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Beauty Tips From My Dead Sister

When it comes to beauty, nature gave us a lot but not everything.

Posted on March 27, 2019, at 11:08 a.m. ET

Courtesy of Namwali Serpell

Namwali, left, and her sister Chisha in Kafue, Zambia, 1996.

For frowsy eyebrows, use an old toothbrush. Brush upward and go with the grain. Ignore the tuft that forks the wrong way. One imperfection is charming.

Draw the lipliner where the lips hit the skin — the soft borders above and below. Fill in the upper lip with a shimmery MAC: maybe “Icon” or “O.” Then drag both lips past one another. Kiss yourself into glamour!

When walking in heels, simply pretend you’re not wearing shoes. Look up, look ahead, and stride forward, as if your feet are as bare as the day you were born, as bare as when we ran along Senanga Road together, raising red dust in our wake.

A nail brush also works great for smoothing hair back in a bun. For shine, use some gel— L’Oréal Studio or Ampro Protein — the zigzaggy white bottle or the small brown tub.

Unwanted hair is a plague upon the house of the body. Bleach, blades, and Nair will keep it at bay. Because we’re mixed race, our leg hairs curl at a slower rate. They dive under the skin and leave a thin black splinter or a knot — less ingrown than grown-back. Pinching them free with fingernails is deeply satisfying, though you’ll bleed, then scab, then scar.

A stumble is just the broken ghost of a stride. Catch yourself and step right through it.

O.B. tampons keep you in touch with your body. There is nothing shameful about your period. Here, let me show you how to use them. There is nothing shameful about your body.

Black six-hole Docs look good with jeans, but they look even better with dresses. They’re super expensive, but if we each buy one, we can trade off every other day.

Standing akimbo for pictures may seem cheesy, but it thins the upper arms like a hex.

The body is not just a canvas; it’s a material that you can actually sculpt. Tattoos and piercings alter the skin, flesh grows and recedes and is moldable. You can learn to widen your eyes. You can stand a whole inch taller. You can breathe your lips into being.

Relaxing, bleaching, and dyeing the hair on your head within the space of a week will inevitably lead to disaster. Take it from me. Black-as-night curls will fall in clumps in the shower. But you can always wear extensions until you’ve grown enough hair for an Afro.

A morning will come when you’ll hunt in vain for our Docs because it’s your day to wear them. When you get home from school, you’ll see them resting on the edge of the sofa, still attached to my feet while I take my afternoon nap. Fuming, you’ll try to tug the boots off and we’ll end up in a double headlock, each gripping the other’s hair, until we both break at once and retire to separate bathrooms. Never speak of it again.

You can wear gray contact lenses, or purple, or green. It doesn’t mean you’re trying to look white. Lots of mixed girls have light eyes.

Courtesy of Namwali Serpell

Don’t inhale directly. Sip the smoke into your mouth as if from a straw. Then part your lips slightly and breathe in. Marlboro Lights are the most elegant — white and gold and thin. They taste best with coffee or after a glass of wine. The smell of cigarette and the scent of Cabotine make the loveliest bouquet together.

Pulling off an outfit is a matter of confidence. So this flared jumpsuit with cap sleeves and waist cutouts, in a blue and white pattern like a sky with clouds, paired with navy platform shoes? You can totally wear this to a Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia.

For curls, apply Pantene Pro-V conditioner and Suave mousse to your wet hair. Part a lock from the scalp and wrap it around your finger. Pull gently to release. Repeat for the entire head of hair. Depending on its length, this can take between 5 and 20 minutes. It can be meditative if you’re not running late.

When you get a keloid scar from picking a pimple, just pencil it in with eyeliner to make a faux beauty mark.

Rape can happen any time. Maybe it happens when you’re 15 and dressed like Madonna — fishnets, shorts, a long-sleeved crop top, your clip-on ponytail swaying as you clip-clop down the steps in knee-high boots — all black, even your lipstick. Or maybe it happens some other day, when you’re in your sweats at a party in the suburbs. Two boys, a door shuts.

Bedroom eyes take practice. Take beauty naps. Take anemia naps. Take naps for sadness and for dreams.

Sing that song we heard at Alvin Ailey. The spiritual. I wouldn’t be a sinner, Lord. Now come and sing it again for Mummy and Papa. I’ll tell you the reason why. Do you hear how you can sing? I wouldn’t be ready to die. Your voice. Yeah, I wanna be ready, Lord. Your voice.

You can use your beauty to get things from men. A free massage from the creepy neighbor whose house smells like incense. That other creepy guy’s dad’s old jeans from the seventies. A free ride to school every day. A free drink in every bar you step into. The sidewalk will chime with wassups when you walk it, men will gaze in your wake like you’re the Pied Piper, your face and your body the song.

Having birth control needles embedded in your inner arm is probably wise when you’re studying abroad in France for a year. But side effects like weight gain are hard to undo, especially if combined with new access to cheeses and a debilitating, unexpected homesickness.

When it comes to beauty, nature gave us a lot but not everything. As for the rest, you can steal it.

It’s not impossible to drop 30 pounds in a month. It’s easy if you take the right pills.

Play “Für Elise” as many times as you want. Practice for days on that rotting piano. It won’t bring me home. It might pass the time since I ran away, but it won’t speed it up. I will come home only when I want to.

The minimum height for the runway is 5’7”. But you can get away with showroom modeling at 5’3”.

As soon as you enter a public space — a home, a restaurant, a museum, a bar — head to the bathroom at once. If you do it then, almost no one will notice. You might have to hold a meal down until the next venue. With the right technique, it’ll still come up.

If a man touches you, slap him. If he steps to you, spit on him. But always do it with a smile.

Give me that shirt with the dragon on it. Give me that fancy embroidered jacket. Give me your bell-bottoms. Can I bum a smoke? Give me the food from your plate.

Coat your eyelashes so heavily with mascara that when you pass out in the middle of a sentence, their flutter will resemble moth wings.

A tattoo might seem permanent. But not if it’s a Chinese character on your ring finger — no one in the family speaks Chinese. You can say it means “lonely” or you can say it means “killer.” You can hide it under that ring like a smooth silver shield and say it’s an engagement ring — to cover up the loneliness or murder. You can take it off when your girlfriend stops using and you eventually break up. She’s gone, but at least you have your secret back.

Hold my hand. I don’t care if it’s damp. Before you hang up the phone, tell me you love me. Say it. Now. Always.

Pluck your stray eyebrows. Bleach your upper lip. Wax your bikini line. Nair your leg hair. Tweeze your ingrowns. Pinch your pimples. Scoop out your eye crust. Scrape your cuticles. A Q-tip with Vaseline for the belly button. A toothpick for behind the fingernails.

Because of the shape of your eyelids, three folds and no hollow, applying eye shadow can be tricky. Stick with mascara. You have great lashes. You look so beautiful right now. No, I’m not high. I’m just happy to see you.

A cigarette case is classy, especially a custom-made one with engraving. In a pinch, it can hold a packet of white powder, a razor, and rolled-up cylinder. You can pass these off as tools for trimming camera film to a credulous 15-year-old poking around in your room.

Don’t try to make your skin fit, or your flesh. Treat them like layers of ornament for your teeming spirit.

Even homeless people need hair conditioner. If the house is locked up, crack the door for me to sneak in. Wake up and listen but don’t disturb my rifling. Let me steal what I need, then steal off in peace.

Courtesy of Namwali Serpell

Now do Billie. Now do Nina. It’s dark. No one else will hear. Sing for me, Mwali. Your voice.

Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t act like you’re older than me. Or stronger. I’ll pick you up and pin you to the wall by your throat. Then I’ll cry and beg your forgiveness.

It’s not impossible to drop 30 pounds in a month. It’s easy when you forget to eat.

People will tell you you’re just too much. They’ll drain you and fill you up with shit. Get it out. This isn’t self-harm or trichotillomania. You’re just digging yourself out of the shit.

When I go into withdrawal, call the health insurance company to get clearance to pay for an ambulance. Remember last time? It was thousands of dollars. Sit with me while I’m on hold. Rub my back. Watch me weep. Feel me shake. Stay with me. Hold me. When Papa comes home with the car, stall him so I can run out the back and drive to the Plaza to score.

Cut your ingrown toenails closely. Whatever bleeds, stanch, then dab with Neosporin.

If you’re forced to get a stomach implant that makes heroin stop working on your body, here’s a trick: Fill the syringe with water. You’ll still get a Pavlovian kick from shooting up, a rush from the rush in the vein.

Rape can happen any time. It can happen when you’re tricking — the cops call it solicitation — in some park in Philly or some alley in Baltimore. Try to remember who did the raping.

Never pout for the camera. To plump your lips for pictures, just part them slightly. When you hear the click, blow gently.

When the cop comes to the door and asks for your father, shout for him, then go back to your room. You'll already know what happened to me. Pretend you don't. Just sit once again before the mirror and keep doing your hair. Part a lock from the scalp and wrap it around your finger. Pull gently to release. Repeat. This can take between 5 and 20 minutes. It can be meditative if you’re not too late.

The words “shameful” and “shameless” look like opposites but they actually mean the same thing. When in doubt, always choose “shameless.”

You can design your face for years, paint it like an artist, but in death they’ll mess up your makeup. Wipe off that garish mask with damp cotton balls. Redo my look: Shadow my eyes, gloss my lips, apply some highlights and shimmer. My face will be too thin, the skin stripped of glow; the eyes will look snuffed out. Make it pretty enough to say goodbye to.

Apply ice packs to swollen eyes.

Don’t sing at my funeral. Those songs were for you and me, in a dark room, just us. But read these lines from Ntozake Shange and shock all the Christians: I wanted to jump up outta my bones / & be done with myself ... the sun wrapped me up swingin rose light everywhere / the sky laid over me like a million men / I found god in myself / & I loved her/I loved her fiercely.

Dream of me. Pinch me. Yes, I’m still here. I know you’ve looked in my face and said your goodbyes. But I’m still alive. I was just… traveling. Pinch me. I swear I’m still here. Feel that warm and dreamy relief, then wake up, remember, and drown.

When I shattered from life, I left shrapnel embedded in some of the strangers to come. Keep your eye out for the fragments. You’ll see pieces of me glinting: a flash of red lips, a ring like a shield, the very brightest light, an ex’s addiction, another ex’s addiction, the way he almost hit you, the scent of Cabotine and cigarettes. Try not to save any of them, either.

Gather your strength. Wrap your hand around my throat as I wrapped mine around yours. Hold me to account. Force me to admit it. Yes, I’m here every night in your dreams, but yes, I’m dead. And yes, it’s okay that I’m gone. Once the rage of sadness finally leaves your body, let me go, touch my cheek, hold my hand. Ask me: How have you been?

Every time you walk in heels, clean your belly button, wrap a curl around a finger and pull. Every time you pose akimbo, brush up your eyebrows, cut your toenails too close. Every time you feel beautiful, every time that you don’t: remember. Now. Always.

Raise the mascara wand up to your eye so it barely touches the lashes. Take a deep breath, hold yourself together. When you’re ready, blink right through it. ●


Hogarth

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. The Old Drift (Hogarth), her first novel, is available now.


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