Monday, July 20, 2009

The Urge to be Ornamental

JAN: When I was about eleven years old, I discovered makeup. Probably because she had three boys first and was worried about me being a tomboy, my mother never tried to stop me from wearing the white lipstick and blue eye shadow I favored. In fact, one of her friends worked for Cheseborough Ponds company and she started bringing me free samples.

Ever since then, I've worn makeup -- even to sit alone at the computer in my home office. And I won't even go into the many different and crazy things I've done to my hair. I also pay a lot of attention to clothes and work out with an unusual amount of discipline. What drives me? I call it the urge to be ornamental.

I realize this is not unique to me. The fashion and cosmetics industries prove that most women are driven, pershaps biologically, by this same urge. But I'm still amazed by the power of it. I'm wondering, as writers and career women, do any of you ever wrestle with and/or see the conflict in the need to be meaningful and this urge to be ornamental?

ROBERTA: I guess I'd disagree with the notion that our urge to be ornamental is biological--I think it's very much culture-driven. In my teens and college years, I wore make-up religiously, but then I ran into some feminist thinking in grad school and quit. It doesn't seem fair that men are taken as they are while women have to dress up what they've got to be considered beautiful. So anyway, I'm a little schizophrenic now. I will put on mascara and blush to go out to something special, but make-up while writing? Never!

: Very interesting. Like Roberta I’ve gone back to wearing makeup…when I think of it. But when I’m writing? Egads no. I do, however, draw the line at sitting at the computer in my bathrobe and slippies. I need to at least look like I’m seriously at work.

Still, I like the concept of “being ornamental.” Closest I came to this was in about fourth grade when I was obsessed with being a model. I practiced walking around the house with a book balanced on my head. I struck a pose with one arm bent, the hand in front of me with the fingers delicately arranged, then moved hip is first like I was gliding down the runway. Pause. Pivot. My eyes trained on some ethereal spot beyond the horizon.

When I sprained my pinky finger for the third time, ramming it as I passed through a doorway, my mother suggested that I consider another career. What did I want to grow up to do, anyway, she asked. My nails? She said models were like actresses--boring, self-obsessed, and vapid. I loved that word. Like there were wispy vapors swirling around inside their heads where there should have been brains.

RHYS: I've never been much of a make-up person. Maybe I'm still scarred from a party I gave when I was sixteen and my mother informed me that any girl wearing lipstick would be marched to the bathroom and have her face scrubbed!Like my heroine I did have a briefly disatrous career as a model during the sixties--with Vidal Sasoon haircut and huge Twiggy eyes.

These days I make an attempt to look good in public because the face now needs a little help, but it's usually limited to moisturizer, eyes and lips. I always have that healthy California and Arizona tan. But I can tell that I'm not designed to be oramental by comparing myself with one of my good friends. Whenever I see her she is the complete package--clothes, shoes, purse all coordinate. She wears matching jewelry. At this point I realize that I haven't changed my earrings for six months or my purse for over a year. I once won a facial at an expensive spa and lay there thinking of all the other things I could have been doing.

JAN: I don't think you have to be perfect to be ornamental -- that's just the OCD version. And Rhys, I like the way you just breeze past your brief career as a model! Pretty impressive -- from an ornamental standpoint, anyway!

HANK: Puh-leeze. I'm on TV. I don't wrestle with the decision.. I'm already pinned. Using makeup is like using--shaking head here to come up with something unlivewithoutable--toothpaste. I can put on eyeliner jouncing in the back seat of a speeding cab. I can apply lipstick perfectly in total darkness. When I'm at home, writing, I have my hair on top of my head like Pebbles and would never wear a stitch of makeup. Outside? The full McEvoy.

JAN: I think the Pebbles look can be very flattering....

RO: Ancient peoples adorned themselves with henna, kohl and tattoos...I'm not bloody likely to blame magazines, pop culture, television or Angelina Jolie for the fact that I can happily while away an hour at Sephora and leave with a little shiny shopping bag of war paint that I may never use. It's the fantasy, and I buy into it.

Where else can you spend $100 and convince yourself that you look like a million bucks? (Makeup alert for those who care? Guerlain spray bronzer. Me, but without the deathly pallor or risk of skin cancer. And I just bought something at Monoprix that claims to be "as good as 10 hours of sleep." Who could resist?)
(HANK: Ro, did it work? I want to see... )
JAN: I'm with you Ro. I think there's some sort of female/biological thing going that crosses all cultures. I don't think its been foisted on us by men or any industry -- (although certainly they exploit it) but linked to the whole mating ritual.

I can have a field day in Sephora, too. But I do step outside myself sometimes and laugh at the process, especially when I'm curling my hair with Caruso steam rollers (the very best, by the way.) And I'll be checking out that Monoprix coverup product, especially now that there is a Monoprix down the street (I'm in Aix-en-Provence). Off to shop!


  1. I'm conflicted by makeup. I liked wearing eye makeup when I was younger, but as I age, and my eyelids are disappearing, I stopped wearing makeup. Then I felt so wretched about myself that I started wearing makeup again. It's surprising how differently people treat you when you put on makeup and a nice pair of heels. A RIPTA bus stopped on Fountain St. the other day to let me cross, no minor miracle, and I attribute this to makeup, a great pair of heels, and a French pedicure!

  2. I grew up with a mother who would not leave the house without "doing her face" (which included adding the eyebrows that had mysteriously disappeared along the way). Heck, that was an improvement over her mother, who put on a girdle and stockings to take out the trash down the hall at her residential hotel in New York.

    Do I buy and use makeup? Yup, when I'm going out in public (thanks, Mom). Does it make a difference? Not to anyone but me. I suppose it's like putting on armor, at least psychologically--girding for battle with the world out there.

    At home at the computer? No way!

  3. I recall when the kids were younger and I'd taken my first full time job since they'd been born. I did the grocery shopping on Sunday mornings, and would roll out of bed, throw on enough clothing to avoid arrest and try to get to the store and back, leaving the kidlets with hubby.

    When I met the president of the board of directors for my job for the second time, I started postponing the shopping until I looked more presentable. And I still don't like going out without the "5-minute face."

    My mom is always made up. We were at Friday Harbor after a day sea kayaking. There was an island-wide power outage, and despite the fact that everyone on the island was walking around in their beach/boat/uber-casual garb, she refused to leave the hotel room because she couldn't dry her hair!

  4. I frequently don't wear makeup. At first I felt like I was naked without it, then I got used to my reflection without it.

    But...I guess I'm not totally makeup-free because I HAVE to wear foundation. But that's all I usually put on.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. I miss makeup. I used to be a serious makeup junkie, but being on prednisone for so long broke me of the habit of using it. Especially when I was on high-dose steroids, I couldn't stand looking at myself in the mirror closely enough to put on makeup. In case you're fortunate enough not to know, prednisone makes your cheeks swell and your eyes disappear.

    Now that I've lost the steroid moon-face, I tend to blow out the door before I think, "Gee - I could've at least put on some lipstick." I'm trying to get back into the habit of wearing light makeup again.

  6. Oh, breaking news...going off to put on lipstick because PRIME TIME (MIRA edition)just went into a second printing.

    And if I can't tell you guys, who can I tell?

  7. A second printing...already..??? AWESOME.
    I may even need to put on lipstick for that one. Sheila and I will toast you on Thursday night at Wellesley Booksmith. 7/23 at 7pm, be there or be square. check it out at

  8. Hank, honey, that calls for lipstick and eyeshadow! :) :)Congratulations!

  9. Woo hoo! Hank! :)

  10. Thanks, gang. Lip gloss for everyone!!