Friday, May 6, 2011

Mother's Day Guest Post: Deborah Whitefield, Homemaker, Texas

Today I'm turning over The Beheld to Deborah Whitefield, my mother, in honor of Mother's Day. This blog is largely about the personal intersection of beauty and feminism; while my mother made a point of not teaching me much about makeup, hair or fashion (as you'll read below), her feminist teachings were with me literally from birth. (My last name is hyphenated because she didn't change her name upon marrying my father, and while being the only hyphenated kid was a mouthful growing up, it ensured I grew up thinking about gender assumptions and the power of words.) Given that "playing with Mommy's makeup" was strictly limited to mascara and Vaseline, I was curious to learn what she'd have to say about her own attitudes toward beauty. Here, her essay on her own beauty ritual, aging, and on rearing a daughter who was enamoured with playing pretty.


I have lovely red hair. While it was an embarrassment in my youth—along with the accompanying freckles—from age 17 on I reveled in it. Years ago I realized that I am indifferent to beauty, thanks to my cloak of hair. As a teen I used foundation and rouge, eyeshadow, liner, and mascara—mostly because it was popular to look "all eyes," like Twiggy. Over time, as I discarded those items from my face, I felt I still looked the same because I had my hair. And I didn't pay much attention to the hair, just washed and let it dry. The compliments on my hair continued, so I figured it didn't matter how I looked—no matter how much I weighed or what I slathered on my face.

The result is that most of my life, I haven't put much work into the way my face appears to others. I look in the mirror, see no food lodged in my teeth or milk above my lip, and I'm long as I have on my brown-black Maybelline mascara. This has been my sole must-have since the days when mascara came in little red drawers with a compartment for the pigment and one for the brush. The idea was that one moistened the bristles, rubbed it in the mascara, then applied it. Often the user would be without water, so one would do what my mom did—use spit. Today it's a scary thought, given what we know about the susceptibility eyes have for germinating bacteria.

How do teenagers learn to "need" beauty products? From observation. In our household there were few beauty products, other than that red box, and red lipstick—which, of course, clashed with my hair. We had the cheapest shampoo money could buy and no conditioners. The point is: There wasn't much to learn from my mother.

I learned what not to do from a friend of mine who was cute when natural but was rarely not made up with heavy foundation; watching her beauty routine must have been the most boring thing I did with her. However, I read two teen magazines, Teen and Ingenue, that instructed me on the positives. From those I learned how to get that Twiggy look by lining under my eyes. Both my sister and I pored over those issues looking for tips on how to accentuate the eyes by making our lips and the rest of our face invisible. I recall a visit from an aunt who lived in California; she complimented us and asked how we learned to apply makeup. This was the Ultimate Flattery for two Oklahoma girls! An older woman liked our look—and one from L.A. who must have seen gorgeous eyes everywhere. Our work was finished; we were perfect.

Moisturizers weren't part of my routine until I was in my late 30s. Even then, as now, it was a seasonal thing. Here's what I know: At age 60, I am now the age my grandmother was when I first clearly recall looking at her wrinkles. Those wrinkles stay with me to this day—they looked like tic-tac-toe forms on her cheeks. I used to wish I had the nerve to make little Xs and Os on them as she napped on our sofa. The face powder she used only seemed to exaggerate the lines, making them look cavernous and permanent. I resolved then and there never to use face powder. I couldn't even tell you if they still make the stuff.

I look a darned sight less wrinkled than my grandmother—but she led a hard life. She spent over 50 years planting acres of gardens, canning the family's foods, tending livestock, ironing, cooking with a wood stove, and so on, all of which I have avoided. I've seen how people age and I feel I'm in good stead, so why sweat it? Wrinkles fascinate me, even on myself. Sometimes I think this is one reason the idea of human-concocted beauty holds no charm. If we are lucky, we all end up in the same place.

The upshot is that most of my life I haven't put much thought into the way my face appears to others. When a daughter and active feminism entered my life around the same time, I began to wonder what to teach—what were values, and what were a culture I didn't want her to overengage with? The only thing I recall
consciously stressing was cleanliness. When the Prince fell for Cinderella it was because she was so clean, not because she was beautiful. Yes, I did.

Mother and daughter during Manhattanhenge 2010

By the time Autumn was 3 only the mascara remained, as I came fully into both my feminist thinking and a time crunch. Still, her fascination with beauty can clearly by marked (at least to my way of thinking) with a visit to our house by my husband's sister and mother: Aunt Marsha (an Army captain) and grandmother Mimi (a full-time homemaker and perfectionist). When the lovely Aunt Marsha arrived, eager to bond with her niece, no bars were held. By the time the Make-Up Duo left town Autumn had a box of makeup, a new haircut and her first manicure.

To my eyes, I never interfered with her desire to learn and use beauty products. However, I made sure that I informed her of my opinion that beauty products were a waste of money and time. Together we had a phrase for commercials: "Trick Cameras!" Whenever any ad illustrated astounding "proof" that a product worked, she'd point it out and I'd inform her that it was done with photography tricks. In an age of computers and Star Wars, there was little need for further persuasion.

Beauty. There are so many aspects. I haven't even mentioned health and food; exercise and sunshine; fashion and style. What did I pass on to Autumn? What did my mom pass on to me? I believe Autumn is perfect as she is—all beauty and smiles. My mother told me I was a beauty, just the way I was. Even as she applied lemon juice to my freckles to bleach them. Yes, she did.


  1. Nice Deb
    Reminds me of this song I've benn obsessing on the last 6 weeks or so


  2. The prince fell for Cinderella because she was clean, and then your daughter goes and stops washing her hair. Rebellion!

  3. Kent, like that song & the voice! Thanks.

    The irony of Autumn's cessation of washing her hair is not lost on me. Did you know her science fair project was a comparison of shampoos? Yes, she did.


  4. Kent, didn't know you were an X-Ray Spex fan! The things we learn...

    S.G., it is ironic, isn't it? Thank you for reading?

    And Mom: The best of intentions...

  5. A
    Just got hipped to Poly Styrene a couple of months ago. Powder keg of an woman on that album. Great screenplay in waiting on her life story

  6. What, Josie and the Pussycats wasn't enough for you?!

  7. These beauty tips are really beneficial; I will follow these tips for my skin.

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