No matter how old we are, every woman remembers a time when she watched her mother preen in front of a mirror. I used to watch my mother’s transformation – putting mascara on her lashes, making her bright blue eyes stand out. Mauve was the lipstick color of choice, and I waited for the moment she would turn to me and let me be a “big girl” and put some on me. I felt glamorous! What did I know about color schemes, that mauve was all wrong for my pale yellow-green Asian undertones and yet perfect for my mother’s fair Irish-German complexion.
Make-up is one rite of passage virtually every girl of color recalls with dreadful amusement. We all remember those Caucasian girls who waltzed into school with perfect shades of blush and lipstick and their hair coiffed in the newest trend. After all, Seventeen magazine told them how. We other girls had to figure it out on our own. Either set the alarm an hour early to curl our pin straight hair into submission and pretend that purple eye shadow made our eyes look bigger or get extra shut eye, skip the shadow and pull up that long cascade into a hasty ponytail. With all due respect to all those women who tuned out their own mockery and persevered to try and look like everyone else, many of us refused to make it matter. Nothing exaggerates this quagmire more than the senior prom. I recall a ghastly scene with my mother trying to apply pink blush to my cheeks – all the while, my face shoved into a corner to avoid the whole debacle. Meanwhile, my sisters in arms spent hours glued to the mirror only to make themselves look more like bad replicas of China dolls. We couldn’t articulate it then, but we knew that all those
peaches-and-cream colors only exaggerated our differences rather than make us the beauties we so desperately wanted to be.
Why did I avoid make-up? Because when I looked into that mirror, I did not recognize whom I saw. While it accentuated my mother’s beauty, make-up made me look – and feel — like a fraud. I knew full well that “a little color” would hardly help in the social department, especially since the words of one Caucasian male friend persisted in my head, “I think Asian women, especially Korean, are the most beautiful, but I’d never date one.” Without makeup, the problem ceased to exist. And so I steadfastly rebelled, insisting that the true guy for me would see me for me.
Throughout my twenties, make-up felt more like I was wearing a mask. Since I was uncomfortable with what was under that mask, make-up just enhanced my discomfort. This repudiation lasted up until I was asked by an adoptive mom to bring a group of Korean adoptee women together to host a “glamour girl” party – teach the young Asian adopted girls about make-up, hair and nails while primping them with ribbons, glitter, polish and lipstick. For what was supposed to be a party to enhance the self-esteem of these young girls ended up being a revelation, an Aha!, for us big girls. For the first time, we gazed into the mirror and affirmed that we were beautiful. And, finally, it is the friendships we women share that assured us that our inner qualities are what made us people of grace. This revelation was a tremendous gift.
Ultimately, comfort in one’s own skin involves acceptance. Acceptance that the package we are in is just that, trappings, and that our deeper selves give us our true beauty. We will always look longingly at our mother’s beautiful azure, green, or brown eyes and blond, chestnut, or curly hair. But the angst of not looking like our mother’s daughters becomes irrelevant in comparison to feeling those deep familial bonds that are uniquely ours.
I wrote this well edited article for Adoptive Families Magazine several years ago. I had to tie it up in a nice bow, thus the last paragraph reads unfinished for me. I think it is a great conversation starter, but by no means a resolution. I still don’t wear make up all that often. Frankly, it all looks like a hot mess in an hour. While I do like to peruse the make-up counter, I find I am more drawn to perfume and scents. Perhaps it’s because you can’t see it, it is just an essence.