Laurel Hermanson spent much of her life trying to cover up how she really looked in an effort just to fit in. And though she spent lots of time on her looks, that doesn’t make her vain.
I was 5 years old, playing with friends on a blazing summer day in upstate New York. We were sitting on the curb of my family’s big corner lot, poking at the bubbling tar on the street. Our fathers made small talk about the heat and the Dutch Elm Disease that was taking the trees in the neighborhood. My friends’ father looked down at me and said, “Well, aren’t you pretty!”
Later, my father shared this with my mother as she tried to scrub the sticky tar from my fingers. She said, “Oh for God’s sake. What’s wrong with him?” I knew that she was bothered that someone told me I was pretty. I didn’t know why.
I would hear, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” repeated for the rest of my childhood, into my teens, and beyond. My father would say it in a lilting voice, to tease me, or to irritate my mother, or both. I wouldn’t mind, really, because I was Daddy’s little girl, but I would come to recognize the negative association my mother had attached to those words. For a long time, I wouldn’t understand, but by the time I was a teenager I would realize she believed it was inappropriate for a grown man to tell a little girl that she was pretty. She had made it into something dirty.
I was 6, playing in my room. My brother tracked me down and sang Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” at me. I didn’t know what vain meant, but I knew he was making fun of me and I started to cry. I found my parents, and although they told my brother to knock it off, they were trying not to laugh. My mother explained that vain meant caring too much about what you looked like. I didn’t know what that had to do with me, and I didn’t know why my parents thought it was funny.
Well into adulthood, my father and brother would tease me about being vain, and my mother would laugh or remain silent, smiling behind her cigarette. When I started wearing makeup my father would say I looked like a French whore, and my mother would joke, “A French whore? Not just any whore?”
I was 9 when we left upstate New York for northeastern Washington. By then, we had lost all 13 towering Elm trees that shaded our yard, but I had gained questionable but lasting knowledge: Wanting to be pretty was vain.
I started high school in 1981 in a conservative rural town. Remember the ’80s? Big hair. Lots of makeup. Complicated clothes. Everyone was doing it.
On school days I got up an hour and a half before the bus came and spent most of that time applying foundation, concealer, powder, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lip gloss. I dried and styled my hair with a curling iron, and doused it with hairspray. I tried on many outfits. I wasn’t trying to look pretty as much as I was trying to assimilate, to blend. I was also trying to compensate for the fact that I was a little overweight, had bad skin, and for at least a year sported both glasses and braces.
vain /vān/ adjective
1. Having or showing an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance…
How was it possible to be vain with all of that working against me? I wasn’t proud of how I looked, or of anything else about me. I was embarrassed. My preoccupation with my appearance wasn’t vanity. It was an attempt to hide my flaws behind layers of make-believe. Also, did I mention it was the ’80s?
My father and brother teased me about how long I took to “get ready.” To be fair, it was lighthearted teasing. I teased my father about his thinning hair and he teased me about my double chin. My brother and I teased each other about everything. But I was at an impressionable age and the shame I felt around wanting to be pretty stayed with me.
During senior year of high school I lost my baby fat. A few years later in college my skin cleared up. I stopped wearing excessive makeup and ridiculous clothes. Still, I never stopped feeling that any attention given to my appearance was too much, that wearing even a little makeup was silly and vain. Some of this was residual nonsense from my childhood, but there was also an element of peer pressure. The kids I went to school with came from diverse backgrounds and some of my girlfriends never wore makeup. I envied them.
When I graduated from college in 1989, I was finally able to try something I had dreamed of since I was a teenager flipping through fashion magazines: I dressed for success, baby. Since I was expected to show up for work looking professional, I felt no guilt about wearing makeup and nice clothes.
When I moved to Chicago a year later, the bar was even higher. Not only did I primp for work, I gussied up to hit bars and parties. I was a committed party girl, and I loved trying on new looks and personas.
What I didn’t love was casual time. It seemed that all my girlfriends were naturally beautiful: thin and tan with striking bone structure. They looked fantastic without a stitch of makeup. They donned shorts or swimsuits without self-consciousness. Around them I was embarrassed by my pale skin and nondescript features. Most of all, I hated myself for noticing, for being so shallow. I wanted to be pretty without effort, or not care that I wasn’t effortlessly pretty.
Our society considers beauty a virtue, and natural beauty even more so. I suspect most people realize on some level how wrong that is, yet our obsession with fame is so intertwined with beauty that magazine headlines scream, “Shocking Photos Of Stars Without Makeup!” Are we obtuse enough to believe these women roll out of bed every day ready for a photo shoot? Of course not. But there is the not-so-subtle implication that their beauty isn’t real, that underneath the makeup they aren’t anything special.
In 1997 I spent several months volunteering in Central America. I assumed the living conditions would hamper my usual efforts at personal hygiene and grooming. Surprisingly, I managed to shower every day, but I rarely wore makeup. I didn’t think much about how I looked. I loved what I was doing, which was the point of the trip. I will always be grateful for that time—the hard work, the people I met, the friends I made.
The night before I left, I stayed in a hotel with cable TV. I caught an episode of “Friends,” and I suddenly cared again about how I looked. My skin and hair and nails showed months of neglect. What’s more, I was flying into L.A. to spend a few days with friends, and couldn’t imagine a worse point of reentry. Even then, I couldn’t help but marvel at how months of not caring about my appearance were undone by a single episode of American TV.
I moved to Portland about a year later. In the late ’90s, fashion in Portland was denim, fleece, and Teva sandals. Again, I tried to fit in, modifying my appearance to suit others. My daily prep time was minimal. Since I was closer to my parents, I visited them often. And they still teased me for taking a shower before I went out. I realized I could never do little enough to convince them I wasn’t vain.
When I was in the hospital after giving birth to my daughter, my family visited a few times. My mother showed up each day in full makeup, decked out in hip clothes and jewelry. (This was unusual for her; I’m still not sure what was going on there.) Yet when I showered for the first time in days, dried my hair, and put on a tiny bit of makeup, my father and brother laughed and wondered why I cared what I look like.
I wanted to say, Are you kidding me with this shit right now? Instead I asked my husband to show my family the hospital’s pretty children’s garden.
Until very recently, I went out of my way to avoid looking like I was trying too hard. Before I left for a meeting or a night out, I would look in the mirror and remove the one thing that might seem over the top, maybe a scarf or a piece of jewelry. Think about that: I spent extra time making sure I didn’t look like I spent too much time on my appearance.
I’m a 46-year-old wife and mother and I still want to look pretty, but it’s different now. Most days, I pay little attention to my hair and makeup. I try to wear flattering clothes, but I usually settle for what’s clean, or cleanest. The bar is pretty low, but I have some standards. If my hair is dirty I pull it into a ponytail. And I always fill in my eyebrows. In fact, I never leave home without them.
Now, if I feel like showering and dressing up and putting on makeup for any reason—a lunch date, a party—I don’t give a shit whether or not other people think I’m trying too hard. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look pretty. Call me shallow, call me silly, call me superficial. Just don’t call me vain.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.