Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jacqueline Madrano, Retired Homemaker and Volunteer, San Antonio

Jacqueline Madrano has served plenty of roles throughout her 80-plus years: homemaker, civic volunteer, church pianist, occasional secretary, “kitchen musician.” It’s this life experience, combined with her unique historic role as military wife in the post-WWII years—accompanying her husband, Col. Joseph Madrano, throughout his career, she raised three children in U.S. Army bases around the world—that made me want to interview her. 

Rather, those are the reasons I’d want to interview her if I didn’t know her in the capacity I do. But it’s her role as my grandmother—my impeccably put-together grandmother, without whose influence this blog might not exist—that, obviously, has left the deeper imprint upon me. Not only has she led by example through being a fashion plate, she’s also given me morsels of wisdom on fashion, beauty, and self-presentation as long as I can remember. If you put powder over lipstick and then put on another coat, it’ll last all day, she told me when I was playing at her vanity table at age seven—my first-ever beauty tip, tucked away for years until I’d finally start wearing lipstick for real. Your hair is pretty, but it isn’t your best feature—let’s get you some bangs to show off your eyes, she said when taking me to get my first haircut that went beyond a basic trim. Every woman should have a little mad money, just for you, she said as she paid for that haircut by plucking a $20 bill from a hidden flap in her pocketbook. It wasn’t a beauty tip per se, but it was a signal to me that spending money on your appearance was a manner of self-care, a way to do something “just for you.” My mother—a beauty minimalist and second-wave feminist who sat me down with my first Barbie to show me the ways Barbie’s body and Mommy’s body were different—taught me one way to be a woman. Mimi taught me another.

That powder-over-lipstick trick is a keeper, and so are some of the other things we discussed: comfort versus beauty, vanity versus pride, and why the U.S. government cared what she wore when going bowling. In her own words:

Jacqueline Madrano and her husband, Joseph

On Fads and Comfort
I grew up very poor. I didn’t have a lot of clothes, but what clothes I did have I tried to make not the latest styles, but something that would last. As the years went on, we could afford a little more, but I’d learned what styles look best on me years earlier. So I just stayed with that style instead of whatever came in fads. I don’t care for the fads; I keep my clothes forever. Though I did have nice legs, so when the styles were short I wore them—not as short as a lot of them, some of the styles were just embarrassing! But since I knew what colors looked best on me, when I went to get new clothes, they’d go with what I already had in my closet. That really helped me in our traveling—I can take just one suitcase but have many different outfits.

I’ve had my colors done, but you really learn what works on you mostly by comments. When people would say, Oh, you really look nice today or That’s a good color for you, you pay attention. And you pay attention to what you’re comfortable in—I knew pastel shades worked for me because I was more comfortable in them. You do not have to sacrifice comfort for beauty. You have to know what is comfortable first, but then you can always fix it so it looks pretty too. I’ve heard people that you have to choose one or the other, but I’ve found it easy to do both. But the secret is knowing your style and your colors. And then if a fad works with that, well, that’s fine.

But some fads turn out not to be fads. Have you tried mineral makeup? I love it; that’s what I wear now. So much quicker, so much cleaner. It goes on so easily and you can just brush it off if you don’t get it on right the first time. I think it makes you look more like you. After 80 years you know who you are. You want to look like who you are. I don’t like to see a mature woman with a lot of makeup on. It makes me think they don’t like this age, that they want to look younger. And it makes them look the other way around.

On Pride
I took a ladies’ night out at a basketball game with our minister’s wife and my friend Carolyn. A handsome man—he wasn’t a young man but he wasn’t an old man either, tall, very handsome—came up to us and he put his arms around us and he says, “Ladies, don’t be frightened, but I just want to tell you that you are the best-looking women at the game tonight.” We weren’t dressed up, but we were neat. He said, “Most of the women here don’t even try to be neat, and to see somebody like you—I just had to tell you.” We felt honored because we were old women! Well, Carolyn’s not as old, but for him to stop and tell us that was really something. Then he just went on his way. He wasn’t trying to flirt or anything; he was just being honest.

But it’s true: People don’t care how they look anymore. It’s fine if you want to do that at home, but I think being neat when you go out shows that you’re proud, that you’re proud of living. And I think when you don’t make that effort, it means you don’t care. I’ve seen that more and more and it bothers me—people coming to church every Sunday and they’re not neat, their hair isn’t combed. It’s bothersome. I feel like it shows they’ve lost their pride. I look good, and I don’t want people to think I look good just to be looked at, or that I have to be looked at, but if it happens, it happens.

I probably have too much pride. I say that because so many women are happy without things I’m miserable without. I have to have a perm! Usually I’d go to the beauty shop once a week and get my hair fixed, and [my husband] Joe never complained about that. He complained about other things but he never complained about my going to the beauty shop. In fact, he said, Well, how are you going to work this? But when I was busy getting Joe well last year when he was ill, I hated to leave him so I couldn’t drive across town to have my hair fixed once a week. It got really bad. I didn’t let it bother me because I had to do these things, but after he got feeling better that’s the first thing I did, went out to get a perm, got myself looking a little better. It costs money, but I feel like it’s worth it, and Joe does too. It makes me behave better; I’m happier, so I’m not cross. And I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I’ve always been a little vain. Or maybe just proud—I do think of other people, maybe that’s the difference. 

Jacqueline and Col. Madrano, 1973

On Being a Military Wife
I think the military has a lot to do with my pride. When we were stationed overseas the first time, in Japan, not long after the war had ended, and the first time in Germany, there was military policy about how we could dress. If we went bowling, for instance, we could drive there in short short pants—we could get out of the car and bowl and get in the car and go home. But we could not stop on the way and get out of the car—they didn’t want us to be seen like that. The military wanted us to make a good impression on the people there—we wanted to show the Japanese that we were nice people after the war. And the same in Germany. But the second time we went to Germany it wasn’t like that. We were very fortunate to be in the States when Joe went over to Vietnam, because they didn’t live on a base where people really supported the troops. People would boo the wives. They had nothing to do with it; it was their husbands, but the wives still felt a lot of pain. But because we lived here we didn’t feel that as much. I never had anyone say anything to me. 

Joe was always the commander, and I felt that as his wife if I didn’t keep myself looking nice, how could we set an example? Not that the other girls had to look nice all the time, but I wanted—it’s nice when people care. I maybe felt a little pressure for that, but I enjoyed putting on a good front. I really did. I enjoyed being overseas and meeting people from overseas and seeing their style—it was all just so interesting. 

On How to Get Over Times of Feeling Unappealing
I grew up, that’s all! I’d think to myself, Okay, Jacq, this too shall pass. And it did.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Beauty Backfire and the Placebo Effect

That's me on the left.

Apologies for the spotty appearances as of late. I have a feeling that I’ll be beginning many a blog post with variations on that line until my book deadline this spring. In this case, however, there have been two factors that have complicated my blogging schedule even more than authorship: 1) I’m moving (apartments, not cities or even neighborhoods), and 2) a recent vacation spurred by the destination wedding of a dear friend (and faithful reader! Mazel tov, C!).

It’s item #2 that was on my mind beautywise much of last week (I’ll get around to the moving-and-beauty post soon enough, and yes, there’s much to say there). Not only was it a wedding and therefore already an occasion that calls for looking one’s best, it was also a wedding at which A) my boyfriend, the bride’s brother, was one of the groomsmen, so B) I’d therefore be meeting other members of my boyfriend’s family for the first time—plus, C) he’d be looking damn good and I wanted to “match," and D) a handful of college friends I hadn’t seen in years would be in attendance. So yeah, I wanted to amplify the effort I’d normally put into my appearance for any wedding.

(At this point I could loftily say something about how weddings are one of the last cultural rites we formally observe in American society, and how therefore a certain degree of effort isn’t just self-enhancing but actually serves as a sign of respect to the happy couple—indeed, a sign of respect to the tradition of marriage itself. And I’d be accurate in pointing this out, both generally and as far as how I treated the occasion, but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that until the week before the wedding I’d mistakenly believed that The College Ex I Shed A Small River of Tears Over would be in attendance, and while that was literally half a lifetime ago, does it ever hurt to look your most smoldering in such a situation? No, it does not. As you were.)

Of course, even at my most high-maintenance I’m not that high-maintenance (though nobody ever thinks they’re high-maintenance, right?), so my extra effort basically meant that I was more careful than usual about what I ate beforehand so I wasn’t bloated, got a new dress for the occasion, and allotted plenty of time to make a nice updo. But I also engaged in two bits of beauty service I don’t normally do: I got a facial, and a gel manicure. And boy, did they backfire.

I mean, maybe backfire isn’t exactly the right word: My skin did indeed look particularly good two days after the facial as promised, and the gel manicure stayed neat and shiny longer than the manicurist had told me it would. Nor is it that I was expecting miracles; I knew that though my skin might look better than usual once it had healed from the extractions, no facial would turn me into Helen of Troy. But as for the facial, not only did I look hideous for 48 hours afterward—though this was to be expected, as whenever someone takes a lancet to your pores to get out all the goop there is to get, you’re going to look like hell for a bit—but I quickly broke out with an enormous zit right on my nose. True, I didn’t make it any better by fiddling with it to the point where it basically turned into an open wound. (The bride herself came to my rescue with a great beauty tip: Once it gets to that point, you should actually treat it like an open wound and use Neosporin on it. Worked like a charm!) And as far as the gel manicure, the nail polish bonded to the nail so thoroughly that when it caught a snag, the upper quarter-inch of the entire nail ripped. It didn’t tear off completely, thankfully—that is, thankfully for my “ick” threshold, not simply for vanity, as I wound up accessorizing my manicure with a waterproof Band-Aid—but it was troublesome for days, and it was nearly a week before the nail had grown out enough where I could safely clip it. (It still looks bad, but at least I’m not making myself shudder anymore.)

It all worked out fine in the end, in the sense that by the time the wedding rolled around I was able to cover the scar on my nose, and my torn fingernail failed to halt any of the festivities. (Not to mention the far more important sense of it working out fine: I was there to support the happy couple, so minor points aside, as long as I didn’t show up wearing a T-shirt with “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” scribbled across it, the way I looked at their wedding didn’t really matter.) But the fact that I’d considered both of these beauty services special treats—and the ways in which they each led to appearance kerfuffles that I wouldn’t have had had I not “treated” myself to them—made me wonder what was actually in it for me. 

I’m embarrassed to admit how much the facial and its associated services (microdermabrasion, take-home glycolic acid treatment, tips for the facialist and her assistant) cost, but suffice to say it was about as much as the plane ticket to the actual wedding. (I figured if I was going to get a facial for the first time in a decade, I may as well go to the best—for research purposes only—so I went all fancy-lady and went to somewhere I read about in fancy-lady mag W when I freelanced there for a minute and a half a few years ago.) This is hardly a claim that I was somehow ripped off, though; nobody needs a facial, or a gel manicure. When it comes to extravagant services like a facial, it’s the ultimate placebo effect: You only get out of it what you think you’ll get out of it. Yeah, my skin looked great after it healed, but I expected it to look great; it’s wholly possible that the facial itself had nada to do with it, my hopes alone providing whatever glow I believe I saw.

But the placebo line of thinking makes me wonder whether there’s a part of me that was looking for some sort of backfiring, even punishment, for having been so extravagant in the first place. I mean, I don’t think I subconsciously made myself get a pimple or rip my fingernail. (Wouldn’t that be a great beauty article, though? “Think yourself into a breakout? Now think your way out!”) It’s just that as much as I argue for beauty work as a stand-in for so many other things—self-care, articulation of emotions and desires, creation of a public persona—there’s forever a part of me that feels a good deal of guilt about doing much appearance-wise beyond a basic clean-and-moisturize routine. There’s child starvation and obstetric fistula and Roe v. Wade is basically null in much of the United States and domestic violence and Syria and people rolling around limblessly on skateboards in Vietnam because of Agent Orange and I’m getting a fucking facial? Bitch, please. I’m descended from Puritans—many of us are in this country, if not literally—and though the strict moralism of that time has faded, its framework has proven sturdy enough to survive. Perhaps our collective fascination with and disdain of shamelessly vain people—the socialites who get those fancy-lady facials all the time and think nothing of it, the Kardashians of the world—is less about the vain part of the equation and more about the shameless part of it. Maybe I could only let myself indulge so heartily in the first place if I made some sort of connection—valid or not—between my indulgences and the fable-like postscripts I’ve attached to each.

In the end, I wound up laughing about the whole thing, and it is sort of funny in a moral-of-the-story kind of way: I’ve been skipping my monthly massages since May in order to pay for this one stupid facial, telling myself that I could exchange one form of self-care for another, when I full well knew better. A massage is truly therapeutic; a facial...well, I mean, I’ve had one before, and while it was nice, I also knew the its benefits wouldn’t equal what I receive from a massage. And as for the gel manicure, I’m still paying the price in the form of ridiculously dried-out nails from the acetone removal. (Why are gel manicures popular? They lead to ruin, I tell you! Ruin!) I don’t have any grand pronouncement here, other than to admit that I fell into the consumerist trap of believing that if I just spent the right amount of money and did the right amount of research and took the right amount of effort, something I don’t actually believe is worth the time/money/effort would somehow become worth the time/money/effort. I’d forgotten that the placebo effect only works if you believe it will. A sugar pill won’t get rid of your toothache if you know it’s a Tic-Tac all along.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You're Not Pretty Enough: Excerpt and Giveaway

The thing about You're Not Pretty Enough, storyteller Jennifer Tress's alternately hilarious and searing memoir, is that it's not really about being pretty. In fact, save for the argument with her then-husband that the book's title comes from—uttered unbelievably (except totally believably) in the midst of discussions about his inattentiveness and infidelity—prettiness doesn't make much of a star turn at all. Yet that's exactly why I found it valuable, because the thing about not feeling pretty enough is's not really about being pretty either. It's about being enough

When Tress launched her website, she'd titled it You're Not Pretty Enough because of that stinging exchange with her then-husband. She soon noticed that search terms that landed people at her site were those of people looking for comfort in the midst of feeling...well, not pretty enough. And so in addition to compiling her personal tales, which showcase the best of what storytelling has to offer, she conceived a mission: Get women talking in a more thoughtful manner about appearance. (Lo and behold, that's exactly the mission I've got here! You see why I'm pleased to feature Tress.) I asked her to expand more on the "enough" part of "you're not pretty enough," and this is what she had to say:

"'Enough' is such a weird qualifier, isn’t it? But it’s one that we use a lot when describing our dissatisfaction with ourselves or with others. Whether it be good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough—it’s all about feeling 'enough.' That we’re whole, we’re valuable. It reminds me of that old skit from Saturday Night Live with (now Senator!) Al Franken as Stuart Smalley: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it…people like me!

Based on the work I’ve done through the You're Not Pretty Enough website, I’ve found that not feeling 'pretty enough' is often the entrée into self-esteem issues because it’s the easiest/laziest way we assess ourselves and others (which is reinforced by media and other cultural standards that we compare ourselves to). On the positive side, I also believe that beauty matters very little to most people, and to some, beauty doesn’t matter one bit. The key is for beauty to matter very little to ourselves. I want to share with you a message someone posted on the Facebook page that demonstrates this point. She says:

One statement you said has changed me. You said, "...It's the easiest and laziest way we assess ourselves." I had never thought about it this way before. I got up every morning to scrutinize my physical self. My state of mind would depend on how good I felt I looked. I'd obsess about it all day. And ultimately felt I didn't measure up, therefore I was unlovable. I was getting sick of myself. I started to walk by the mirror without looking. Then I watched the ABC story online. [Jennifer appeared on Good Morning America to talk about the "not enough" syndrome.] Never for a minute had I stopped to think to assess the things that make me, me. It does take time and effort to assess myself for other qualities and to become a better person. It's so simple. I wasn't ready, I guess. Or I was just being lazy. The next day after this mind-blowing revelation, I looked in the mirror. I saw me and I actually loved what I saw. I had been faking it for so long. I was brought to tears. Yesterday, the quality I reminded myself of is that I'm kind. Today, it's that I'm smart. In time and with some effort, from now on I will always love what I see in the mirror. 

Coming back to my own experience, I don’t think my ex was saying I wasn’t pretty, he was saying I wasn’t pretty enough. And the problem with that is I took that word 'enough' and ran with it: enough for who? For him? For society? It was the first time I really considered whether I was pretty “enough” and luckily—by simply focusing on things I like (reading, connecting with people who cared about me, doing a good job at the things I invested my time in like work, etc.)—I was able come out the other side and know: I’m more than enough.

Below is an excerpt from You're Not Pretty Enough (also available on Kindle and other outlets), and Tress is offering a signed copy to two readers. To enter, answer the same question I asked Jennifer in the comments by September 25 at 11:59 p.m.  EST, and we'll select two winners: What does the phrase "not pretty enough"—as opposed to "not pretty"—mean to you?

*     *     *     *     *

The background: When I was 16, I fell head over heels in love with Jon Bon Jovi based on seeing the “Shot Through The Heart” video. I didn’t know who this guy was, but I needed to find him and meet him because I was sure once we were face to face he’d feel the same way about me. As luck would have it, a huge radio station out of Cleveland, Ohio moved its broadcast operations to my small hometown and on a dare I went there one night to meet the DJ on hand and plant some serious seeds to get me closer to Jon. It worked. One day the DJ contacted me and offered to take me to the concert in a limo (with some contest winners) to meet the band back stage. I had 8 weeks to prepare…

Operation “Make Jon fall in love with me” included the following steps:
  • Lose seven pounds to get to 125
  • Find the perfect outfit
  • Identify all the different scenarios that could occur
  • Determine and practice a response to all scenarios identified
Step one would be easy: skip the cafeteria pizza and do some of my mom’s Jane Fonda tapes. Step two required an inventory of my closet. Nothing outfit-wise struck me as just right, but I did have a white leather jacket that fit me perfectly and a pair of low, but sexy white pumps. I just needed a dress. A trip to the mall would fix that, and I found a light pink sleeveless number that went down to my knees and hugged my curves. Done.

For the last two steps, I would need to imagine all the possible ways Jon would act. For instance, if he was cocky, I imagined myself saying, “Think of all the fans who support you. You would be nothing without us. NOTHING!”  I couldn’t really imagine him being anything but lovely, but one had to prepare. I practiced my responses in the mirror until I felt I was ready.

And then the day came.

I got dressed, teased my long, permed, and frosted hair to the sky, and stepped out to enter the limo as an eighties goddess. The contest winners were two female friends in their twenties who were as psyched as I was, and we were accompanied by Cat and another DJ, Rick Michaels. The mood was giddy as we jammed out to music on the thirty-minute ride to the Richfield Coliseum on a warm May day.

Several groupies were gathered around the area where the band buses and VIP guests pulled up. Suddenly, everyone in the limo took notice that from the waist up I looked exactly like Jon, especially with hair, leather jacket, and shades. Cat suggested that I pop out of the moon roof and give the groupies a show.

“You think it’ll work?”

“Try it.”  The girls in the limo egged me on.

“OK…”  I jumped up on the seat so that my top half was showing and raised my hand with my three middle fingers folded down and waved my pinky and thumb in the classic “Rock on!” sign. The groupies went crazy. When the limo parked and I got out—obviously no longer a man, they started shouting, “FUCK YOU!”  

Heh, I thought. I’m about to meet my soul mate, so fuck YOU!

We made our way through the melee near backstage—sound guys and wires were crisscrossing us—until we arrived in a large holding room with about fifty other radio station representatives and various guests. I could hardly deal. My skin was crackling with excitement, and I sat with my hands underneath my thighs to keep from biting my nails. 

We waited. For over an hour, we waited. I barely spoke to anyone because I was there for me, and I wanted to be inside my head preparing.

Cat, noticing my tension, said, “You know, I don’t want you to be disappointed if it’s just Tico who comes out.”  Now, I loved Bon Jovi for the sum of its parts, and one of those parts was the drummer, Tico Torres. But I had not come this far to just see TICO. No fucking way. As this thought bounced around my head, I became more anxious. But then I looked down the long hallway that led to the holding room, and there was Jon walking toward us. I grabbed my camera.

It sounds cliché, but it really felt like everyone disappeared, and it was just me and him, separated only by a hundred yards. No one had noticed him yet, and I watched him walk toward the room, as if in slow motion, dressed in tight leather pants and a cut-off shirt. He was smaller than I expected—maybe five-eight and thin—and he looked tired. I could feel tears well up, and I pinched myself on the thigh to get it together. 

When he entered the room, several handlers marshaled him over to us. Apparently, as the concert sponsors, our group got first dibs. Cat and the others stood up, but I remained seated, frozen, and he stopped right at the base of my chair, shaking their hands, looking down at me, and smiling. He started to tell a funny story that I can no longer remember, and I sat there, mute. All that practice down the drain! Cat, noticing my catatonic state, decided he should step in.

“This is my friend Jen.”

“Hey, Jen,” he said, smiling warmly and extending his hand to the one that was holding the camera. Instead of simply moving the camera from one hand to the other, I dropped it and shook his outstretched hand with my mouth wide open. I didn’t even say hi. He looked at me with an expression that read Am I crazy or does she look like me? and then one of the handlers told us it was time for Jon to move to the other groups, but not before pictures were taken.

“Anyone want me to take a photo with their camera?” asked the female handler, and I momentarily regained my consciousness to hand her mine.

We stood up in a group—the concert winners to his right and me to his left—and I felt him put his arm around my shoulder. I managed to wrap my arm around his waist and willed my molecules to remember his shape so I could replay it later.

The handler took some photos with other peoples’ cameras, and when she got to mine, she said “Honey, it’s not working.”


“Your camera. It’s not working.”

“No, did, um, did you try…”

“Honey, I can’t make it work, sorry,” and then she gave it back and began to corral Jon to move to the next group. I looked at him, trying to think of something brilliant to say to make him stop and realize I was not just his female, mute doppelganger.

Who is who?

“Don’t worry,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. “The station can get you a picture.”  And then he winked at me and walked on. I sat down on the chair again and watched the other groups as they showed off their gregariousness. Stupid talkers! Stupid me! 

Cat patted me on the shoulder in a way that said, “Buck up, kid,” and joined the other DJs. I slumped. When Jon made his way out, that was our cue to leave. Cat escorted me to the place I needed to go to get to my seat, and I turned to hug him. We stayed in touch for about a year, and even though I never got that photo, I’ll always think fondly of him.

When I got to my seat, the opening band was playing—I can’t remember if it was Cinderella or Tesla—and my mom and Margie were there. My mom’s face lit up immediately and then toned down slightly when she saw my face.

“How was it?”

“It’s over. I met him and he didn’t fall in love me!” I howled.

“Oh, honey. Why don’t you just…you know…try and enjoy the show?”

I sat in my seat, disgusted with myself, and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t cry at school, but I cried at home. After a couple weeks, I had to move on.

*   *   *

In the early 2000s, some friends convinced me to go to a Bon Jovi concert for nostalgia’s sake. I demurred at first, but they told me to get over myself and come with them. Just before the band came on at the sold out area, I wondered, What am I doing here? I still like him. He seems like he’s a serious man. He does a lot for charity and is married with kids to his high school sweetheart. He’s hardly ever in the tabloids and has been able to maintain popularity and relevance over the span of nearly thirty years. In fact, I admire him. But really, What am I doing here?

And then the lights went down, a guitar started playing, and he walked out on stage flashing a perfect smile on that beautiful mug.

And I was sixteen again.