“Makeup” by Vivien Steels

Vivien is a writer, illustrator and painter who lives in Nottingham. Her written works include Promise, Mandala, Secrets, Home From Home, Winter White, Into the Past and Ferne and Chocolate and the Rollercoaster Rainbow and Other Stories. Visit her official site for more information.

I have always worn makeup. Since I was about 15, I’ve been drawn to using colour to enhance my face as I use colour to enhance my paintings and illustrations. Putting on make-up each day is like a meditation: it calms me, concentrates the mind, so thoughts can flow into a stream of reverie.

At the back of my mind, wriggling like an enclosed larva, there is always the idea that I am disguising my real self behind a mask; I have something to hide, and that this ritual is so part of my psyche that I have to do it. I have to colour my face with a slightly darker tinted moisturiser, add deep blood-red to my lips, dab my cheeks with the same tint, slightly pencil in my eyebrows with a dark brown pencil, brush smoky brown shadow over my eyelids and just under my bottom lashes to add even more depth to my dark brown eyes and then add several coats of the thickest, darkest mascara to my eyelashes – top and bottom.  It looks right with my black-brown hair with a deep fringe. And my deep red shade of lipstick alters shades with the colours I wear. You can’t wear a blood-red lipstick when wearing blue or purple. It has to be a berry colour with those blue tints. I have written a “concrete” poem about lipstick, I love it so much.

Anyone who knows me will probably have never seen me without my makeup on.  If I had to go to the shops to buy a pint of milk, I would look like this; if a parcel was being delivered and had to be signed for, I would look like this; and if my cleaner, Amy, was coming to do the house for me, I would look like this. I even go to bed with my mascara on. It has to be waterproof mascara, none of that “one drop of rain and it pours down your cheek like soot” variety. And I have been called glamorous and striking though I never think of myself as that. I am me and “me” came out of the womb made-up.

I think there is a link here. I love making things up.  How do you know all that I’ve just written isn’t just made-up? Here I am baring my innermost being, my soul, and you may decide – it’s just make-believe.  I may really look like an old hag, who’s never been near a pot of cream in her life, let alone the right tip of a lipstick. But you’re wrong. Writers are so egocentric, so into themselves that what they concoct is carelessly camouflaged autobiography. And I’m no different, though my publisher might tell you otherwise.

* * *

It was my birthday, the 14th of April. I was staring at myself in the mirror. Outside the bedroom window the lake in the park sang like another mirror to the spring sky through new green leaves. Another year. Another set of smile lines. Another dressing table full of cosmetics. I think they were working because people just don’t believe I’m the age I am, though some say it’s because I seem so young at heart. I am young at heart, but today my heart feels rather heavy. For the first time I can remember I feel depressed. I don’t know if it’s looking at my naked reflection once too often, or if I’m beginning to feel old, or, if I’m feeling old, why put on the war paint if the battle’s over? “A woman without paint is like food without salt,” wrote Plautus. And I’m feeling very bland at the moment. I need to colour my hair to keep the grey roots at bay. My nickname changes from Cleopatra to Femme Fatale to Fenella (as in Fenella Fielding – when she was younger, of course) with whoever I’m with, but there is always the element of the exotic in their pet names for me and I do like it. I would hate to be bland. And I do feel bland. I even bought a new red lipstick to stave off this feeling, but it wouldn’t leave. And here it was parading up and down my dressing table, shouting “bland, bland, bland” instead of “rebel, rebel, rebel!”

I was getting an awful sensation in the pit of my stomach. I was rebelling against all that artifice, all that money spent of trying to change the way I was, all the hours I sat applying lotions and potions, colours and concoctions until I was a parody of myself. I knew what I was going to do. For a selected time only just to see what it was like, I was going to “go commando”, au naturel, bare myself to the elements and let people know who I was straight away. I would stop colouring my hair, would wear no makeup at all, would not paint my nails. Any colour would be nature’s colour. I felt liberated. My mask was slipping and my gown was falling to the ground.

* * *

I have been reborn in a shadowy cave. I am a totally different person. There is no barrier between me and the world anymore. People have started guessing my age correctly. I have no exotic nicknames. The money I’ve saved from cosmetics has gone to my favourite charities and paying my gas and electricity bills. Men don’t stare at me in the street or wolf whistle from scaffolding. No one wants my point of view on anything and I am always served last in shops and cafes. I’ve become one of the invisible middle-aged and I HATE IT! Yesterday I went shopping and, as you know, this was just an experiment for a selected time only. Well, the selected time is over and I’m back. Bland is not grand, bland is shorthand for unplanned, bland is banned.

I put all my new purchases on my dressing table. I’ve coloured my hair again and my straight shoulder-length style with a deep fringe is like “a rippling sheet of dark silk” – or so I’ve been told by several new admirers. My new lipstick, Darling Violet (which sounds like a friend, and has been) has kissed several new lips, and I’ve been given a payrise by my boss, Mr. Starling, and asked out on a date by two new acquaintances. I’ve started going to a new Yoga class once a week, and one lady, Sue, of the “don’t shave your legs or armpits” brigade told the group that a Yoga class wasn’t a catwalk, when I wore my new deep purple velvet leisure suit. Dirk, whose mat was getting rather close to mine, whispered that he thought I’d get picked up if I went out in it. So I didn’t get changed afterwards and I did get asked out, but I refrained from saying “yes’.” My husband, Ethan, says he’s booked a table for a special anniversary meal at my favourite restaurant, The Peacock, and I intend to be there, all dressed-up and made-up. He likes me just as I am.