Amid The Pandemic, Seeing Myself

For so long, my face was meant for the eyes of the world, as if extending an invitation.

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In the midst of a global pandemic, a minor personal miracle: I discovered that I liked my face — my actual face — without makeup. Already I quite liked my face with it. A bold fuchsia lipstick gave me a sense of power, as if I were suddenly someone daring and fun. My eyelashes curled and darkened with mascara, eyelids painted in shades of earthy browns and rich aubergine, dots of gold glitter at the tear ducts — all of this was a pleasure, if it had also become a routine, a way to exert some measure of control. If I ever felt wobbly on the inside, I could at least make sure not to look like it on the outside. To be carefully made up was a form of protection.
In the past year and a half, I’d felt plenty wobbly. Los Angeles went into lockdown last March, and soon enough, the only time I put on makeup was for Zoom class. Otherwise, what was the point? Whether I was at home in my sweats, standing in a socially-distanced queue outside the supermarket, or walking the same neighbourhood loop in a joyless bid to get my steps in, what my face looked like mattered little. Against the growing tide of fear and anxiety that attended our new normal, makeup offered no comfort.
The semester ended; summer arrived, and the pandemic droned on. My face, without makeup, met me in the mirror every day, without exception. There was nowhere to go, no reason to shadow my eyelids or paint on lipstick — my mouth would be hidden under a mask, anyway, if I went outside. Besides, there was the grief, the lonely, hapless yearning for life as it was before. A bare face, my real skin, with its visible pores and blemish scars, the dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep, seemed an appropriate match for those difficult, uncomfortable emotions. I was depressed, and looked the part.
Somewhere in the years since putting on makeup became routine, I’d started to believe my face without it was my "tired" face. To look more energised, more thoroughly alive, I needed to add colour here, cover up an imperfection there. In my life before the pandemic, my face without makeup was a private thing, only occasionally glimpsed by friends on vacation or strangers in the locker room who paid me no mind. For lovers, an intimacy: my Sunday-morning face, over coffee, after you’ve spent Saturday night in my bed.
For so long, my face was meant for the eyes of the world, as if extending an invitation. Yes, I wanted to appear beautiful. Makeup seemed a necessary part of the equation. It wouldn’t be honest to say that I’d put on makeup to please myself, though to say that I only wore it with the goal of winning admiration from others would also be imprecise. It was both — an impossible logic, but one I navigated as honestly as I could, examining the desire to grow more confident, less wobbly; trying to decipher what was real and what was performance. It was work — like writing, like teaching, like anything else we do to touch the unseen corridors between the interior and the exterior, finding a way to map those transactions and compromises between our minds, our bodies, and how we live there. I wanted to be looked at, but more so I wanted to be seen — the possibility of connection, to take in another’s gaze, and then, to look back.
Many of the routines and social structures which kept us in place before the pandemic fell away in 2020: schools, workplaces, gatherings for community affiliations and religious worship. There were stretches of days, sometimes turning into weeks, when I saw no one. I kept in touch with friends through phone calls and texts, but there came a point when another invitation for virtual happy hour made me groan. For the first time in a long time, no one looked at me. Except me — I looked at me.
Something happened in that blurry, fatigued time. I saw my face, my regular, ordinary face, without makeup. My “tired” face. My bedtime face, vacation face, Sunday-morning face. It had been so long, if ever, since I’d really looked in the mirror and found this face staring back. Unadorned, I could suddenly see it now, as if recognising someone I didn’t expect to meet in the street, that moment of uncertainty before your brain catches up with your sight and fills in the picture: You know this person, and you love them. There it was, my mother’s tender eyes, my father’s high cheekbones. My grandparents, too, have left their signatures, with lovingly practised penmanship. I liked what I saw. It felt like a return, an easing into some obvious truth I’d forgotten, or had been pretending not to know.

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