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The Academy of Beauty

March 15, 2009

In June 1986, we moved house. In September, I turned thirteen. Since school wasn’t in session, I was at the mercy of geography when it came to making new friends, and my mother watched in horror as I hooked up with some rather advanced local ladies. They cruised around on BMX bikes, frenched with boys at the skateboard park, and applied foundation and liquid liner with the subtlety of a theatre troupe slathering on grease paint.

I’m sorry to say that I joined in all but one of those pursuits with an eager desperation. But, my summer was almost ruined when I was shut out of one of the most important events of the season: back-to-school shopping at the strip-mall drugstore. Sure, I tagged along, but as the girls browsed the cosmetics aisle, cooing over tubes of gooey gloss, the latest in mascara, and the new line of Maybelline, I stood with hands awkwardly clasped, pretending my kit was fully stocked and ready for the first day of class.

At my house, rules were made for bending. No dates (unless it was a special occasion, like a movie with Darcy before I moved away). No pantyhose (unless it was a special occasion, like a trip downtown with my mother). No cosmetics (unless it was a special occasion, like hell had frozen over). Typically, I would push as far as I could, backing off before it counted as “too far”. But this was a new town, and these were new kids. My reputation was at stake, and meanwhile, my parents were killing my chances for a good grade eight by denying me a basic human right.

And so, I resolved to get “no make-up” stricken from the books, not just on special occasions but for good. I begged, pleaded, perhaps even cried. I demonstrated my mastery of debate, laying the foundation with, “Come on, mom, all the other kids are allowed!”, working up to the heavy hitters:

“You’re so old-fashioned!”
“This is totally unfair!”
“It’s not like eye shadow makes you pregnant!”
“I hate this house!”
“This is worse than communist Russia!”

How I knew about commies and their deprived but well-lipsticked standard of living, I can’t recall. And there might be a correlation between eye shadow and babies after all, as I soon learned watching classmates dry hump on the bus. A certain type of boy is drawn to a certain shade of blue, worn by a certain type of girl and applied just so.

Several battles later, I achieved a conditional win. I could wear make-up, but only after I learned the correct technique for troweling goop onto my barely teenaged face. Next, I would attend deportment class, presumably as a preemptive measure for the day when high heels replaced cosmetics in my campaign for equal rights.

“If you’re going to wear make-up, then you’re going to wear it right,” my mother said as she opened the Yellow Pages and flipped to B for Beauty Services. “We’ll go together–I’m sure it will be fun!” Famous last words.

We enrolled in a mother-daughter session at a nearby salon, and listened while Francine, the beautician, terrorized my quite-young mother with threats of liver spots and sun damage. Next, she cautioned me that only whores walk around with poorly blended foundation ringing their jaws. It seemed that without Francine’s help, we were doomed to lead ugly, ugly lives. An hour later, we were sent home with sample-sized everything and were encouraged to stock up on larger tubes and bottles. “After all,” warned Francine, “your beauty is at stake!”

In the parking lot, my mother tossed her purse and gift bag onto the backseat, and demanded, “Promise me you’ll never let that crap touch your skin again. It’ll make you ugly as sure as frowning.” And with that, we zipped off to lunch downtown, me scratching at my ill-fitting pantyhose.

Like Francine, deportment class cautioned against sashaying like a tart or wearing the wrong shade of lipstick–surefire ways to give boys the wrong idea and earn the scorn of other young women. Over three Saturdays, I learned to climb stairs without spilling books stacked atop my head; to execute a runway-perfect turn; to cross my ankles instead of my legs. Varicose veins, lurid splotches, and panty-flashing are but three reasons why a lady should never drape one knee over the other.

During a more advanced session, I learned the correct method of knocking on an office door, opening it then closing it quietly behind me, crossing the room and taking a seat on the visitor side of a desk, handing over a folder of papers with my right hand while accepting a second folder with my left, rising from the chair, gliding to the door without turning my back on the office occupant, then politely exiting, being sure to shut the door with a click, not a slam. In other words, I was groomed to become some lucky man’s secretary once my education was complete.

I’m sure Francine, the deportment instructor, and my mother all meant well, and showing off my paper-carrying skills is still a snappy trick. I could critique the assumption that overly made-up girls are sluts, or endlessly dissect the construct of “slut” itself. Instead, I prefer to snicker about my lady lessons, and take a curious sort of pride in the fact that I can wield a cosmetics sponge with confidence…whether I grew up to wear make-up or not.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Becca permalink
    March 19, 2009 3:32 pm

    Your mom sounds like mine! My mom was fiercely opposed to my wearing high heels and red nail polish. Both were a surefire way for me to end up pregnant before my 16th birthday. I never got lady classes though. Hilarious!

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