The look

 photo by  Xin Li

photo by Xin Li

Until 2012, I had two lipsticks. A brown one for work, and a mauve one for weddings, dinners, and holidays. A geek my entire life, I wore foundation only on my wedding day, applied by a professional, and carried all evening with a strange self consciousness. I was not cringing at people looking at me, I was never socially awkward, and chatted all evening with guests. I was cringing at people looking at the fact that I wore makeup. To them, it was natural, and I looked like a decorated bride. To me, I looked like an exhibit.  

I was brought up in a household where my mother held a fulltime job, was a busy reader, and dinners were often spent with her critiquing my poet father’s latest creation. She wore beautiful crisp sarees and minimal makeup to her banker’s job, and although she still remains the most stylish woman I know, whose sarees did not gather a single crease at the end of the day, she made it very clear to me pretty early on that makeup is for vain women. “It’s more about what you think, say and write, than about how you look,” she would state, flipping nonchalantly through magazines with glistening models, till she reached the crosswords puzzle, pencil in hand, her eyes shooting a fleeting glance at her wristwatch. She made multitasking an art decades before it became a skill. An intellectual, a professional, a mother, her bun, her impeccably draped saree, and her red bindi comprised the uniform of a superwoman. My unruly curls, big glasses and midi-length skirts made me a devotee at her altar. I obeyed what she said. I believed what she said.

It did not help to meet and fall in love with a man in college. Coached by my mother, I had by then developed a sartorial sense, and my crisply-tailored wardrobe had garnered a fan following. However, the appearance was still more about function than fun, about comfort than style. This was no competition, there was a clear conflict. One could not wear artificial makeup and yet be considered a thinker. One could not wear colored jeans or carry a yellow handbag and yet expect to be taken seriously. My boyfriend loved the smartly-dressed me, and while my other friends’ boyfriends were comparing them to a summer’s day and worshipping their femininity, the two of us read and edited each other’s writing for newspapers on dates. But for my braid and glasses, we often dressed the same.

At the wedding, my honest would-be-husband whispered to me at the altar, “You look too made up. Why have you dressed up so much?” Rather than being appalled, I was assured at that highly critical moment, of my impeccable choice of a partner, since his comment endorsed what I had been feeling too. During the early years of our marriage, I continued to maintain an androgynous style of dressing, and never wore anything but lip balm on my face. My husband bought me sturdy floaters for vacations, and on our most romantic date, during which we danced until midnight at home, I wore a striped shirt and jeans.

I did not need to look like a woman to feel like one. And I certainly did not need to wear lipstick or polka dots to act like one.

Then I had a daughter.

While battling the stress associated with Raahi’s long stay at the hospital, I decided to do something I had never done before. On a whim, I accepted a friend’s invitation to join a makeup-related page on Facebook, where I heard and learned about things like eyeshadow and concealer. A gorgeous season was springing outside, and I tried on a floral dress one day at a store, bought it, and wore it to visit Raahi. I don’t know if she knew the difference, but I certainly felt different. I felt happier, lighter. I started making an effort to dress well when I visited her. Nothing over the top, I had nothing over the top anyways. But it felt good to be “put together.” It lifted my spirit, and for the time, that was more than enough.

Gradually, I started to reassess my style and my appearance. I still loved my shirts and jeans, and on many days, nothing mattered or made me feel good. But I began to question the long-inculcated conflict between looking good and being intelligent. I began to question why it is “too much” for me to wear a bright lipstick in spring, when it can actually never stop me from thinking or writing or being smart. My mother was visiting us, and I took her to an Ulta store one day, and bought her some makeup. She smiled as I explained what a primer does. I said to her while driving back, “Ma, it’s a choice, as you always said. I am smart, I will never choose not to be so. But I can choose to look good too. The two can go well together. I think that will be a good lesson for Raahi.” She reached out from the passenger seat and touched my arm. The next day was Mother’s Day. As we stepped out to have lunch before visiting Raahi, I wore a pink lipstick.

I dreamed of raising a daughter who would not be afraid to look good and be smart at the same time. I wanted to teach her that caring for one’s appearance is not vain, nor are polka dots too girly for professional women. While negotiating the traps set by cosmetic companies and phenomena like Disney, I wanted her to develop a steadfast mind and identity of her own, and an ever-changing look of her own.

Since Raahi’s departure, I am more of a woman. I teach myself the same lessons that I would have taught her. I try to carry myself as I would have loved to see her carry herself in her 30-s. I do not resist a red lipstick from lifting me up from a deep and dark place, and I love how a purple handbag, in what I believe is my daughter’s favorite color, makes me happy. If I like how I look, I feel good. If I feel good, I let myself feel it a little longer. I do not question what impression my appearance gives others. I have long been walking the tightrope between making them feel I’m healed, and making them feel I’m cursed. I no longer add my appearance into the mix of predictors for my mind. Or my state of mind.

I do not look at myself with those old eyes of mine. Instead, I now look at myself with my new eyes. Raahi’s eyes. I see her Ma, her newly stylish and still nerdy Ma.

We both like how she looks.

How has your appearance evolved/changed since your loss(es)? Does making an effort to look "put together" matter anymore to you? What connection, if any, do you now make between how you look and how it makes you feel?