Color Me Pink
The other day I was walking through a department store when a scent stopped me in my tracks: my mother’s makeup, a lá 1978. I recognized the smell as one-part foundation and one-part lipstick, two contraband goods I spent hours poring over in a locked bathroom, dazzled by the possibilities of a new and improved me. At the time I was only ten, forbidden to wear the barest hint of blush or even paint my nails, as some of my friends did. My mother’s puritanical ways only heightened my desire to reap the rewards I imagined came with womanhood: pantyhose draped in all four corners, a river of high-heels streaming from the closet; a collection of laughs, all different, depending on who was around to hear them.
Maybe Mom knew what she was doing. Ear piercings were also off-limits—until I turned eighteen—and I somehow never got around to poking my lobes with a twin pair of holes. Similarly, I’ve since ditched my lust for cosmetics, no longer willing or wanting to “cover” my true appearance. If men have to be accepted ‘as-is,’ shouldn’t women?
The irony of running into my mother’s made-up scent, however, is not lost on me. You see, it wasn’t slacks or a jacket I was in search of, but a garment whose sole purpose is to make invisible my ever-burgeoning potbelly. For all my alleged “liberation,” why all the shame over post-baby flab?
Thankfully, I’d thought ahead and left my daughter, Lucy, at home. What would she think, watching her mother prance around a dressing room, exalting in the perfected artifice of a sucked-in gut? The last thing I want is for my baby girl to see herself as anything less than acceptable, just the way she is. Right now her favorite activity is delivering herself big, fat smooches with the help of a full-length mirror. What would happen to that special—and necessary—brand of self-love if she then witnessed Mama’s self-loathing grimace as she squished runaway folds of fat into a pair of jeans?
I grew up in an era whose message was all-too clear: in our natural state, women are not good enough. We had Nair to rid ourselves of unwanted body hair - if we “dared” to wear (gasp!) a bathing suit. There was Secret deodorant - “strong enough for a man, but made for a woman” -to keep us sweat-free and smelling clean. If that didn’t work, Love’s Babysoft - “because innocence is sexier than you think” - would take our natural odors all the way back to a time when we were so helpless we peed ourselves.
Now that’s the woman I want!
But these days, the messages of the '70s seem almost amusing, now that more and more college-aged girls are opting for cosmetic surgery, dieting to the point of sickness and deciding, already, to forgo a long-lived career in order to stay home and raise a family. All of this makes me wonder: what kind of commercial soapbox has Lucy inherited? It’s thirty years later and more women than ever populate our public domain—from missions to the moon to the race for president.
But have we really come all that far?
As I chug up the escalator in search of life-altering panties, one glance down the Easter aisle tells me maybe not. Or rather, it tells me that marketing teams across America haven’t caught on that women are, in fact, making great strides everywhere. According to these shrink-wrapped, skyscraper-sized baskets, someone somewhere still expects Girls to be Girls and Boys to be, well, athletic, mechanical and completely out of touch with the merits of pink plastic cell phones, dangling earrings and red lipstick. As well they might, but does that make these things suitable for girls? Do young girls really want nothing more than marathon telephone sessions and an artificially made face? As someone who grew up scaling trees, playing baseball and building go-karts, I say 'no.'
But I’m also the same person who, of the two-from-a-hundred childhood souvenirs I’ve managed to hold onto over the years, one is a red plastic lipstick, the other a matching perfume bottle. Despite countless moves, I’ve never lost those two things. You’d think that fact alone would have dictated a different fate for me and makeup, but the fact remains: I didn’t learn how to apply lipstick until well into my thirties. And my boyfriend taught me how to blot!
Maybe, then, sometimes play really is just play, and real life is real life. How else to explain the huge schism between what the marketers are selling us while two channels over Nancy Pelosi takes up the Speaker’s gavel on CNN?
Or maybe the message is this: we can do what we want, as long as we do it and look a certain way. And if that’s the case, I’m going to toss my stomach-shaping tights in the trash right now. But unlike my sisters who came before, I’ll hold onto my bra. For that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? What makes sense to you is the only thing that needs to make sense—as long as you have the tools necessary to make your most well-informed choice.
And that is my intention with starting this column, to take a good hard look at that space where culture meets psyche, from the perspective a new mother trying to raise a 21st-century girl. I’ll be critiquing everything from pink raincoats to Peter Pan to the concept of “mother’s helper” in my quest to unravel the mysteries of the “three-steps forward, four-steps back” world of women’s rights that has us pounding gavels both in the boardroom and the kitchen, but for far less money and respect than our male counterparts.
I hope you’ll join me!