This spring I turned 40, my daughter turned one, and to commemorate both, I bought an unlimited month-long hair and makeup package, “The Ultimate Zsuzs," from a little salon down the street.
On the eve of my final week of unlimited access to hair styling and makeovers at a salon on my block, my family took a much needed weekend in the woods about sixty miles away.
If a woman puts lipstick on in a forest, does it make a Zsuzs?
I wore no makeup.
I found myself thinking about the expressions of pity and mild disgust that people use about older women: “She really let herself go." That is actually my greatest hope for myself and all women, that we let ourselves go, abandon hangups and resentments. That we release toxic notions of self, beauty, motherhood, partnership. I would love to not just let myself go but really let myself go.
On the train ride back to the city my family and I sat across from a college-aged woman who applied make up and styled her hair for the entire 80 minute ride. She had a kind of effortful Kendall Jenner look, albeit the working class version. She was very alien to us as I suspect we were to her as well.
Knowing full well that I squandered three of my last days of the Zsuzs, I endeavored to commit hard core in the final stretch and try something adventurous for each of my final three visits.
Meg, who co-owns the salon, did my hair half up in a braid – a little wild, untamed, and super pretty – then gave me an intense navy-grey eye. The photograph of my face (like all photographs for this story) downplays the amount and intensity of the color. It’s just the nature of phone camera photography to not be capable of capturing how elaborately I was actually made up.
So you’ll just have to trust me that the color was extreme — and yet, drum roll – I loved it! I picked a destination about which I was curious, a new indie movie house, Metrograph, on Ludlow Street, where they have a lounge and a restaurant and everything is hyper chic, and I took myself there after the baby went to sleep.
I was so pleased to be comfortable with something so adventurous. My go-to dressed-up look for the past fifteen or more years had been a blow out. A hair stylist would straighten out the curls and the frizz and shellack me up like a beauty contestant. I see now that it was a kind of self-protective helmet.
In my 20s when my first book was published I did dozens of TV appearances and readings and I think the blow out helped me transition into a less vulnerable state, helped me hop in to an identity wherein I felt confident. In my 30s, when I started writing for the Wall St. Journal, they were sending me out to cover galas every week, and again, I think that blown out hair helped me feel self-assured, helped me feel like I fit in at the Waldorf Astoria or Cipriani or wherever the masters of the universe were meeting that week to philanthropize.
These were all opportunities where being less of who I am — less messy, less complex, less vulnerable (and, on some level, less ethnically Jewish) — was what I thought I wanted.
At 40 I wanted to find a dressed-up look that, rather than slip me neatly into a category of urban, rich, trendy, polished, professional, emotionally placid and controlled woman, suggested a hint of the wildness, the complexity, the emotionality, the creativity of my mind and my life and my curiosities. What kind of beautiful woman has the fortitude and grace for these turbulent times? Sorry folks, not the beauty contestant and not the socialite.
My husband and I don’t have that many opportunities to really dress up but every so often we are invited to something fancy and now, with my wild blue look and wild braided hair, I was really ready for that.
Now it was also possible for me to zsuzs myself up with the braid and the blue eye and go to the movies, or to a bar, to take on the adventure of the city like I used to when I first moved here for college. I’d found an expression of beauty that was exciting made me feel at home. Refined glamour or fancy glamour had always felt phony to me, like I was projecting a lifestyle I didn’t have, and aspirations that weren’t mine.
I became aware — because of writing this series — that on several occasions I’d described the process of putting myself together as a dignifying process, which meant that on some level I thought of my home life as undignified.
That’s a rather intense concept, and likely insulting to people who do domestic labor, and probably worth my time to unpack. What exactly lacks dignity in my efforts to keep a home running? And how can I make my home a place of genuine retreat and not just a throbbing, scrambling To Do list?
I said I wanted to try bold things so Meg did a big cat eye and an almost fluorescent red lip. She loved it.
I did not. It felt utterly not me. Way too much theatricality in a Betty Page-style that didn’t resonate. But I wore it anyway to a conference in Middle Eastern American theater that I was covering. I felt like sticking with looks that were outside my comfort zone was part of the experiment. I was open to my opinion of it changing.
But it didn’t change. When I wasn’t immersed in the work and remembered how done up I was, I felt embarrassed.
I met with a friend who is an editor at a magazine for a drink last night and got an assignment from the magazine the next day.
Did I get the gig because I had attended to my hair and makeup before we met up for the drink? No, I got the gig because I had several hundred features under my belt and a strong pitch — but the Zsuzs helped. I’d been wanting to write for other publications for years, but between trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, and having a new baby, I just didn’t have the bandwidth.
The Zsuzs had had a strange course. Initially it depleted me but eventually it energized. I was finding myself with a new energy for my career, a new energy to network, to present myself in new ways, to conceive of new projects. It put fuel in my tank. It got what was stalled moving.
I went for my final appointment at Joli Beauty Bar and Chardé, Zsuzsi, and Meg were all there with flowers, a card, and a chocolate cake for me. I was very touched and pleased to see that it was as important for them to convey that a genuine relationship had formed as it was to me.
Meg did a blow out and a bright teal eye.
Zsuzsi asked, “What do you say to doing fake eyelashes?”
“I say yes," I replied.
After the appointment, I met up with the same friend I'd seen during the first week of the Zsuzs. She remarked how differently I was talking about hair and makeup from when we’d last met for a fancy drink.
In the end it had been a transformative process — not on the top ten most transforming events of my life, but still powerfully and mysteriously life-altering. I attended to my face and body and brought myself into a routine of grooming. I saw that beauty was less fraught and more fun at 40 then it had ever been before. I tried a wide menu of looks for hair and makeup and landed on a handful that I really loved and felt either at ease with or pleasantly charged in.
What coalesced was a greater desire to be out in the world and pursue curiosities and opportunities. And with that comes an infinite realm of possibility.