When I was barely 13, I started wearing makeup, lots of makeup. As if overnight, I went from a girl who won ribbons at school for handball, made a cardboard castle for my guinea pig and played hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids to a sultry teenager, the neighborhood Lolita.
It was when I traded in my Monkees fan magazine for Seventeen and Cosmopolitan that I knew there was value in being a dolled-up girl. At first I wore white-pink lipstick, blue eye shadow, thick mascara on my upper and lower lashes, and Bonne Bell cologne. My mother said, approvingly, that I looked like Twiggy.
I wore makeup and cologne to sleep-away camp that summer but gave it up after a few days when I fell in love with Heather, the hippie art counselor who wore no makeup. When I came home makeup-less, in dirty overalls and bare feet, my mother immediately sent me to charm school, which I suppose I lacked.
Charm school was held at the May Co. department store in a room stale from cigarette smoke. The instructress was a woman of about 40 — which was old back then — with a mask of every kind of makeup you can put on a face and a shellacked flip hairdo. She applauded silently if we made it across the room with books on our head, taught us how to walk like a model (though we were more like camels loping) and how to pose for a photo with one foot turned out in front of the other, shoulders back and a demure closed-mouthed smile.
We learned about different kinds of enhancement bras, though she really advocated for the concentric circle model (I, myself, never graduated from training bra. Ever.) And she repeated the old saw, “wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a car,” which I completely did not understand until I learned the art of putting two-and-two together.
Her most detailed instruction was in the application of makeup. Heavy on the eye shadow — preferably blue — light on the mascara, a little blush on the cheeks and a light pink lipstick because we were young. But even more importantly, as she constantly stressed, was to “NEVER leave home without foundation,” as if foundation were a gas mask during a nuclear fallout. Because she scared me, I never left home without applying a seamless coat of foundation until I figured out that I looked like a teenaged suburban matron.
A couple of years post-charm school, Ziggy Stardust took over my life. After I saw Bowie’s first concert in L.A. in 1972, I shaved my eyebrows, wore thick red lipstick, pale face powder (over the foundation) and slashes of rouge on my cheeks and eyelids. I don’t think I exactly captured Bowie’s other-worldliness, but since it was the early days of glam rock and unfamiliar to most people, I looked like a bona fide freak. My hair was hennaed bright red and cut in what today you might call a mullet (perhaps the worst hair style in the history of the world).
The Bowie look was too androgynous once I became a groupie, so my look changed to what is best described by the lyrics to the Blondie song, “Rip Her to Shreds”:
Oh, you know her, "Miss Groupie Supreme"
Yeah, you know her, "Vera Vogue" on parade
Red eye shadow! Green mascara!
Yuck! She's too much
My hair grew into a perfect shag and my makeup was, uh, colorful. I no longer looked like my favorite rock star but like a groupie — that is, Trashy with a capital T. But then after Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco closed in 1975, it left us groupies homeless. At 17, I was too old to be a groupie anyway (13, 14 was the ideal age).
I moved to London at the beginning of the punk revolution in 1976 and acquired a makeup style that can be best described as “dead.” I raccoon-ringed my eyes in Revlon velvet black pencil and wore black lipstick, which went well with my burgundy and blue hair. And I did wear foundation, though one a pasty shade lighter than my complexion.
Punk was the end of my wild makeup days. When I came back from London at 20 and had to find a job, that was the beginning of my sophisticate phase — punk’s enemy; charm school’s A student. It was the disco '70s and I copied makeup, hair and clothing styles from fashion magazines. Mainstream was my middle name.
It took marriage, motherhood and academia to tone down my look, but then in my late 30s, I toned it down to a complete halt and tried out the lesbian no-makeup look. I burned my (eternally training) bra and threw away my lipstick. I shudder at the thought.
When I came out as a femme and realized that Lesbians Wear Makeup Too, my Chapstick turned to lip gloss, khakis to dresses, and I felt like me again. My new charm school motto was, “NEVER leave home without lipstick.”
And 20 years later, I still live by those words. I take it from the French: At a certain age you play up your eyes or your mouth, but never both or you look like a clown. I wear red lipstick in winter, pink lipstick in summer. On my last dime, I’d buy lipstick. And I never, ever wear foundation.
Originally published at Purple Clover