When I was a kid I ate candy the way other people smile: It was a nervous tic, a habitual part of my day. There was always a wrapper someplace, one hidden under my bed, or stuck inside the cover of a textbook.
“I’m dieting,” I said to a classmate in 6th grade. “Yeah, I really want to tighten up.” I was twelve and oblivious.
It was a lie, of course, the diet. That quickly became clear when I stuck my hand into my pocket, accidentally dislodging a Butterfinger wrapper.
I bought candy without thinking about it. Very often I ate it without enjoying it, at least not with any sort of conscious enjoyment. When I was eating candy I wasn’t thinking about how ugly I was. I was isolated and safe. It was just me, my thoughts, a pooling slick of sugar on my tongue.
When I started wearing makeup, I had the same sort of relationship with the stuff. I didn’t love applying it or acquiring it. It gave me no active pleasure. It was something I spent money and time on in a bid to make myself feel just a little closer to normal. The first makeup I owned was a stick of glycerine, and a pad of blue shadow with matching blue Great Lash mascara. My mom presented them to me in a paper bag after the suggestion of my father.
I mastered the stuff quickly and joylessly. I remember standing in the train station in Boston, covering any visible part of my face with M*A*C’s Studio Fix. “Oh wow,” said the sales clerk who first dusted the stuff onto my face. “You don’t even LOOK like you!”
I glowed with pride, because wasn’t that the goal? Dramatically dusting powder onto my brows and transforming myself into a Disney villainess, I noticed two older women at the mirrors glance at me, and then at each other, sharing a smile. I remember being furious. I felt like they were laughing at me. They had no idea what it was like to have to remain hyper-vigilant lest some part of your ugly face slip through and reveal itself and you for what you are: Worthless.
In the slow arduous process of discovering that -- gasp -- I am not a total monster garbage person, my relationship with makeup changed, though not as much as my relationship with food. I eat consciously now. It’s not a mindless form of indulgent self-harm.
But I still wear makeup to transform myself into someone else. I still wear it to hide. But it is less of a mask and more a sort of warpaint. I don’t really wear foundation anymore (BB cream for life, if anything at all) which makes a fierce slash of red lips that much more edgy. It inspires a bravery in me that I don’t think I can necessarily otherwise summon on command.
The way I buy the stuff has changed now, too. I am drawn like a drag-queen-moth to the light of glitter and sequins, of cartoon eyes. I particularly love doing stuff like spending a dollar in Koreatown on a bevy of lipstick that look like mini-vibes and are enigmatically named “Romantic Bear.” Each tube of lipstick is the same on the outside as on the in -- pink, green, blue, violet. But put them on and they change to one of several shades of pink.
They also taste a little bit like someone set the tooth fairy on fire, but I mean, for a dollar that’s to be expected.
There is more of myself in the way I play with makeup now. I guess it’s because I am actually playing, now. Whereas once I clung to the idea of what it meant to be a woman fiercely and in a panic, now I let it elude me. I’m not a woman, I’m a Becca. This doesn’t mean that I’m blazing through life being all “BITCH I AM FABULOUS.” It means that for every day I’m serving confident beauty, there’s another where I can’t look at myself in a mirror without despairing.
I don’t want to hide my face anymore. Instead of investing in staid beauty products that I hope will make me look like some innocuous non-version of myself, now I approach them with joy. I revel in the silly and the ultra-feminine, traits I used to associate with some upper echelon of girlhood that I would never achieve. Ribbons, bows, and powder puffs aren’t things that I need to abjure in order to promote my sense of self, they are just one more way of queering the norm, and skewering expectations -- the world’s as well as my own.