Three months after giving birth, handfuls of hair shook loose from my scalp whenever I ran my fingers through it. I cut the shoulder-length hair down to three inches, and the few silver strands that had been hidden before seemed to triple.
My first year postpartum was the frumpiest of my life. But I was trying hard not to let on that I noticed. Selfies every week. Formfitting dresses to show off the slow shrinking of my distended uterus. And makeup. There was no mistaking it then: I officially needed it. Dark crescents had settled under my eyes like sinister little grins.
Now my daughter is 4, and the makeup — concealer, pressed powder, liner pencils, tricolor eyeshadow — is in a faded plastic Macy's bag I keep either under the front passenger seat of my car or at the bottom of my oversized handbag. I am willfully disorganized about my cosmetics; it helps me believe they're less important than they've become. They're to be applied at red lights or hastily slapped on without the continuous aid of a mirror. I don't look too closely at myself: a glance here to make sure the eyeliner isn't askew, a quick look at the outline of my lips to confirm I haven't colored outside them, the briefest final appraisal. There. It's on. No big deal.
But each year, my nonchalance is more of an act. Every birthday, the ruse shows more wear. I look longer and with an increasingly skeptical gaze. It's a little embarrassing to care, to find myself becoming someone who's trying to "freshen" her natural face, to regain elasticity where I'd never even noticed I'd had it before, to notice the new creases at the corner of my eyes and mouth. I've always cringed at the thought of a slavish devotion to makeup. But I just turned 35, and I rarely go out anymore without it.
In my early twenties, there was no bag. There was a lone tube of Cover Girl tinted lip gloss and a brown Wet 'n Wild liner. It was enough.
"Play down your day-to-day makeup," my mother advised when I was 15. "That way, when you're really done up, it's special."
The first time I attended someone's prom, I was a sophomore. I sat on the lid of the toilet seat an hour before my date arrived, feeling gossamer brushes dust my eyelids and cheeks with iridescent color. I felt mom's mascara wand gently tug my eyelashes out to their full length. When my eyes flew open, I understood. Makeup transmogrified. It could make wiggle room between your workaday self and whomever the mineral-powdered person was staring back at you. In that space, you were a changeling.
Were you coy, seductive, brazen? You could test it anywhere — at a new Starbucks, maybe, where the baristas have never seen you in a hoodie, eyes still crusted with remnants of sleep. Or in the produce section of a grocery store, batting violet-rimmed eyes at handsome strangers.
Makeup was fun, perfect for creating an air of mystery. But I didn't need it then. I didn't need it when I met my first boyfriend, who regularly kissed off the only thing I wore at 18: tinted gloss. I didn't need it at 21, when I met the man I'd date for eight years, the father of my daughter; we would separate when I found out I was pregnant. I didn't wear much of it when I was expecting, either. I was alone. Who would've noticed?
New motherhood was exhausting, but I didn't expect it to age me. I come from deep brown women, a grandmother routinely mistaken for 10 or more years younger than her age and a mother more often assumed to be my sister than my parent. They each gave birth to one girl, but they were much younger than I was when they did so. At 17 and 19, respectively, their sexiest years were ahead of them. Even now, in their seventies and fifties, they shore up the veracity of the saying, "Black don't crack."
Not only did I inherit too little of their melanin, I also got pregnant a few weeks before turning 30. I had no precedent for the hastened aging to come. When my mother turned 30, I was 10. It was the year she would marry for the first time. She wore a conservative suit, made of cream brocaded fabric, and exchanged her vows behind a folding partition at our church between the 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sunday services. If anything made her look her age, it was the suit, meant more for a mother of the bride than the bride herself. But her face was as smooth as finished oak, her eyes as wide as an adolescent's, brightened by marital hope. When she and her new husband left me with friends at the church that day, she almost looked like a college girl, waving to her family after drop-off at her dorm.
Until I got pregnant, I'd been used to being mistaken for a student on the college campuses where I taught. On occasion, I was still carded when ordering wine. It's easy to take an ageless appearance for granted, especially when you come from a family where no one can guess anyone else's age by their wrinkles or gray.
Makeup's purpose changed quickly for me. I no longer used it frivolously or to create a mysterious air. Lacquered onto a face that barely felt like my own anymore, makeup was a fort under which I could take cover.
I was a single mother whose co-parent lived thousands of miles away. Unlike my married and partnered new-mother friends, all my naked moments were spent alone, contending with a body I didn't recognize, relearning its capacities and limits without the benefit of intimate affirmation.
A baby becomes a saving grace; her needs reset your margins. You comprehend breasts anew, as though they can offer absolution. Your body is not just amorphous and foreign; it is habitat and sustenance.
Mothering alone has been a double-edge sword, sloughing off my vanity, but also wounding my sense of my own beauty. Often, I can't really care too much how I look; there's no time, everything else is more pressing, and most of it falls to me. For a while, this felt transcendent, like a flouting of beauty conventions, empowering and deeply feminist — even if it wasn't quite intentional. But as soon as I was able to come up for air, I noticed the pitying glances at the dried milk and drool on the maternity shirts. Acquaintances leaned in with concern, their palms firmly planted on the back of my hand, and said, "But how are you?"
Like Eve in the garden, I was newly aware of how bare I was, how long it'd been since I'd cared for myself. It had been forever. Then I remembered: Self-neglect is antithetical to power.
Helping me find my way back to feeling desirable and sexy and confident wasn't anyone else's top priority. In fact, most of the people I brushed past in the supermarket, as I dashed down the baby food and diaper aisles, seemed to barely notice me at all. Motherhood had also transmogrified me, but not in ways anyone else could see. While makeup could give me deliberate control over how I wanted to present myself to the world, motherhood left me feeling uncertain that the world could still see me at all. When I locked eyes with handsome strangers, I was no longer sure what I was conveying. Certainly not "I'm single and young and available" — not when my body and my face were telegraphing "New mom over here!" But wasn't I all of those things? Would anyone be able to see them all at once?
I wasn't always so self-conscious. Before my milk dried up prematurely and my breasts turned flaccid and small, there were days when I felt preternaturally sexy. There were times before I whittled my post-baby weight down to less than my pre-baby size — through little more than a steady regimen of wine and worry — when I was certain I would never feel as voluptuous and mighty as I did in those early days of motherhood.
The postpartum body is foremost for the new child, but it also longs to be both supine and virile for someone else, some old and full-grown soul who understands womanhood as more than milk and placenta and pulse.
But I had to make do with my moisturizer and mascara. No one else was coming. I've now made peace with my furtive daily regimen, my slapdash application of makeup. And I've gotten comfortable with who I am: the single thirtysomething mother of a 4-year-old who will have to reassure herself that she is still relatively young and sexy and desirable in whatever small ways that she can. That may mean lingering a bit longer at the mall's cosmetics counter, asking for products I never realized they had. Sometimes it means going a little heavier on eyeliner, just to reassure myself that my eyes still "pop," even now that I'm averaging five hours of nightly sleep.
Affirmation also comes from the unlikeliest of places. A few months ago, my daughter started asking me to "say a fish" more often. "Say a fish" means "make a fishy face" in her little-kid dialect. When I suck in my cheeks and pucker my lips, she touches her own mouth to mine for a while. Then she runs off to play. One day, she got close to my face then recoiled. "Where pink?" she demanded. It took me a minute to understand. She was asking where my lipstick was. She'd started to notice I wear it — and she'd found a clever way of siphoning a bit for herself. "Say a fish," indeed. Once I discovered her trick, I asked, "Do you like pink?" Her nod was emphatic. Her little thumb went up and she grinned wide, a faint rosy tint on her lips. I'm hoping it will be a long while before she wants to wear makeup every day. She should understand how to wield it before I give her permission to use it. To delay that day, I'll tell her what my mother told me. I'll tell her she doesn't really "need" it.
Running late for pre-K drop-off last Monday, I realized about a block from home that my worn little Macy's bag wasn't under my car seat. It wasn't in my handbag, either. I'd left it somewhere else altogether. It was too late to turn back, but I considered it. These days, I'm not even sure who I am without my cosmetic armor. I am definitely not coy, seductive, or brazen. I'm the woman rushing through pleasantries at the drop-off zone, eyes trained on her feet hoping no one notices what's off about her today. I'm the person plotting where in the house to look first for her misplaced concealer.