The Witchy Magic of Beauty Rituals

My great grandmother Nana wore Oil of Olay and smoked Menthol Kools. She was a warm, solitary woman with tight curls who sat in a faded green chair and told us stories about growing up poor during the depression. She made strawberry jam and crafted my cousin and I beloved dolls out of towels which we creatively called ‘towel-dolls’. What I remember the most is the scent of Olay with a gentle ‘cigarette smoke’ note.

It’s a poignant perfume, which is why I can’t use Oil of Olay to this day. That scent is tightly held in the corner of my brain reserved for memories of Nana. The descriptions of so many that I’ve loved begin with a scent, or a memory of how they groomed themselves. Our beauty potions and perfumes floating around like gentle ghost’s for those we’ve held close in life.

I’ve been dosing myself in moisturizer and scents since I was a kid. It’s a cottage industry on both sides of my family branches. We all spent summers in the sun, coated thickly in sunscreen, then were encouraged to moisturize instantly post shower. This is the only time to moisturize productively (did anyone else’s mothers, aunts, or grandmothers repeat this thousands of times?) Before bed one should always moisturize his or her face. I’d tap vaseline around my eyes just like mom did. She looked good and I prayed I would grow up in a similar fashion. Guess what? The reports are true— us little ladies are taught real early that our looks are incredibly vitally, ridiculously all important. Am I aware that’s a little bit bullshit? Read my future essay ‘The Bullshit Reality That My Face and Body Are More Important Than My Mind, and Other Rants’ next Tuesday. Today, I choose to punch things out in the middle of the beauty ring, swinging happily while I enjoy the trappings of taking care of my skin and smelling like a flower. Can there be strength in that? (answer is yes.)

I believe passionately in moisturizer, both in the science of it as well as the emotional magic. If it’s nothing more than a type of sugar pill, I’ll take that daily, please. I know it’s a bit ephemeral and largely exists to make me feel better about the inevitable aging process. I hate to break it to anyone not quite there yet, but HOLY CRAP it actually happens! We get older and then…? Yep, that’s correct, we will all die (just throwing that in to keep things breezy and honest). Moisturizer won’t keep me forever young or alive any more than it will turn me into Gigi Hagid. I can see the signs of aging already. My tan doesn’t come or go as evenly. I need more eyeliner to do a cat-eye than I once it. I look realistically at myself in the mirror at the end of most days, taking stock in my skin’s new qualities while pressing a lightly perfumed lotion into my skin. Sometimes I spend a lot of money on it. Sometimes I buy the less expensive stuff. The months I’m dipping into the pricey jar? I swear I look better. I deeply love this process. Why?

It’s fun! It’s expensive! It’s frivolous! It’s 100% about my own vanity! I personally don’t care if I’m judged for it — I get power from it. Women are as strong and useful as men — which is a belief finally getting some valid attention these days. Believing this, I equally indulge in the genteel rituals of beauty. My skin glows, which comforts me and gives me a sense of control.

The first boy I ever liked so much that maybe I loved him a little wore Cool Water cologne. Don’t put that cheap shit on around me ever, cause I will stare at you like 14 year old teen who just discovered cooing into the phone and daydreaming is the purest form of survival. That crush is nearly 25 years behind me, but the scent transports me instantly to the hallways of junior high. Coolwater leads me to the scent of Noxema, which I began that year as a nightly ritual, probably due to the boy. I likely believed I was immortal at fourteen, so it wasn’t to keep me looking young. I’d apply a layer to my skin each night until it tingled, would rinse, and then apply a coat of moisturizer from my mom’s stash. She knew I did this. She never hid it. Thank you, Mom for the fancy shit. If you combine the scent of Cool Water with the tingle of Noxema, my eyes will roll into the back of my head and I’ll babble homework from beginning Spanish class “Donde esta la bilbioteca?’ while doing a slow running man to a PM Dawn track. (and in case you’re wondering what lipstick I wore that era, it was Black Honey, by Clinique thankyou very much. Yes, each life’s chapter could be titled by the lipstick I wore.)

My mother holds a strict nightly routine: Face-wash, rich moisturizer, then a thin layer of vaseline around her eyes and on lips. Say what you will about Vaseline, but my mom looks like she’s 45. I’m not too far away from 40 and she had me at 30, so you know something is working. We are about to start looking the same age, which is strange for me and is very good for the makers of vaseline and mainly my mother. Vaseline seems to works, guys. It’s not pricey. Go get yourself a jar.

The ritual of a beauty routine connects me to the female relatives who have preceded me in life — a witchy communion with my ghostly ancestors as I pat the cream around my eyes and spritz myself with a flowery perfume.

Mom kept pearls around a bottle of Tea Rose, and her solitaire diamond necklace draped around a bottle of Joy. Both bottles lasted the duration of my childhood, which proves mom was classy as she was thrifty. You didn’t need much perfume if your pearls already smelled of Tea Rose (that sentence can only be read allowed in a southern accent while fanning oneself). My cousin recently reminded me that the ‘consequence’ of Joy being their mother’s scent meant the three sisters each believed Joy was ‘the only scent they could each wear and is (also) their favorite.”

That’s some powerful memory, as tied to a mother’s perfume.

Grandmother Graalman

Grandmother Graalman

On my father’s side was Grandmother Graalman (Yes we called her Grandmother. That was her name and she was fabulous.) Grandmother wore Hermes scarves all months but the sweltering summer ones. A bombshell blonde who rocked a deep tan year round, which was procured with a tanning board outside on their back patio. Sun-science will tell you this is a bad idea and will definitely have an impact on anyone’s skin-quality. But Grandmother always looked radiant. She had a few more lines than she would have if she’d hidden from the sun, but she seemed to enjoy herself bronzey, so bronzey she was. She washed her face with Erno Lazlo black soap, which I would fantasize about owning when I was grown. I don’t know where she bought it out in Oklahoma. I assume she had a secret salesperson at some fancy store who had it sent in from New York. I would fact-check that with family, but I don’t want to ruin the mystique by learning she bought it at the Piggly Wiggly. This is the ritual mythology I’ve built for myself, and I’m sticking with it.

While she cooked us lunch, I would tip-toe into her room and try to mimic her beauty routine. I put on every lipstick. I put on every eyeshadow. I was almost always caught — not that she ever minded. She’d saddle up along side me with her collection of pinky brown nail-polishes (her signature color which matched perfectly with her always bronzey skin) and would instruct me on proper nail-painting techniques. She wore Fracas perfume most days, and her scarves still smell very softly of the scent. I breathe in and the olfactory magic is released. Closing my eyes, her memory and presence becomes tangible.

Even in Alicia Key’s current non-makeup wearing sabbatical, her makeup artist revealed how she cares for her skin. It’s a routine that doesn’t go away, even when the color and powders are dismissed. Based on interviews she’s given, to Alicia Keys, the expectations of made-up (as in makeup) beauty feel like trappings to her. She’s right, then. No one gets to declare that she’s wrong for not obliging societal opinion that all women be ‘made up’. If she feels overwhelmed by the expectations, then she should release herself of those expectations.

I love that Alicia Keys is making the decision to go fresh faced. However, I dislike the idea that some people take the decision to mean ‘makeup and the beauty industry is bad’. The conversation can and should be nuanced, and we each get to have our own truth and reality when it comes to how deeply we wade into the waters of product consumption.

I have clients who will occasionally admit that they feel guilty for spending the money on the service, or the products. Or guilty for caring. I very quickly state “there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to indulge in your vanity. It’s your face. There is zero weakness in obliging.” It is fun and important if you decide that to be true for yourself. Some of these faces are seen by throngs of people and fans — some faces are seen by casting directors. Are you getting your face done because 1 (one) person you’re sweet on is taking you to dinner? That’s more than fine— you are saying this person matters and so you’re wanting to look hot/beautiful/powerful/sexy/demure/however the hell you want, using some tools. I love helping clients discover new ways of seeing themselves. It can be surprise to find a new source of power in an eyeliner technique or lipcolor. To seek individuality in a perfume. “This is my scent. This is my color. This is who I’ve decided I’m going to be today.”

My beauty rituals tie me to my ancestors — each female relative in my rear view mirror indulged in the tradition of splendidly grooming themselves. They pin-curled their hair, pinched their cheeks, brushed their brows, and even did facersize in the 80’s. They painted on bold lips and smized into cameras as confident, strong women even when their gender was seen as ‘less than’.

 

Babe Staines

Babe Staines

They were travelers, teachers, dustbowl survivors, and artists who were exquisitely feminine. When nearing the end of their lives, they whispered at me to travel and not marry too young. I’ve doubled down on that advice and have yet to marry, but have a solid career in the beauty industry, which allows me to keep women believing in themselves. When I feel less certain of my own appearance, or hold doubts about my place in society, I go back to basic beauty routines and derive strength there. Who is Rocky’s side-kick in the boxing ring who cheers him on? Mickey? Embracing a beauty ritual and summoning my ancestors is my version of having a Mickey. Get up you son of a bitch cause Mickey loves ya. Only they whisper to me ‘That perfume is DIVINE!’

I keep photos of these women around my home as a reminder. I have a few scarves from Grandmother, which still hold faintly onto the scent of Fracas. A small case that Grandma Becky kept her lipstick in. I have a ring from Great Grandmother. A picture of my great-grandmother, who had everyone call her Babe.

I have the memory of Nana tucked away safely to conjure out when needed. I’m like Jem, touching some magical earring and suddenly I’m a little bit more fabulous and go on fighting. That fighting almost always done while wearing a very bold lip and smelling like Gardenia, which is a Chanel scent that is perfect to me, and keeps me going forward.

The Intentions and Consequences of Contouring

Adele’s cover this past winter on Time is pure delicious make-up candy to me — original, bold, vulnerable and sexy as hell. She’s staring towards camera draped in a red sweater, done up perfectly in heavy-handed contour.  

The first moment I saw the cover, I was instantly inspired to try harder at embracing my femininity in full-female-drag (the heightened, un-lazy version of myself has always been a bit trashy and vampy). Conversely, many Kardashian-like images make me shudder. Which is an issue I’ve been pondering. Why does Adele’s makeup look so good, and the the latter tribe of K’s make me squirm?

It’s not that they aren’t beautiful. It just seems that some of their natural beauty is stripped away by the manner in which the make-up is applied. Adele’s artist and the Kardashian’s both bow deeply to the ‘full-faced-make-up’ goddess, who I bow to as often as I can. Both fake-lashed, contoured, lined and powdered within an inch of their lives. Yet Adele looks exquisitely alive and the Kardashian version of make-up looks a bit like a mortician went at them post mortem. The Kardashian’s are trend-setters of the highest degree, so when I say ‘them’ I’m now talking about wayyy more than those sisters five.

Imagine, if you will — A nineteen-year-old sits down in your make-up chair and immediately asks about her need for botox while confessing she hasn’t left home without fake lashes in a year. A seventeen-year-old shows you her ‘contour’ technique, which she refuses to leave the house without. You keep seeing young women with bruises on their cheeks which turn out to actually be poorly placed contour. These scenarios have repeated themselves in great succession this past year. These scenarios never happened in the twelve years before I was working as a make-up artist. I have realized there is a problem. Or a trend. A bad trend.

The Kardashian style of shaping the face is in. Yet it doesn’t feel like a ‘look’ as much as it feels like a mask, once just reserved (and very necessary) for actors on proscenium stages, aging public figures, or drag queens. Now full facial contouring has hit the strip malls, 7-eleven parking lots, and high-schools of America. It’s a fad, you say? Fine. But there is also some neurosis saddling itself to those younger kids being carried away on the trend.

Young women and men are shading and highlighting their faces as though life has already cast them aside. It doesn’t look fun, or care free. It looks as though there’s something wrong to begin with. As though the point of make-up is to ‘correct’ as opposed to ‘have a good time with your youth, girl’.

I always wore a lot of make-up as a teen. I likely wore too much make-up on a thousand different occasions between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I’m certainly not a make-up artist by accident. I discovered make-up and began ram-shackling my way through my mother and grandmother’s make-up drawers when I was barely 6, asking if I could traipse up and down the block like a toddler-clown parade of 1. No one forced me into full face. I was itching for it, wanting to slather it on my face like how most kids wanted to shovel cake into their faces.

My experimenting wasn’t because I hated my face or wanted to alter something I was uncomfortable with. I looked (hopefully) hot and mildly rebellious. Who really remembers aside from myself and the 4 photos I still have of that time? I was young and wanted to look supercute and I liked bands whose members wore lots of eyeliner, so I would put on lots of eyeliner. I looked like a slutty raccoon (which can be partially blamed on the 90’s trend of sporting wayyy too light of shades of concealer). I never wondered about my nose shape needing ‘fixing’ or my cheekbones needing definition or my jawline needing a better square shape. I also never thought about having my photo taken 246 times a day. With no one but like-minded friends to advertise ourselves to, we could relish freely in too much or too little. Maybe I was a hot mess, but there’s very little photography proving whether I was or wasn’t. Only handful of people would register it: my parents and those at school who chose to look closely at my face. I never thought I needed a mask.

But, lo! The contour! The need for it when young is so unnecessary I wish to make it obsolete. The technique is complicated and difficult to master so the results often look somewhat violent. The reason one contours for images is because dimension is taken away by the act of taking a 3-D person and making them 2-D.

Contouring is used for stage due to distance and lighting issues. Remember when women were getting made fun of in the 90’s for lining their lips with darker liners, larger than their lips were? As Jerry Seinfeld said, “Where lipstick is concerned, the important thing is not color, but to accept God’s final word on where your lips end.” This is being done to the whole face. The entire face. being outlined.

I often preach that the wearing of make-up should be to reveal, not conceal. People also happen to love advice that rhymes. My favorite un-rhymed advice: I do my own makeup until I kinda want to make out with myself. I do my make-up until I feel a snap in my brain and step back and think ‘hell yes’. That moment changes daily — sometimes it’s heavy, bright and loud. Sometimes it’s just a dab of concealer with some lip balm. What are your intentions with your product? If you’re hiding behind it, people will see that. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a time or place for corrective techniques. I use corrective products. The Dream Barbie version of myself sure as hell doesn’t have circles under her eyes. But once I conceal, I then choose what I want to highlight. I fell in love with make-up because I could express my personality using it, magnifying with bold colors and dramatic technique who I hoped to grow into as a woman.

What is the invisible line between an Adele-style beat-down and a Kardashian contour bonanza? It’s lies somewhere between statement “I getto wear this” versus “I need to wear this”. Adele was giving us face for a year-end issue. The Kardashians sometimes are just going to the grocery store. Why do any of us need it? Hopefully because it’s fun and makes us feel more like ourselves. It’s as if there’s an existential sadness revealed when slathering on make-up because you feel you ‘have to’. Yes, we are all strangely under the scrutiny of the public eye now, with an endless social media cycle. Maybe we should just take a deep breath, say ‘screw it’ to what we think we need to be seen as, and remember what it was like to have fun with our faces.

Young youths of now, your faces are great. They’re naturally contoured by your taut skin and healthy bones. You aren’t gonna look older now for years to come. So go put on some purple eyeshadow, tacky gloss and glitter and take some creative chances. There is a time and place for us all to go full Adele. Even the occasional full Kardashian. But it’s not a world we need to judge ourselves in every day.

The Ungirly Notion of Makeup

The Ungirly Notion of Makeup

Photo by Laura Rose/Makeup by Sarah

Photo by Laura Rose/Makeup by Sarah

I love being a make-up artist. I feel powerful at my job. I am in control at my job. I’m good at it. I’m successful in bringing what has perhaps been stripped away from many women and occasional men. Dormant-lying confidence as they struggle with being seen as objects, being seen as powerful, or being old past 30.

Women cut themselves down and apologize in the make-up chair for things I can’t see because I’ve come to realize what we see is often what society has projected on us. Sometimes we need to polish the lens to see ourselves clearly. Sometimes a little gloss does the trick. When they leave with their face on, they simply apologize less.

I am a free-agent makeup artist, meaning I do a little bit of everything: magazine, theater, television, commercials, red carpet, personal/private client, weddings, bachelorette parties, actor headshots, corporate headshots. Each scenario brings me into a new world in which I discover from my ‘fun makeup artist bubble’ a little something about society and how we each relate to the idea of beauty. It’s a pretty sublime bubble to exist in, from my perspective as a feminist. The industry is filled with strong, creative intelligent women and men who are passionate about their work. The beauty field is largely a ‘feminine’ field. It’s considered this because women and gay men are the largest users of beauty products. We grew up needing it, wanting it, while exploring ourselves and our personalities with it. Now we’re grown, working professionally in the industry, and we get to give back — teaching others how to love it, use it, and own it.

Occasionally, someone will say that working in makeup must be “so fun,” which is certainly is — I have a lot of fun. Sometimes the person saying it will make a little shimmy-smile when they say it. “Soooooo fun!” And I widen my eyes and I reiterate and say, “Yeah, it’s so fun!” But it my head I think, “It’s not a pajama puppy party.” It’s a legit world and huge industry and its value is immeasurable (for proof of that, apply makeup on a survivor of abuse, on someone who has suffered burns, or someone fighting through cancer). It is not girly to need, want, or explore makeup. “Girly” is a word I loathe as a grown woman. “Girly” immediately dictates that the colors/products as frivolous or purely youthful. For example, I love pink… hell, put a hot-pink lip on me and I can deal with any bullshit that comes my way, whether that is someone bumping me on the subway or some dude mansplaining life to me. Is having a hot-pink bullet in my purse to help me get through my day girly? I dunno. My brother still likes the color blue and last time I checked there was nothing “boyishy” about any color he likes. And how often do we even HEAR the word “boyishy”? IT’S NOT EVEN A WORD. When I think of the word “girly” I think of a bunch of kids going, “Wheeeee!” And that almost makes me want to roll my eyes like a teenager. Which I won’t do. Because I’m a lady.

Let’s cut to the world of the corporate headshot. This scenario has taken place 20 separate times, and every time it plays out nearly the same way. The women are excited. (Also, maybe 1–2 men, which always brings me joy.) As the day wears on, the straight men in the office pop their heads in and playfully chide the women getting glammed up. “Hey do I NEED more lashes?” <Chuckle chuckle.>” “What are you gonna do to me?” <Tee hee.>And—then the lines that get me every time — directed at one of the women in the chair, “Hey, you look FINE! You don’t need that stuff.” Or “Woah, hey that’s a lot of make-up!” Or “Woah, _______________ (some flippant and dismissive phrase).” It happens so regularly, I could make my own tape of it, walk in, press play, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between my canned bro-voice comments and the live ones.

It’s as though they’re saying “Aw, you cute women-girls in that silly chair.”

Having make-up put on for a picture — let alone a professional photo, certainly isn’t out of the norm. Furthermore, a woman in make-up certainly isn’t out of the norm. But having it done out in the wilds of the office? Seems it becomes a bigger deal than it should be.

I can’t tell you how many times the woman (often powerful, often older) waits for the men to end their doorway tap-dances and exit, so they can turn to me and say, “I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re here, and how hard it is dealing with sexism at this level of power.” I’m not making that sentence up. I ask, “Would you ever write anything?” And they respond, “I wish, but I can’t. It’d be too bad for business. But you’re here and thank god. I just want to look good.” Yes, a woman who has crawled and fought her way up a corporate ladder, being giggled at like a school girl because she dared to have a make-up artist show up for a professional photo. She struts out of the makeup chair, has her photo snapped, and she feels extra powerful on top of already being powerful.

When asked if I deal with sexism at my job, my response is, “Occasionally, of course, but at work — very rarely.” Yes, I deal always with institutional, societal sexism. But no one ever cuts me down in a board meeting. My co-workers and I delight in new shades and contouring techniques and no one makes me feel lesser for it. Occasionally on a job I will encounter fear and discomfort from a man needing powder. I try explaining why what I’m doing as a makeup artist isn’t always “feminine.” I’m not trying to make them “look like a girl.” Sometimes the product is for shine, due to lighting or the camera-type being used. Occasionally I deal with run-of-the-mill sexism — being snapped at by some powerful man’s assistant who wants me to fetch a water for his boss sitting in the bright light. Since I am the only woman in the room so I may as WELL be the one to fetch the water (which doesn’t so much bother me because I feel sorry for them, plus I have on my hot-pink lipstick so who really cares anyways). Aside from that I work happily, surrounded by other feminine types who want the subjects to look good.

This is why make-up isn’t frivolous, or shallow, or derogatorily girly. The beauty industry brings in billions of dollars annually — many women work and lead in this industry. It can be difficult navigating the world, being seen as weaker, or not being taken seriously for not being pretty enough or even for being too pretty. In other words, it is difficult being a woman. It’s 2016, and we still have sexism. We all know this. I simply no longer want to deal with the word “girly” for myself, as a 37 year-old woman who has countless lipsticks. Yeah, that’s a lot of make-up. It’s just the right amount, as a matter of fact, for what I do. I use it to make women feel better about themselves. I use it myself to to feel stronger. I don’t wish to defend the task of allowing a woman to be seen as “girly.” Make-up is a tool used to bring out both the stronger and softer edges of who we are. Those who wear make-up do it in order to articulate our personalities out to the world. Yes, it’s often fun. But it’s equally important. It is the lucky modern warpaint of millions who go out into the world everyday, hoping to be seen as exactly what we are — equals.

On the Love of Bright Lips

I first felt that I could be my own person when I realized I could put something bright on my lips. I was allowed in elementary school to wear lipstick when performing in plays or dance recitals, or I could 'play' if I asked properly, and then would ask if I could wear the color up an down the block before removing it. I was a born bright-lip exhibitionist. I would sneak into my mom's, or my grandmother's make-up drawers and would slather colors on my face and lips until I felt satisfied. It took a lot of applying until I felt that click of satisfaction. But when it was right, I was brain-buzzingly perfect.

Upon my entering 7th grade, I was told "You can pick ONE make-up product, and put it on here at home, and then that is it." and so I decided on an Estee Lauder orang-ey pink and I put it on and on and on and on and until until it was probably a centimeter thick. When my ride to school picked me up for school, my friend's mom said "Well, you sure have something on your lips.' and I proudly tossed my hair and responded 'YEAH I do."

When you're young enough you don't give a whit. You like the strange things you're drawn to, regardless of how silly others may think you look. You are what you are, unfiltered. At least I was. My most confident years were those before 13 or 14, which is when many girls who start apologizing for themselves (but that is another story for a different kind of day).

I reckon I looked ridiculous, but I was happily ridiculous. I was 'me'--or rather, trying to find myself. I felt fabulous, even if no one thought I was fabulous.  I rocked over-the-top lipsticks straight through my school-days. Orange to pinky-tan to a matte deep plum called 'Perfect Mystery' I STILL fantasize about. I went from a teenyboppy girl who liked bright things to a girl in flannels who liked dark matte lips pretty quickly. It was 1993-4 when that transition occurred... when Perfect Mystery brought it all together for me. That and a mix tape given to me by a boy I met at an Art-camp I 'summered' at a few years. The mix tape contained a decent mix of The Stone Roses and Primus and Ani DiFranco. I can still see an emotional snap-shot of listening to that mix-tape, putting on a dark matte lip, and thinking "This is being grown-up now, isn't it?" This is before we knew what a smize was, or had a million photos of ourselves plastered on the internet. I had my review-mirror and my best friend telling me I looked cute.

There were the hours of searching in grocery stores and beauty supply stores and weird small town department stores. Standing alone in the aisles of the Consumer's IGA, with my mom or dad or brother anxiously begging me to hurry up. Staring, thinking about who I wanted to be that next week.  At grocery stores trying on wasn't allowed. You had to imagine what the color would become on your skin. You had to take a leap of faith. You had to know you were about to spend 3 dollars or 4 dollars on something that MAY be a disaster (it was never a disaster, because all new colors at that point were fun.)

When at the department store, I bothered the sales-girls. I talked to them like they were gurus who held the keys to the universe. As though they'd tell me some secret about some color and a new world would unfold for me. They knew how old I was, what my financial ramifications were as a pre-teen, yet they entertained my enthusiasm. I'd tinker and try-on and beg for money to get those long-stared at and coveted cream-bullets. I remember the shade-names. The Black Honey's and the Perfect Mystery's and the Ginger Berry's and I can feel the flush of excitement when I'd open the new tube.

Because they were perfectly loud. Because I began to assert myself as a person then. Because these products were going to play a very important role in my life, I just didn't know it yet.