I am looking in the mirror and wishing I knew how to dress myself up a bit—you know, put on some makeup, do something different with my hair, add a little flair. The grey hair, the bags under my eyes (compliments of my father’s genes), and sag under my chin (compliments of my mother’s genes) are making me look a bit worn. Problem is I never learned to apply makeup or hair products. I grew up in the natural woman era and subsequently never bothered to learn about these more traditional embellishments. And that worked for decades. Now I’m dealing with the reality of aging.
When I got my first job out of college, in a county planning office, I didn’t have much money to spend on a work wardrobe. My meager salary went to rent, utilities, transportation, and, oh yeah, food. Two other young women who were hired at the same time seemed to have more financial assets, and both dressed very well. One of them, Brett, and I became good work friends. Brett knew all about clothes and makeup. With her long blond hair, gold jewelry, well-made clothes, mascara and blue eyeshadow, she always turned the heads of our mostly male, mostly middle-age department. Brett could have taught me about makeup, but she always said that with my dark features I didn’t need any, unlike her with her “disappearing” blond lashes and blue eyes.
The thing that amazed me most about Brett was how charming she could be to everyone and how that gift illuminated her path wherever she went. Then, when we were alone, she would relish belittling everyone in the office and sharing her most intense dislikes. For me, who still struggles with keeping my emotions from expressing themselves clearly on my face, this was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing.
I cycled through my office clothes pretty much every week, recombining which blouse I wore with which dress pants or skirt. One day I finally took out a dress I’d bought some years earlier but rarely wore, an Indian print cotton. I’ve always been modest, and the deep-V neckline of the dress was a bit too revealing. I got out a safety pin, closed the V up as high as I could, and went off to work.
Well, even with a safety pin the empire waist dress and V neck accentuated my ample bosom. Suddenly I had attention I had not known, nor desired, from my coworkers. Perhaps I had been dressing like a slouch. There was an abundance of good mornings, and suddenly my officemates had something to say to me. The day was surreal—I was the same person but, apparently, the rest of my office didn’t see me in the same light.
The next year I found another job with the county—in the water quality analysis lab. There I wore my scrungiest clothes under my white lab jacket because small splatters of acid were always a hazard.
Brett and I didn’t stay in touch very long. Ours was a work friendship, and I had an intuitive inkling of the path she was leading me down. Anyway, she had become rather occupied with luring away her mother’s boyfriend.
Looking in the mirror, I put some moisturizer on my face, clip up my hair in its perpetual twist, and shrug at myself. In my youth I endeavored to be seen for my mind, not my appearance. Likely, it is too late to change.
Photo credits: Beth Alderman, Leland Ott