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The Beauty Thing

By Virginia Jensen

They had all fallen into this beauty thing like a bunch of bees into a honey jar, and they couldn’t get out. Granny had refused rouge after she took a look in the mirror and saw what the lipstick did to her. I always thought she was trying not to have any lips, the way she kept them compressed in that decisive straight line that was her usual expression.

Granny grabbed a tissue and rubbed her mouth like she was going at the kitchen stove with a scouring pad, but the highly recommended Parisienne Pink was there to stay. She isolated herself in the rocker in the corner of the kitchen by the coal stove and watched us, her mouth looking ridiculously pretty in the midst of her grim face.

My Aunt Mary had ordered a complete workshop in a box for making yourself stylish and glamorous. The kit had an instruction booklet with the various body types (apple, pear, zucchini) and the various face shapes (oval, square, rectangle and heart-shaped).

The pink cardboard box held makeup and makeup templates, cardboard cut-outs to make your eyebrows and lips look like the movie stars of the day. It also included a full set of jars filled with magical lotions and creams to rid your skin of blemishes, discolorations and wrinkles, and to minimize the pores, giving the hard working purchaser of this kit skin like peaches and cream. It offered a second book filled with illustrations of exercises targeting those “trouble areas” such as “love handles” and “side-saddles” and any other body part that dared to bulge, sag, spread or bloat.

Where I lived in South Carolina in those days, girls my age did not wear makeup. And yet, my mother had to try it on me. I was set up precariously on a couple of pillows in one of the oak kitchen chairs.

The rest of my female family was sitting around the kitchen table, in various degrees of beautification. My Aunt Pat’s hair was pulled back with a kerchief and her face was covered with a masque of slimy green mud especially for minimizing the pores. She was under orders not to smile or laugh. My Aunt Mary was looking into a hand mirror trying to decide if her face was round or square. My Aunt Margaree was reading the exercise booklet. She was the one with the most “spread.”

“Sit still, Libby. I can’t do a thing with you squirming like that!”

“But Mama, it hurts!”

“Well it’s only for a second.”

My eyebrows naturally loved each other so much they wanted to meet in the middle, so Mama was pulling out eyebrow hairs one by one. Mama’s contribution to this beauty-fest was that she was studying cosmetology and hairdressing, so I was sporting my first permanent wave. My usually very straight, and often stringy, hair had just been contorted into short curls around my head, revealing by the rectangles of white scalp showing around the curls the very size and shape of the curlers that had set their chemical imprint into my hair. The sweet-acrid smell still hung in the air, in spite of the open windows and cool spring air occasionally billowing my grandmother’s white lace curtains.

In spring in the South, the summer sun making its way back up into the midheaven was enough to have girls sitting out freezing their behinds off in shorts and halters, just to get an early tan. I would have been happy in a pair of shorts and a sleeveless shirt, out climbing in the trees around my house. But here I was getting eyebrows painted on my head. And lipstick on my mouth.

“Open your mouth a little, honey.”

I opened like I did for the doctor when I had strep throat.

“No not like that.” She pushed my chin up. “Just say a little tiny ‘aah.’”

She made the mouth she wanted and I copied it. I tried to say ‘okay?’ and not move my lips but it came out something like ‘uh-enh?’ Anyway, she was satisfied, dabbing the color on my slack lips. I suddenly thought I ought to hold them taut and, with the best helpful intentions, drew my lips firmly back against my teeth.

“I can’t do this if you’re going to be silly, Elizabeth.”

I relaxed my mouth. “I was just trying to help.”

“There,” she said, looking at me as if I was the Mona Lisa. It felt good to be looked at like that. That feeling lasted until I got into the bathroom to the big mirror and saw my face.

“Mo-o-o-m!” I cried, “I look ridiculous.” I had Joan Crawford eyebrows that seemed to go all the way over to my ears. My mouth was too red for words and there was something strange about the shape of it. My cheeks looked like pink suns.

“Well, it’s not that bad,” said my Aunt Mary,” coming up behind me and looking in the mirror.

“No, it’s kind of cute,” said my Aunt Pat, sticking her green face in the mirror too.

“She’s going to be a beautiful young woman,” said my mother from outside the door. There wasn’t enough room in our tiny bathroom for all of us. She had lit up a cigarette and was looking pretty satisfied with herself.

“Ee-yuw,” I cried. Tears wanted to show up in my eyes, but I didn’t let them. I turned on the water in the sink and splashed water on my face. I rubbed my eyebrows till they were a brown smear across my forehead. I voluntarily soaped my own lips like they had bad words on them.

“Aw, don’t mess it up.” My mama squeezed back into the bathroom with a disappointed look on her face. Well, she could suffer too and it was just fine with me. I wiped the remianing stuff off my face and onto a towel.

“Now you made a mess on my towel,” said Granny, who couldn’t resist the show either.

I ran out into the yard and climbed into the evergreen tree where the spiders lived. I could tell it was a big attraction to mama and my aunts — all that goo they put on to make themselves beautiful. They always looked to me just like who they were and I thought that was fine.

I stayed there thinking about beauty till the sun started down behind the trees and long fingers of gold light and gray shadows stretched across the sandy yard. The shadows fell onto the side of the house and the tree I was in, then the shadows fell onto me. The sunlight was warm and golden like a day on the beach and the shadows were like a cool watery breeze. I thought the sun painted my face just fine.