This spring my daughter turned one, I turned 40, and for the first time I stepped into a tiny salon on my block called Joli Beauty Bar to inquire about a deal they were offering: unlimited blowouts and makeovers for a month for $250, The Ultimate Zsuzs.
I had walked by this place every day, multiple times a day, since it opened in September, and it had me thinking a lot about grooming. It's an area in which Ive never been particularly high achieving, and one that had really taken a hit since having a baby.
Brushing teeth, showering, shaving, moisturizing, tending to my roots, toenails, brows, pubes, putting on a little lip gloss and mascara, wearing clothes that are clean and that fit, adding a key piece of jewelry to the mix some of these things happen some of the time, some of them happen none of the time.
There have been few apparent consequences to my shlubbiness. I work in a co-working space as an author and freelance arts reporter for the Wall Street Journal and I Airbnb a home in upstate New York. Both professions require no fuss, no muss.
I live in a neighborhood the East Village where there are indeed glamorous people, but I dont actually know any of them. The hiking sneakers I wear almost every day are sneered at in exactly none of the places I typically inhabit.
I think of myself as someone who has a pretty decent self-image, which is to say, I feel I am good looking enough. It was agonizing to me in middle and high school to not be one of the beautiful girls but I got over it. That existential achievement occurred a long time ago.
Yes, perhaps sometimes it's dispiriting that men flirt with me about 10% as often as they did when I was in my 20s, but it's also nice to not be sexually harassed on the street. I know for sure, from the various playful grabs at my body in the kitchen and living room and bedroom, that I'm attractive to my husband. There is no crisis.
Still, from time to time as my 40th birthday beckoned, I thought: Maybe its time to up my game, put a little time and energy into self-presentation, to walk proudly through the world. Invariably, several minutes later, that aspiration has dissipated and others prioritized writing projects, time with my husband, baby, 13-year-old stepson, friends, self, bed.
Which is why it was interesting that Joli and the notion of unlimited upkeep persisted in my consciousness. How would my life change if I got my hair and makeup done a few times a week for a month? Would I feel energized by it? Would people flirt with me more? Would it send me out into the world more, wrest me from the couch and Netflix into adventure and pleasure? Would it lead to career opportunities? Or would it be a colossal waste of time?
And so I found myself wandering into Joli Beauty Bar where I encountered its co-founder, Zsuzsi, who welcomed my experiment. Most of the women coming in are childless, she said. Theyre prepping for dates or wedding-related events or theyre married with extremely active social lives. Once a client tells us shes pregnant we know well probably lose her. Oh dear.
My stylist, Chardé, gave me an iPad with a Pinterest board to choose from dozens of makeup and hair looks.
Why dont you do whatever you think is best, I said.
I realized I was entirely out of touch with any of my own instincts about personal style and overwhelmed/intimidated at the invitation to make aesthetic decisions.
Chardé decided to go for the lived in look for my hair which, fortunately for me and other time-strapped moms, is apparently on trend.
I tried following her every makeup move on my face but quickly lost track. The thing about professional makeup artists is that they utilize techniques and tools and products that you dont have lots of them. I'm pretty sure she used 20 different products on my face, and that was for something "easy and approachable."
A second generation aesthetician, Chardé is a single mother to a seven-year-old. Its really easy to let yourself go as a mom, she said. You dont remember that when youre good, everyones good.
So true. But grooming demands a shepherding, or hoarding, of ones time mind and body. Family life demands relinquishing control and sharing time mind and body. But what our home actually requires, the thing that makes it all work, is me toggling between sharing and hoarding my resources to my own sense of satisfaction.
It wasnt clear to me whether fancy hair and makeup had anything to contribute to my feeling satisfied. Because after Chardé finished her work on me, I was all dolled up with no place to go.
Eventually the baby woke from her afternoon nap and we strolled to Rite Aid where, among other things, I bought a palette of eye shadow, some makeup remover, and some cookies in the shape of teddy bears. Then I took my daughter to the park because she loves to see dogs and she loves the swing. Then we sat outside a tiny restaurant next to our apartment because she likes to watch the dinner service unfold and flirt with the servers.
Did it matter that I was done up? It did not.
Who was this beauty for? Unclear.
One of my recurring nightmares is that I have a second apartment somewhere that Ive forgotten about that's in horrid disarray. In the 24 hours following my first beauty appointment, my appearance felt like that second apartment.
A sense of defeat had set in. Grooming was a domain that required vigilance and attention to detail. I was already tracking the bits and bobs of a baby, a 13-year-old step son, two homes, a book-in-progress, the New York dance and theater community, my friends and family, and a digestive condition (dont ask) that requires a rather elaborate attention to nutrition. I needed fewer things to be vigilant about in my life not more.
My resistance to taking on hair and makeup was, in part, the resistance of someone who didnt want two new domains of responsibility in which I might fall behind on a regular basis.
This experiment cant turn in to something punishing, I kept thinking, later in the day, while strolling with the baby post-afternoon nap. We were on our way back to Rite Aid to pick up some more product Chardé recommended, plus bleach for the dark mustache hairs I discovered while sitting in the salon chair.
Those hairs werent the only unpleasant discovery I made there. I also noticed chin hairs in need of plucking and a new mole on my left cheek. It was a small mole but it told me something big: I hadnt really looked at myself in the mirror for very, very, very long time.
I thought that having polished hair and makeup would be fun but instead it brought about a mildly agonizing self-consciousness and guilt for spending my time/energy/resources on something so trivial when I had so many other things to get done. Not to mention the world is full of so many more worthy opportunities and problems.
But is it trivial? There are indeed sad and wasteful and small-minded aspects to devoting oneself to ones appearance, but there's also something sad and wasteful and small-minded about abandoning ones appearance.
I wanted to stay resolutely on the life-affirming side of things. I hoped to discover that grooming can inspire a lively way of engaging the outside world, it can contribute a sense of dignity to the identity narrative youre telling yourself and other people, it can nurture the friendship with self (the greatest love of all, as Whitney said).
Beauty on my terms, for my own satisfaction. It was worth discovering and defining.
Meg, who co-owns the Beauty Bar with Zsuzsi, styled my hair and makeup in my second appointment at Joli. Several times she called what she was doing the effortless look, which tickled my funny bone because effortless is exactly what Id been doing on my own.
I really liked supporting Zsuzsi and Meg and their small indie business. They came across as smart, real, immensely knowledgable about hair and makeup, and empowering. They were not at all oppressive about beauty. And they werent constantly trying to upsell me.
But I wasnt having fun. The night before Id been to a Passover seder with my aunts, uncles, cousins, husband, and baby in Harlem, where we drank and ate and read and sang and talked together for hours about the meaning of life and love and suffering. That was fun. The beauty parlor was more like school or work.
Ive been thinking a lot about fun recently about how shitty women, particularly mothers, are at identifying what is pleasurable to them outside of their domestic role, and then carving out time and space to partake in it. In the whole ecology of self-care, I think fun is hugely important. The fact that I wasnt having fun at the beauty parlor made me worry that something deadeningly un-fun had unfurled inside of me since having a child.
Regardless, at the end of the day it felt silly, wasteful, even a little tiring, to have logistiticated for this time in the salon when all I was going to do afterwards was stroll my baby to Tompkins Square Park.
Who was this makeup and hair for? Certainly not my husband. His knee jerk response to seeing me all done up was: Can you wipe it off?
I had room in that day for one activity to myself and it ended up being the beauty bar. Seeing a friend, working at The Writers Room, or taking a yoga class all would have been far more fulfilling.
This morning on my walk to work I clarified for myself what I wanted from this experiment: to develop three looks - daily, professional, and special event. I planned to tell the beauty shop ladies this, plus the fact that I didnt want to deal with foundation any more. Somehow it was foundation that felt the most false, the most like a mask.
At sunset I walked across town with my husband and my baby to an art opening. My hair was still done from the zsuzs the day before and I applied makeup lip gloss, blush, eye shadow, mascara, eyeliner that I felt good about.
It was fun to walk across town as a family with the feeling of being put together, to encounter at the opening, held in Diane Von Furstenbergs garage, particularly glamorous friends, and feel the dignity and freshness of having spent a little time and attention on myself.
Afterwards, my husband took our baby home and I met up with my best friend from high school for a swanky drink at 11 Madison Park. She's a curator, poet, and Buddhist scholar, and actually a pretty glamorous person, too. Shes always dressed in a way that I admire stylish but completely individual, and her makeup is the kind of minimal that Id like to espouse.
She was excited to see me upping my game. I was just excited to look at her. We love each others faces, these faces weve confessed to and sought out and humored and challenged and cracked up. Seeing her face, I realized how much I like the look of real skin on an adult woman.
My skin has lines, creases, dark spots, acne scars, and unevenness in tone, but I like that my history shows up on my face. I want it there, I just want my eyes and lips to pop out as beautifully as they can from that complex, not entirely tamed, imperfect terrain.
It occurs to me that all of the models on the Pinterest boards were in their teens and early 20s, how terrific it would have been instead to look at dozens of photographs of middle-aged women, how much I like looking at older womens faces, to see idiosyncratic examples of beauty and identity on a face bearing experience, care, and damage.
Who might this beauty be for? Each other.
My husband and I went to see a brilliant, spectacularly inventive, invigorating performance by a tap choreographer, Michelle Dorrance, who Id just written about for the Journal. I dressed up and applied makeup and it felt really good to show up in my professional world looking put together.
Afterward we had a drink and a bite to eat in the restaurant next to our house. My husband brought up my experiment with makeup and hair. He said that he didnt get it, that when he saw me after the salon the first two times, it freaked him out, he didnt recognize me.
It gave me the opportunity to talk about why I was doing this, to talk about self-care and beauty rituals and identity as a new mom and a woman on the other side of 40. I was grateful to be in a marriage where grooming didnt matter but it felt good to enroll him in what I was doing, rather than have him be alienated by it.
I explained my new take on foundation to the aestheticians at Joli which they happily ceded to and the whole enterprise of getting done up felt more fun, less charged, less estranged.
I think I have found my day look. Its very simple a kind of white silver incandescent eye shadow, mascara, blush on the apples of my cheeks, and a colorful lip. Its a simplified version of what Meg showed me on day three. It's fast, fresh, understated, and pretty.
When I left the house today my husband said, Bye Lizzie-upping-her-game!
Clothes are the next frontier. I dont know where to shop or what size I am or what my style truly is, but I dont have the money to explore that right now. So Im just taking an extra couple of minutes to find things in my closet that I like, to wear flats instead of hiking sneakers, to put on a necklace. The necklace, I mean. I own one necklace that I like.
But a shift has occurred. Im starting to feel more than just good looking enough. At no other point in my life would I have chosen my face from a Pinterest board, but that's changing as I think more and more about how marked my face is with all that Ive seen and experienced.
The kind of honesty, hard work, and grace I know Im capable of at age 40 is really quite beautiful. I've survived a variety of heartbreaks, failures, tragedies, and traumas with hopefulness and empathy intact. Thats beauty and its in my face. Thats only occurring to me now because of the wrestling with and contemplation of my appearance demanded by the Ultimate Zsuzs.