It’s 10pm on Valentine’s evening, and I am blinking into the driver’s side sun-visor mirror, otherwise in the dark of the Target parking lot, muttering “girl… girl…” to myself. I am waiting for the sixteen year old’s dance to end so I can go pick him up and have purchased false eyelashes in the meantime, for $5 because… well, I’ll get to that.
And instead of it being the elegant easy process all the YouTube videos suggest (even the ones for make-up over 40), I have instead managed to glue my eyelid to itself such that it disappears entirely.
I inwardly shake my head while outwardly holding very still, prying gently at the skin over my right eye. I am looking for signs of the crease. I try not to laugh or cry, but want to do both, while also secretly admiring the perfectly applied fake lash on my left eye. I nervously glance outside the Jeep every 20 seconds or so to make sure no one is witnessing this calamity.
Rustling in my bag for chapstick to see if it can double as emergency eye make-up remover in a pinch, I think,
This is how 40 begins.
I smirk to myself.
By ruining my face with a tiny tube of glue and creepy lashes, then rescuing myself with lemon-scented lip balm.
. . .
“You’ll love these.” It’s 9:30 pm in the checkout line of the Target, where the self-professed lonely-on-love-day cashier is beyond enthusiastic about my cosmetic choices. She leans forward and bats her own fake lashes, very long and clumped together. I’m mildly uncomfortable at her closeness over the conveyor belt.
”These’ll make you feel so confident, girl. It won’t even matter that every other chick in the place is parading some hot man around on her arm like a trophy to show off. Look at them!” She gestures toward a blond in a short red dress with platform heels, hanging on an arm nearby. “This day is HARD, girl! I don’t feel good about myself, so lonely and all. This kinda day can make you CRAZY.” She opens her eyes wide, sticks out her tongue side ways.
I smile and look down, feeling mostly foolish. “It can,” I say. I’m cognizant of the line of people behind me, and bite my lip.
Couldn’t comment on the other seven remarkably normal purchases in my basket, but instead goes for the emotional jugular on a woefully tender day wherein I try like everything to not give a damn or examine my life, but instead auto-pilot my way through.
”Get it, girl! Be strong! You’re about to be everything!” I don’t know why, but I flex a bicep and give her a side smile as I grab my bag and walk away.
. . .
I don’t know what possesses me to put on the stupid things to the glow of street lamps and my tiny visor light. They were an impulse buy meant for another day when I could research a lot, and put them on in the privacy of my room and then take them back off after a good laugh at the literal lengths “some women” go to for beauty, then toss them before there are witnesses. Or this is the story I tell myself.
The truth is something else entirely.
. . .
I don’t care too much about turning 40. None of the other supposed milestones have meant that much to me.
The thing I suddenly and kind of repulsively care about is beauty. This really hasn’t much been the case in my life until now, and I have firm opinions about it, even as I live hypocritically, violating my own good senses with Eylure in the pink box, natural and soft fit.
I was a tomboy as a child, the socially awkward kind of funny, smart-mouthed but also accidentally profound friend of girls who did somewhat care about beauty, but mostly I wanted to be the friend of boys – to BE one of the boys.
I guess for me, the question of attractiveness was off the table very early. I was a somewhat homely child, mostly because I felt like hygiene was basically a waste of time. I didn’t like to brush my hair, and was fine with a dirty face.
I occasionally attracted the attention of the wrong boys, like the terribly shy very dweeby dear who at the church camp talent show sang me a Michael W. Smith song in seventh-ish grade (consequently also the world record longest attempt at direct eye contact, and my longest ever drawn out rejection of someone) while I tried to disappear into the floor mortified that everyone would know his sights were set on me.
Mostly wild on the inside, but painfully self-protective on the surface, I was ignorant of how chemistry even worked. Being teased about crushes was horribly embarrassing, the worst ever, so I never admitted to anything that wasn’t woefully obvious. If I had tried, maybe a boyfriend could have been obtained. But pretty clothes were confining or bound to be ruined in the farmyard which then got me in trouble, and I had what my mom would buy me. By high school when I had a job, I began shopping for flannel and wranglers in the men’s section of the Tractor Supply store.
Add to it that the women in my life, while beautiful in their own right, leaned toward Christian modesty above all else – chastity, godliness, holiness – all very boring things to me as a child. But it meant there was no one to show me the ropes of how beauty really works or why it could compellingly matter. I was supposed to attract a husband someday with my good character; beauty was sort of beside the point, and sexiness probably a sin.
Although, my grandmother would occasionally tutor me on the mysteries of boys: “They won’t like you if you’re fat. Wear only a little heel. Keep your rouge on the cheekbones and avoid eyeliner. Don’t bite your nails. Good girls keep their knees closed when wearing dresses.”
Between her reminiscing about her thigh gap in her twenties (a truly alien concept to me) and saying words like “blouse” and “rouge” and “hose,” it all carried the tone of Sunday School lessons and the Ten Commandments to my wild child nature girl ways. She was a pastor’s wife after all.
Nevermind that I was a chubby kid incapable of gracefulness in heels, unsure of what “rouge” might be who bit my nails neurotically, and was usually ignorantly indecent in a dress. Probably this was her point; the genetic lines must go on, you know, and she was doing what she could.
But it felt like beauty was a taming down of something essential about me, a disciplining into a sort of domestic subdued overtly Godly woman, the kind I didn’t necessarily want to be, with pantyhose and flowered bible cases and weekly cleaning schedules. I did love many church ladies in my life. But I never imagined becoming one and beauty, at least for me, felt like a deceptive performance of a person I didn’t want to be.
On the whole, “pretty” seemed flimsy to me, like a back-handed compliment. I have wanted it at moments even while it has felt impossible. It has ultimately meant weak and unsubstantial, maybe even kitschy. I wanted to be strong. I wanted scandal and substance. I wanted to be dangerous.
I still want that.
And as an adult, my definition of beauty has been refined, has grown, and also narrowed. I get now that the thing I was rejecting wasn’t beauty per se, but all the attendant things that came with it. And yet, it still hasn’t been at the top of my goals.
But then sometime last fall, I came to a kind of breaking point within myself. The story of the last decade is that I was given the gift of recognizing my own gifts, seeing myself as beautiful for the first time, mostly by communities who have seen me deeply and cared for me well. For awhile, I wrote, I preached, I was good in the classroom, I was solid as a friend, I had pastoral sensibilities. I had non-physical ways to be beautiful somehow – character beauty, a spiritual reality disembodied from … well, my body. And that was enough for that season of life.
But a lot of those expressions of beauty have taken a backseat since my move to Houston a few years ago. The practices of community and faithfulness that sustained my sense of inner beauty, strength, substance, have receded into the background for the most part. In the midst of not knowing myself here in the ways I used to, I have been challenged to hold onto a sense of belovedness absent of the communities which formed in me the belief of it.
Here in Houston, I rarely write, very rarely preach. My days, while meaningful in their own ways, are not what I imagined I was aspiring to in earlier seasons of life. And most of what I know seems like ancillary knowledge, interesting if I ever compete on Jeopardy (do they still have Jeopardy?) but not really communicable in daily life outside the classroom.
The honest truth is that I haven’t much felt a sense of beauty in myself for a long time. And I can’t tell you why, but that reality has felt entirely crushing at moments. Beauty is deeper than what we see, but somehow is the core of us – an essence, like, perhaps the essence of a human being is the capacity to bring about real world-changing beauty. It is, perhaps, the image of God in us bearing out in action, much closer to glory and justice and good work than prettiness.
To struggle to sense the image shining out, to grieve my perceived loss of essence… whew. That’s been hard. (Depression is a bitch.)
In October, in a freak turn of interior events, my mental health zombies resurfaced, and my darkness reached new depths for about a week. I began to prepare close friends for the worst, in case the worst actually happened. I began to challenge my assumption that something would always pull me back from the brink, and began to worry about the what if’s.
The morning after the darkest night, I woke up and thought, “It has to change. I have to change, or I won’t survive.” And while it was mental health and priorities and a whole picture, beauty fit central into that as well.
Lately, I long deeply for beauty – to BE beautiful, not only in the character sense, but in the embodied sense too. In some ways that feels entirely counter intuitive. Mostly it feels embarrassing to say outside my head. I know how subjective this all is, and how it won’t look like the American beauty standard for me. It will be particular, to me.
I have been a fat positivity advocate for awhile, and while I’m still about justice for large bodies, the truth is that I don’t want to be as I’ve always been, and so I’m making changes. But weight isn’t all of it. I just haven’t really cared (and yet have intensely cared) what others think for a long time. I haven’t attended to my physical appearance if I could get away with not, and at moments even giving the appearance of caring about my appearance has felt like a betrayal of myself, an invitation to be seen when my default is basic disappearance into the fabric of human doings.
But I need practices of beauty these days, not just spiritual ones, but embodied ones as well. I have come to a place where I need to do things to remind myself of what is already true about me. Because without that sense of beauty within myself, I have begun to feel dead inside, a feeling I have worried in my darkest moments may become self-fulfilling prophecy, yet I long to show forth glory.
I want to be one through whom God walks burning.
. . .
My eyelid is fine, you’ll be pleased to know. It is presently unstuck, though I confess to having stuck it three more times since the first night in subsequent attempts at modern magic tricks. And I have determined that false lashes are not likely the right beauty practice for me. But on a night that felt existentially complicated, the humor of it gave me a bit of my dignity back, as did that Target cashier, bless her. And maybe that was beautiful.