. Six years on, I can see what is left after letting go of all these things. I do not know what to call it, but I know that feel deeply, irrevocably myself.

Letting go, however, does not mean I can prevent my daughter from getting caught in tethers of her own. I see this as I watch her get dressed for school.

“Mother, do I look cute? Is this beautiful? Don’t you like this outfit?” she asks.

Of course you look cute and beautiful. Of course I like that outfit. You’re my darling, I tell her. But there is more that gets caught in my throat.

What I want to tell her is that no action is required of her to be worthy of love–mine or anyone else’s.

What I want to tell her is that what she sees in the mirror is not a problem to be solved.

The next time we are in the drugstore, my daughter’s eyes grow big at the bottles of nail polish spread out in a gleaming display. The tiny pots of color, ranged from darkest burgundy to shell-like pink, form an irresistible rainbow for her, the girl who always draws rainbows. She picks out a color, and we bring the small bottle home; she carries it like a jewel.

At home, we sit at the kitchen table, her tiny hand outstretched over the plastic cutting board. I hold her soft fingers in mine and brush on the bright pink polish.

“It feels cold,” she breathes, fascinated to see her fingers so transformed.

And I let her take the tiny brush in her soft fingers and spread the bright pink polish on the nails of my own sturdy hands, thick-skinned and creased with lines, just as my own mother’s were when I was young.

Together, we perform this small act of beauty, not because it is required of us, but for the sheer joy of it. And I am at peace with the unsolved problem of being an aging woman, if only for that one small moment.

I do not know if I can spare my daughter the struggles that I went through–if she will be able to navigate the aisles of the drugstore with her head held high. All I can do is let loose the words caught in my throat–you are worthy; you are not a problem to be solved; the only action required of you is to be who are and hope that it will be enough. 

Emily F. Popek lives in upstate New York. Her favorite gender-bending popular icon is the late David Bowie, who always found new ways to perform beauty. Reprinted from Geez (Summer 2018), an independent quarterly Canadian magazine dealing with issues of spirituality, social justice, religion, and progressive cultural politics.

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