autobiographical

Mother’s Makeup

She would not leave the house without her makeup.

Whether to work or the bank or the 7-11 to buy cigarettes, makeup was not optional. My brother and I would question her and prod her about this, being impatient as children often are. She never really gave a reason why but never wavered in her need to hide herself until the makeup was applied.

She wore frosted pink lipstick, cream blush in a peachy shade, brown or green eye shadow, mascara.  All of this on top of foundation intended to disguise her freckled complexion. There was no shortcut, it all had to be in place.

My grandmother, her mother, was demanding and judgmental about female beauty and thinness. There was no pleasing her. By the time I was old enough to be developing my own self image, I had already inferred from the two of them that everything about us all was inherently wrong and shameful.  Whether it was the thigh that was too thick, the hair that was unruly, the unfashionable or classless choice of clothing, nothing was ever good enough. I never expected to like the way I looked, and I didn’t.

My mother berated herself as a rule. One day I realized her mother’s voice spoke through her even as she spoke to herself and to me. My mother rarely spoke negatively to me of my own appearance, but when she did it was framed in terms such as “grandma would not approve.” I sometimes wondered what my great grandmother must have said to her daughter.

I threw away all my makeup years ago. I will not allow my grandmother will not speak through me.

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autobiographical

You Aren’t a Girl Unless You Wear a Dress

When I was a little girl, I loved to run around outside in our country backyard wearing nothing but my “ruby necklace” made of shiny red plastic beads. I liked to play with my brother’s toys, especially anything that involved building blocks or digging in the yard. We played outside all the time, catching salamanders in the stream that ran behind our house, a variety of bugs, and little frogs in the yard. I liked finger painting and making a big mess with Play-Doh. I never wanted to be a princess or play with baby dolls. Baby dolls seemed ugly to me. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with them.

Photos of me from this time show that I wore adorable little Osh Kosh overalls, corduroy pants, and rainbow stripes. I was a quintessential child of the 80’s. I loved Punky Brewster. We shopped at the thrift store.

But like many children, I was sensitive to the opinions of my peers. My memories of being a child are like clear focused spots in a sea of black fog. I remember very few specific moments. One memory that stuck with me, thirty years later, is being teased by the most popular girl in my kindergarten class.

Even then, I remember being aware that there were popular kids and that I was not one of them. I didn’t grasp the nuances of this until much later, but even as children too young to understand things like class, the popular kids were the rich kids. They had the coolest toys and clothes. They were already indoctrinated with the idea that they could and should get everything they wanted at all times and they had the propensity to act like spoiled little brats because of it.

I don’t remember her name but I remember that she was an adorable pushy little Asian girl with long shiny black hair and many fancy expensive-looking dresses. On the day when this memory took place, she was wearing a dark red velvet dress with lacy white trim, white tights, and shiny patent leather maryjanes. She had taken her place atop the jungle gym and declared herself the Queen of the playground. There was a social order to recess, you see; only the Queen was allowed to sit on the top. How do kids learn to do things like this so early? We must have been five or six.

I was wearing brown corduroy overalls, a colorful striped shirt and sneakers. I also had very long hair, but it was plain and brown and frequently a tangled mess. I was playing on the jungle gym and climbed high enough to be close to Her. This is the distinct part of the memory: She hung down from one of the top bars by her knees, so that she was upside-down, her face framed by her beautiful long shiny hair, looked me dead in the eye and tauntingly said:

“You’re wearing pants! That means you are a boy. If you were really a girl, you would wear a dress!” Then she laughed at me.

This was very confusing. I knew that I was a girl and my brother was a boy, in the most basic way children know such things. Nobody had ever tried to tell me that there were things I had to do to be a girl, I thought you just were what you were. I knew how my brother’s body was different than mine and that was what made him a boy. If I didn’t wear a dress, would I grow boy parts?  Would I be like my brother? I was shy when I was a little kid, and easily embarrassed and upset. I did not like people making fun of me.

The next day, I threw a massive temper tantrum and insisted that I must wear a dress to school. The memory ends there, but my mother later told me that I would not wear pants anymore that year, I insisted on always wearing a dress so that I would be a girl.

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