This spring I turned 40, my daughter turned one, and to commemorate both, I bought an unlimited month-long hair and makeup package, “The Ultimate Zsuzs,” from a little salon down the street.
Momover Day 15
I was halfway into the “Ultimate Zsuzs,” and I’d become accustomed to putting myself together before leaving the house, to giving five to 10 minutes of attention to my face, my appearance. It didn’t overwhelm me anymore. It didn’t seem like a chore. It became the transitional activity between the morning mom hours and my writing hours, and it had a way of energizing and organizing me for this second section of my day. It gave me the sense of taking command of my life.
Out in the world I was studying style more than I had in years – apparently in a not-so-subtle manner because women often caught me staring intently at their faces. Sorry, I could have said, but didn’t, Just looking to see if you’ve applied eyeliner both above and below or just above, a topic I was in the midst of exploring.
A nice thing that I observed, on errands, at the park, at the grocery store, was that there was no norm for what a mom in 2016 could or should look like, at least in the East Village. Punk moms. Glamour moms. Hipster moms. Hippie moms. Yoga moms. Slacker moms. That’s progress, I thought.
The whole family — me, my husband, my 13-year-old stepson and my 13-month-old baby — went to our friends’ Kentucky Derby party, which they host annually. People dress for it. Hundreds of mint juleps are consumed. Bets are placed.
Chardé did my hair up in an elaborate braid and I loved it. I loved having something so complex and beautiful on my head that was completely off my face and required zero maintenance. This was a zsuzs to remember – particularly if I was going to be dolled up in the presence of my children, it was a wonderful, artful, practical, elegant solution. I had found a look I liked.
Mother’s Day. A day partially spent failing to secure a last-minute babysitter that my husband offered to pay for as a last-minute mother’s day gift; partially spent resenting everyone and thing in my household; and partially spent resenting our culture for making a holiday that creates the perfect conditions for resentment. I also spent part of the day reflecting on what I’d inherited vis-a-vis beauty and grooming and what I was handing down.
My mother is a striking, stylish beauty and always has been. She is very thin, very athletic, very attentive to her appearance and to that of others, and she keeps herself in what seems like a never ending supply of new clothes, new shoes, new jackets, nice hair and nails.
She is my most loyal and devoted ally in motherhood — the amount of time, energy, and resources she gave me was astounding — but we have not always gotten along so swimmingly. When I was an adolescent her criticism of my weight, my acne, my large nose, my messy appearance, was oppressive.
Shopping with her was grim. The sales girls cooed over her and said things like, “She must take after her father,” when looking at me. My tendency over the years to not give my own beauty my full effort had been a kind of surrender to the agony and futility of competing with her.
However, we had a successful convening on the subject more than a decade ago and my mother is no longer critical of my appearance. I am no longer, consciously, in a state of depression about her winning the beauty contest, and yet those years and those feelings were still in me. It was clear to me, during the Zsuzs experiment, how you can be done with toxic beliefs without having fulling dispensed with their impact.
My hope for my own beautiful daughter is that she takes good care of herself and finds fun, creative, proud ways to present herself in the world; that she not be weighed down by hangups or too enthralled by her own attractiveness and its power. That she holds grooming in its proper perspective.
I could feel myself fighting off a very subtle, low-grade depression, feeling fatigued, frayed, easily irritated — a familiar state that finds me periodically for stretches of time, as well as every month in the days just before my period. It’s a state heightened by mothering, the most anxious and the most joyful experience of my life, the most connected and isolating.
Yoga and meditation and long talks helped. Hair and makeup, not so much.
The lie of the perpetually groomed woman is that she’s as psychologically together as she is physically. Is there a way to attend to hair and make up during times of internal messiness that didn’t feel like I was trying to fool people? Is there a look that expresses a quiet acceptance of complexity and uncertainty?
Meg did my makeup, an understated daytime look. There’s apparently a huge trend in beauty to care for the skin with moisturizers, serums, etc. – rather than makeup and foundation – which vibed with me entirely. Meg had a treasure trove of products she seemed happy to share.
There’s one made from yogurt that has to be refrigerated, another made from plant stem cells, a third from Chanel that costs hundreds of dollars an ounce. Of course it’s relaxing to lean back in the chair and have those creams massaged into the muscles and bones in my face.
I was finding it lovely to return to the salon, to the conversation in the salon, to have Meg and Zsuzsi and Chardé’s friendly faces to say hello to as I walked by.
I asked for the understated skin care look again and realized while at the salon that I talked to Meg more than any of my friends. Extended, uninterrupted conversation — it’s a rarity in my life as a new mom. I spend about a quarter as much time with my friends as I used to. I miss that time, I miss my closest friends. But it’s nice to have a continuous conversation about life/health/business/Beyoncé with someone new, and with someone just half a block down the street from my apartment.
There’s something vaguely therapeutic about the relationship we’re developing – the difference being that Meg was talking about the stresses in her life as much as I was talking about the stresses in mine.
A friend in her early 40s emailed me after reading the piece I wrote about the Zsuzs: “I have found that taking care of myself and my appearance is so much more fun and less fraught at this stage of my life. I’m liberated from the nagging feeling that I had when I was younger that trying to ‘look good’ was usually in pursuit of unworthy things – to be more attractive to men, to be thin, to fit in – and now it’s motivated by wanting to feel strong and confident. I never really believed women when they said that’s why they took care of their appearance, but now I really get it. Getting older is so great for so many reasons!”
It’s also true that with all of the zsuzsing I observed an uptick in men checking me out. Hair and makeup evidently send a signal to a certain set of men to pay attention to a woman.
What surprised me is that I didn’t care. Because there was no burning question of my attractiveness to men of the world.
How lovely, how efficient, that that question was not taking up any space anymore.