Christmas got a lot better when my sister, Kelly, got a job at Dillard’s department store in 1980, complete with an employee discount which she took full advantage of. My parents had declared my brother, sister and me too old for gift giving years before, when I was only eight, but suddenly at fourteen my sister had brought it back into my life and she never disappointed. The gift I craved the most? Makeup. The gift she always plied me with, large, lush and lavish holiday gift boxes of premium department store makeup. Whether it was Estee Lauder or Clinique or some other fine brand, the name I no longer can recall, it was one plastic suitcase full of prime color after another, year in and year out, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. One year she even threw in a denim dress by Calvin Klein that didn’t even reach my knees, and another year, a generous bottle of Chanel number five. And then she would “do” my makeup for me. And then a little later I would sneak back in front of the mirror and “do” it a little louder by myself, glorying in all the colors on the fold away trays and slide out discs.
Kelly was five years older than me and almost a full head shorter. We had very similar green eyes and brown hair, but the truth was, she and my brother were half siblings to me. And my love of makeup was partially born of an insecurity from comparing myself to her. She was perfect. Petite, elvish, flawless. She was accepted into any group easily. I was brutal in my own self assessment. I felt like an oaf. And I had bad skin, acne, where hers was dewy and fine. And I had a big nose, where hers was small and cute. Makeup could help me hide my flaws. Hide the bad skin and the big nose.
It was my little southern belle grandmother who finally helped me win the battle over my acne. Everyone else was all too ready to “help” with comments on what they supposed was my diet of greasy food or chocolate or my lack of washing. My grandmother was around me enough to know that I ate sensibly and scrubbed my face well. She sent off for a little book on how to heal your acne. She gave it to me in private one day. I saw the word “ACNE” on the cover and was prepared to well up with tears yet again, figuring it to be yet another personal attack on my character, this time in print, when she turned it over and urged me to read the testimonials on the back of the book. I did. I decided to give the book a try.
There was basically one instruction, purchase an acne lotion or gel such as Clearasil, which contains benzoyl peroxide and apply it to your face after washing twice a day. Keep doing this every day until your face really really dries out, even starts flaking and looking terrible, after you let it get all crispy like that for a while, you can ease up and just use it once a day. I did it and it worked. Clearasil became my must have product for years and years. I kept using it even when I didn’t have break outs to keep from getting them, and to keep my oily skin in check.
But having clearer skin did not stop the jealousy I felt towards my sister, and jealousy is what it was. My nose was not unusually huge, and I was not a lumbering oaf, I just felt this way when I was around her, but I loved her more than anyone on the planet. Before long, I was in high school making friends of my own and she was away at college, studying art and painting, and things kind of evened out.
When Kelly came home for the summers she would work at a local amusement park doing pastel portraits of tourists. Some days I would go with her and when it was quiet she would do yet another portrait of me to drum up business, I never failed to awed by her talent. And I would ask her, holding the new portrait,
“Do I really look this good?”
“No,” she would reply, “you look better than that.”
I love my sister. And I love that she used to buy me makeup for Christmas. I still think about it today. But I don’t see makeup as a mask anymore, I see it as a celebration of my face.