Thursday, February 10, 2011

Molecular Beauty-Setter

When I was a pre-teen, I desperately wanted the Caruso Molecular Hairsetter.  Never heard of it? No problem. You can watch an infomercial after reading this post. 

While it surprised me that a paid programming event from the 90s suddenly popped into my head while applying mascara last week, I couldn't shake my nostalgia.  See, the Caruso Molecular Hairsetter curled hair with steam heat, nurturing one's hair instead of drying it like traditional curlers and irons. And the ladies who used the Caruso rollers turned their long, limp locks into a movie star 'do in the space of two infomercial minutes. As a kid, I knew about the power of curls to transform a face. Big curl was the beauty marker for women during my early childhood.  My mother was into big hair, specifically "volume." In her day, she and her girlfriends used orange juice cans to curl their bangs. In my day, she put hot rollers in mine to create what she called "lift," a frame around my small, freckled face.

We watched infomercials for fun at my house, yes we did. And some of the women of my ancestry held a morbid fascination with getting as sexy/pretty/attractive/thin as could be with the help of a plethora of resources including the book Thin Thighs in 30 Days, Color Me Beautiful, The Atkins' Diet, and Suzanne Somers' Thigh Master (Sold at a garage sale for failure to achieve expected results.)  So you can imagine my delight over the Caruso Molecular Hairsetter. On TV on Saturday afternoon? I'd watch from start to finish, adding up in my head how many babysitting jobs I'd need till I could order a set of my own, till I could nourish my own adolescent locks with steam heat, till I could waltz around the house like a movie star. Still needed to grow my hair out longer, but that was a small detail easily overcome.

I never did order the hairsetter. I got burned out on beautiful and the endless work and search of white, middle-class America, late-90s beauty. I cut my hair short. I shaved my head. I decided to dress androgynously for a while. Well, not really, but I eschewed popular expressions of femininity for a long time in my young adult years. No lace collars for me. No perms. No high heels. No nail polish. Very little makeup. Wearing any of those things made me feel like I was running out naked into the street with a clown face on. And still does a little bit.  I wore mens' Levi cordoroys from the thrift store, combat boots, and an ARMY t-shirt. I never was happier.

Over the years, my aesthetic for dressing and presenting myself has fluxuated here and there, but never back to the standards of my childhood. Yet, there's a tiny little corner in the back of my mind where a pre-teenager whispers still: "When are you ever gonna grow your hair out long?"  "When are you gonna buckle down and be beautiful?"

I notice other women who seem comfortable wearing makeup every day, women with pretty, groomed, styled hair. And for the most part, they look lovely (they do a lot of work; they spend a lot of time). The pre-teen in me whispers that she wishes she could join that club, learn how to look like a movie star every day of her life, because isn't it so fun to be "pretty"? 

Is it? Sometimes. Yes, and no. I don't know. We could, of course, segue into Naomi Wolff's whole Beauty Myth right now and spend a few years re-digesting the way culture and advertising pushes upon women to curl, primp, cut, paint, laquer, cover, disguise, and we might again ask the questions, What is beauty, anyway?  and Why and for whom are women trying so hard? But so many of us have asked and answered that. Why do it again? I won't try.

On rare mornings, Oldest or Middle will walk past the bathroom as I stand in there, fumbling around with eyeliner, and ask me, "Mom, why are you putting on makeup?"  They ask as if I ought to defend this position, as if applying makeup is the most unnatural thing in the world for their mother to be doing. I never have a good answer for them.  I mean, I have honest answers--that either they wouldn't understand or that would belie my own conflicted feelings.

-Because I think I should.

-Because makeup is a kind of social marker.

-Because rightly or wrongly, makeup says to a lot of people that I care about myself, that I've got my act together (whether I really do is another matter).

-Because I want to look good/pretty/nice/professional and makeup can help in that regard.

-Because I have lines on my face from sleeping on my pillow.

-Because I sometimes like how I look when I'm all done.

-Because once a little girl I knew longed for big hair, and this is as close as she's gonna get.

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