A Life of Beauty Defined

Photo: Andrea Blanch

Look at those tiny pink toes! They wriggle. By the time you can focus on them, you’ve discovered that you also have fingers. And pretty little pink nails.

Then comes movement. Once you’ve done the standing-up-and-stumping-forward thing, you get into the watch-me-dance thing: Watch me step left, step right. Watch me twirl, and here go my arms, up over my head. And again. And again. Everyone agrees this is wonderful. You also run and skip and jump. Movement is joy.

You discover the world of the mirror. Your face. Stick your tongue out, frown, pull the sides of your mouth out with your fingers. What about those missing teeth? They’ll grow back. Really? Who do I look like? Do my eyelashes look long?

You meet your dolls. Their eyelashes are not like yours. Their eyes are brighter, and almost always blue. Their knees bend, but not their elbows. They can sit but not hug. Their skin is very, very smooth. Their legs are very long. Their hair can be braided, unbraided, braided again. Am I prettier than her?

You play with your hair. It’s silkier and harder to manage than the doll’s hair, but you can braid it. It gets thinner at the end of the braid—why is that? You add ribbons, pins, barrettes, and make ponytails or bunches with elastics. Push it back with headbands. You can wear a crown. Maybe a tiara. Look at me—I’m a princess.

Then you discover all the stuff you can put on your face. You raid your parents’ bathroom for creams. Nivea is such an interesting word. Eucerin sounds like medicine. Oil of Olay, so exotic. Sunscreen, so-so. But gross white zinc is good for making a ghost face.

The world opens up. Glitter. Lip balm. Lipstick. You try everything. Wax crayons don’t work on skin, but felt-tips and ballpoint do. If you drew better, this would be a nice tattoo. You’re adventurous: Why should lipstick follow the line of the mouth?

You grow a little. These legs are turning out nice. They look so long when you hold them up in the bathtub. Are those breasts? Will they become real breasts? When? But wait. Your face has...what are those things? Pimples? Oh, no. More creams, all yours this time. Is this going to work? Can people see I’m hiding something on my face?

Braces, really? All the time? If it’s a nighttime retainer, you forget it in a Kleenex on the side of the sink, the Kleenex goes in the trash, and an irritated adult tells you it was very, very expensive.

The box of Kotex is waiting under the sink.

You’re a woman now. Wonderful. Except that once a month, you have cramps, and the cramps come with new pimples, and the week before, you’re bloated.

You think you’re a little too fat. Maybe a little too thin. A little too tall. Much too short. Does my bottom look fat in this? You start to shave your legs. Would wax strips be better? Wax in a salon? That costs more, and you have to tip. How much?

At 17, your body is almost perfect, but you go on a diet with your friend who needs to lose weight. You find the diet in a very old magazine. Grapefruit and hard-boiled eggs. Cabbage soup. Meat and water only, which proves complicated. It would be simpler to become a vegetarian. More humane. Hummus. More hummus. Hummus, you discover, isn’t really diet food.

You find ways to hold the brush so that eyeliner follows the edge of your eyelid. If you don’t remove your eye makeup at night, you look interesting the next day. What’s that little fuzz above your upper lip? More wax! You buy your first pair of good tweezers.

You attack your eyebrows.

College. Eating ice cream in the dorm, as much as you want. Why does a hangover make your nose look bigger? Should you wear makeup to class? Well, who’s teaching it? You start to become truly you. Blue streaks in your hair. A tattoo, but a small, pretty one. You’ll love it forever. Just like you love Pete.

Work. Moisturizer, foundation, powder, concealer, lipstick, mascara, eye shadow. Blush. Pink for the cheeks, brown for under the cheekbones. Those are cheekbones, right? Contact lenses, though glasses look more executive. You need the gym to make up for sitting at a desk all day. Pete? Who’s Pete? Mike says you’re beautiful. You try the smile he likes in the mirror. Are those teeth a little yellow? You go to bed with whitening strips. And a patch between your eyebrows.

What are those folds on each side of your mouth? Are those lines? Wrinkles? Do you look like a ventriloquist’s dummy? Why do you still have breakouts?

For a while, it’s smooth sailing. You know your best features; you’ve found your lip color and the perfume that whispers your name. You can control your weight, if you want to. For you, 124 pounds is good, 115 is better, 132 is borderline, 138 is bad news, and 142 unthinkable, and you know, because you’ve been there.

Are those wrinkles above your knees?

You’re pregnant. Oils on your belly every night against stretch marks, vitamins, juicing, yoga, and you have that glow. But your hair is thinner. 158 pounds 173 pounds 182 pounds. Well, there’s a baby in there. And look at those breasts!

A year of no sleep. More concealer. More blush. Hair treatments. Exercise to get your body back. Your breasts need special attention. So does your mood. St John’s Wort and its like come into the picture.

You’re back and better than ever. There are more creams and oils, but you really like your hands now. You take more supplements, you run, you do yoga, and when you go out in the evening, you look like a million bucks. You’d like to get rid of that tattoo, though.

You discover that, when you really smile, there are new dimples in your cheeks. Your skin is loosening just a little. The best way to look young is to keep smiling.

Your hair behaves until you start dyeing it; now you really need conditioner. What if you stopped dyeing it? Are those white hairs?
You have cheekbones now because your cheeks have dropped just a little. The veneers on your teeth are a very good shade of white.

The forehead really needed those shots, and they hurt. No one can tell what you’re thinking anymore. Mike says you’re confusing.

It’s odd; your face looks better when you’re a few pounds over your ideal weight.

You discover the world of the light-up magnifying mirror. You can’t put on your makeup without it. You fill in your eyebrows with pencil.

Cellphone cameras. Get that thing away from me.

You start wearing sunglasses even when you don’t want to. You go gluten-free.

Concealer, concealer. More supplements. You look great. You look great for your age. Except for the neck. Pretend it isn’t there.

You wanted to see what the gray would look like, but you don’t recognize yourself any more. Blond streaks? OK. They make you a little punk. You wish you’d kept the tattoo.

Your weight’s OK. Thank God you’re not as hungry as you used to be. Unfortunately, that applies to other things beside food.

You hold up your legs in the bath. They’re still nice. You look at the pretty pink nail varnish on your toes, and you smile.