Chris Ware, “Mirror,” cover of New Yorker, December 7, 2015
I just gave in to my first pair of readers because I can’t see my face. Meanwhile, packages for my daughter are arriving on the doorstep from Nasty Gal (that’s not as bad as it sounds–it’s a clothing website, and the latest purchase were these drop dead thigh-high black boots).
Chris Ware’s New Yorker cover captures exactly what I am feeling these days. I may not be wearing that shapeless floral dress, but still, the look on that woman’s face! The looks on both of their faces perfectly capture the stages in their lives.
Maybe this is the first time that the daughter is legitimately allowed to wear lipstick. She’s worn it before, but only for dress-up, and this is the sanctioned moment when her mother finally allows to use the stuff. She puts it on, and she sees what makeup can do. It is the right time–she doesn’t look twisted like a too-young child beauty contestant. She looks good, and she sees the fun of it all, laid out before her–the thrill of the transformation, the magic of this new tool that she can officially begin to use.
Meanwhile, the mother looks disconcerted (and a little sad). She’s not jealous, is she? She’s not supposed to be jealous, but, well, look at the two. You can she that she maybe has a right to feel a little envious. She’s wondering about botox, and how the dermatologist told her that, with the rampant sun damage on her chest, she was the perfect candidate for intense pulsed light therapy. She had immediately dismissed those suggestions (who wants botchulism in their face? It would have to catch up to you somehow.) But now maybe she should go make those appointments. And go get her teeth whitened, get the gel manicure, and buy some new eye cream.
“You don’t need that stuff,” my husband always says when I put on makeup. He means it in a nice way, but this always makes me confused, like, how differently he sees me versus how I see myself. But thank God! I can’t escape the fact that he’s going to see me first thing in the morning, or with my hair wet and no makeup on.
I explain to him how women get so accustomed to how we look with makeup on that, when we aren’t wearing it, we don’t feel completely finished. Inevitably, when traveling, I forget some makeup component–my mascara, or my favorite eyeliner, or my lipstick–and then I feel incomplete and I’m not happy until I go buy a substitution.
Ware’s cartoon captures this pivotal moment of cosmetic joy, but also, up in the mirror’s corner, there is a picture of the mother and daughter from long ago, when the mother had just become a mother, and the daughter is a baby. So, the mother is not just sad in a vain way, she is sad about the passing of time. I like the juxtaposition of then and now. All of the spaces in between have suddenly evaporated and they find themselves together in this transitional time, when the mothering is almost done, and the daughter is becoming her own person. What better way to capture it than with lipstick?
The way the mother is holding the lipstick looks like she has suddenly realized that all the promises of makeup don’t hold up to the bigger truth of life, that aging is inevitable and we cannot stop the seasons. Mostly, though, the recognition of her daughter’s beauty and delight in her youth is full compensation for her own aging. All of those years she has spent mothering and raising her daughter have led up to this point, and there has to be a letting go.
The whole process is a bait and switch: having a baby and then raising her is such a huge distraction that I didn’t notice my youth slipping away. But it did. Just like the devious teen I used to be, it snuck out the back door while I was pouring Goldfish into a Ziplock snack bag, filling out permission slips and spraying the house down with Lysol after the stomach bug.
They’re not seeking advice from just me anymore. Hopefully something sunk in from all of the years of my piquant remarks about feminism and girl power.
James Hollis says that one of the greatest myth cycles is associated with “the great mother,” which focuses on fertility, death and rebirth. In these narratives, “we are part of some great cosmic organism in which death and rebirth are constantly happening,” Hollis explains. These cultures had a sense of being in a “great and sacred drama” and they “had a better sense of dealing with aging and mortality than we do.” “We” refers to our Western society, where our cliches and fairy tales are hauntingly accurate: the Evil Queen wants to kill Snow White for her innocent beauty, but Snow White doesn’t understand why, because, as George Bernard Shaw said, “youth is wasted on the young.”