From the Desk of Matilda Darling

An Open Letter to the Societal Standards of Female Beauty

Dear Society,

I certainly hope that whomsoever has deigned to read this, my latest epistolary opus, perceives the irony inherent in the above salutation, because I know that it is more than likely that exactly no one, let alone the whole of society, will peruse this text, drafted by moi, Matilda Darling, burgeoning auteur and scientist; I write in the dark, for the dark, like the draftsmen of the caves of Lascaux, my work unacknowledged, my voice unheard. Still, the very act of unburdening myself, of removing my thoughts and worries and fears and complaints and arguments with the world from the claustrophobic room of my own mind to the wide-open prairie of the page, the weight on my shoulders coursing down through my fingertips to drain from the weary spigot of my ballpoint pen, is a luxury par excellence.

But, on the off chance that someone has been keeping up with these letters to no one—I have begun, in fact, to think of my body of work as a sort of Waiting for Godot for the teenage set—I bring you, loyal reader, the final installment of my misadventures in beautification, the outset of which I had described in my last letter. My uncle and his girlfriend Shoshanna had spent the week at our house, and on their last night here, Shoshanna deemed it necessary that she give me a makeover. How she talked me into participating in such a vile activity, and why I acquiesced to her coercion, escape me as the event recedes in time; I wonder now not why I did it before but rather how I feel about the after. I pride myself on my swiftness of mind, my ability to quickly and rationally come down on the correct side of a debate, yet I still cannot, weeks later, make up my mind as to whether or not I liked the way Shoshanna made me look.

I do know, however, that my kith and kin most definitively did not like the made-over Matilda. Shoshanna entombed me in the guest bathroom and plucked my eyebrows and spackled on foundation and gave me cat-eyes and super-straight hair, and then, after all this, instead of allowing me to enjoy a quick glance in the mirror and then rinse off the war paint, she clutched my hand and fairly begged me to wear that mask of perdition down to family dinner. Again! I again I say to thee, I know not why I indulged her supplication. I know that my mother was fairly screaming at us to hurry up and come down to dinner, and I know that somewhere inside of me chirped a tiny voice that said, “Hey! You look… kind of pretty!” when I turned to look at the results in the spotted bathroom mirror. My usual attitude, when I give myself a perfunctory, all-buttons-buttoned, all-zippers-zipped glance in the mirror before heading off to school or orchestra practice, is one of resigned acceptance to my unremarkable looks, mingled with pride at the fact that I do not base my sense of self-worth on the pre-ordained arrangement of my facial features (I do also take a bit of pride in the backbreaking size of my backpack), but that miniscule voice must have originated from some vain, approval-needing Tinkerbell of my soul, a demon-fairy that I had heretofore not recognized as existing inside of myself, for, after a few minutes’ hesitation, I found myself following Shoshanna down the stairs and into the dining room. Perhaps the act of applying makeup is akin to the hand-clapping scene in Peter Pan: the very moment one places a powder-laden brush to the eyelid, one awakens the little imp we call vanity, and she flits about, and demands you believe in her, and buy more powders, and more night creams, until you feel naked even going out in public without makeup, and look into every reflective surface, one hundred times a day, in order to ensure the continuance of her existence.

And so we came into the dining room. Everyone was already arranged around the table: my dad, Uncle Harry, my brother, and my mom, plunking a large casserole dish atop an ornate trivet. My mother looked up at us as we entered.

“Matilda,” she said. “What on earth—”

“Whoa,” my brother said. My father, mid-swig of wine, began to choke.

“Tilda!” Uncle Harry shouted. “I see Shoshanna has got a hold of you at last! Your daughter,” he continued, looking over my shoulder at my father, “quite the beaut, eh? Gonna have trouble keeping the boys away from her!” Then he turned fully around and gave my father, who was still choking on his wine, some hearty claps on the back.

My mother spent a moment positively glaring at Harry through the narrowest of her pinched, patented side-eyes, and then swung round, with all the swift intensity of the eye of Sauron, to focus on me.

“Shoshanna,” my mother barked, not taking her eyes off me, “what have you done to Matilda?”

“I gave her a makeover, obviously,” Shoshanna replied. “Frankly, I think she looks stunning.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I interjected.

“She’s thirteen, for Christ’s sake. Thirteen! Thirteen-year-old girls should not be wearing makeup. Or not that much makeup, anyway.” My mother crossed to us and began dragging her thumbs under my eyes. “All this foundation! I could see it from over there.”

I protested, and tried to shake her off.

“What, do you like having all this stuff all over your face?” mother asked, incredulous.

“I—I don’t know,” I said.

“What—how on earth did you do that to her hair?” said my father, finally recovered from his coughing fit.

“Shoshanna, this is exactly the kind of thing I have deliberately tried not to encourage in my daughter. I think she is much too young to be—preening about in front of a mirror—dolling herself up as an object—women are so much more than this—I want her to respect herself for her mind and her abilities, not for her appearance–”

“Oh, I’ve become quite familiar with Matilda’s very healthy sense of self-respect over the last week. Believe me, you’ve made no failings there,” Shoshanna replied with a roll of her eyes.

“What is that supposed to mean?” my mother said, narrowing her eyes once again. “If there’s anyone with an oversized ego in this house, it’s you!”

Shoshanna gave a miniature squeal of disbelief. “Well excuse me for trying to teach your daughter a little bit about the art of coquetry, which, if you lived in someplace even marginally more urbane than this countrified hovel you call a city, you would know is just as important, in its own way, as brains or brawn or whatever it is at the top of the agenda you’re pushing on your daughter. I mean, at least give her the chance to try makeup, or shaping her brows, or whatever.” Shoshanna crossed her arms and shook her head. “You ERA types are all the same. You think you’re so opened-minded but—”

My mother came even closer to Shoshanna and thrust a finger in her face. “Look here, you bitch—”

At this point my father pushed back from the table and came between these incensed duelers. “Ladies, ladies, ladies. Let’s just all agree that Matilda looks beautiful—which you do, my dear,” he said, turning to me, “and you two can agree to disagree on whether or not a woman should wear makeup. Surely you both agree that a woman has a right to choose, in any case?”

“See that’s exactly what I was saying—” Shoshanna began, but Harry made a throat-slitting motion with his hand from where he sat at the table, and she went silent. The anger was draining from my mother’s face to make way for a blush of deepest crimson, and then she swiveled about on one heel and rushed out of the room.

“Now Matilda,” my father continued, “would you like to stay down to dinner in your facepaint, or would you like to go up and wash it off before you eat?”

“Wash it off, I think.”

“Okay then. You go do that lickety-split and we’ll all be here.”

I took the steps two at time, relieved to have an excuse to remove myself from this scene of domestic discord. I had just discovered that it was in fact rather uncomfortable to be the person over whom other people are making a fuss. So used to slinking along unnoticed through the halls of Van Buren Middle School, that to suddenly be foisted into the center of a maelstrom of negative attention, and over my appearance, of all things. (Of course, at home I am a fully recognized and respected state of the United Nations of my parents. I am loved and even, I dare say, doted upon, but attention is paid to me because I am their biological daughter, and therefore, according the normative constructs of the ideology, my parents are required to do so; they do not choose to do so because I am personally deserving of such dotage as an independent entity separate from themselves. To sum, as the teens say: they don’t count.) In any case, to be suddenly noticed when one is so accustomed to going unnoticed is an unpleasant sensation, one not unlike, I imagine, the bright heat of a lamp being turned directly onto one’s face and held there for too long, so that a trickle of sweat begins to descend behind one ear, and the collar of your wool turtleneck sweater begins to itch ferociously, yet you are rendered immobile, unable to assuage the irritating stimuli.

I saw for the first time that perhaps the lifestyle of the Madison Laurens of the world (their personal ecology fed by the photosynthesis of attention, basking in its warm glow, unable to know oneself, perhaps to even exist, without it) was not at all as desirable as I had previously thought it to be. For yes—I must admit, deeply shameful thought it may be—yes, the same small part of me that wished to go downstairs and show off my rouge has also seethed jealously at the gaggle of boys invariably surrounding Madison Lauren and her well-dressed, smooth-haired gaggle of peons, has slumped against the hallway walls of my mind with her arms crossed and her brow furrowed, wishing death and destruction to these blissfully happy idiots who seem to know what to do with themselves, at least superficially. They know how to wield a jar of styling cream, how to apply eye shadow, how to twirl a wand of lip gloss, how to, in other words, make themselves attractive to the opposite sex. It is possible, after all, to entertain twin desires, and though the majority of myself wished to disdain the complications and entanglements of the puerile, inevitably dead-end romantic relationships engaged in by my peers, the minority of myself exhaled the sigh of the achingly lonely. I couldn’t help but, as the teens say, have crushes on boys. I couldn’t help wanting to hold someone’s hand, or wanting to be given a single red rose, cliché as it may be, or even wanting to be asked to a dance, any more than my parents could help doting on me. This minority side sometimes wonders, in the dark of night, if the majority side of myself isn’t toeing the party line as some manner of defense mechanism.

I considered all this as I splashed warm water on my face, and I also considered that Shoshanna’s maxim of makeup as a powerful tool had, in fact, turned out to be more than correct. Who would have expected a little cosmetology to send my mother into such a tailspin? I have heretofore seen her defend her cubs with ferocity, but never have I ever heard her name another woman a bitch. Indeed, she’s told me for time immemorial that this is the worst word in the English language, that I should never use it to slander my fellow women, and she even says my father’s name in that irritated, multisyllabic sort of way (“Sa-a-am!”) when he brings a hammer down on his thumb and shouts, “Sons of bitches!” She really is a dyed-in-the-wool ERA-type.

But the most important lesson I learned that day? How to straighten my hair. Much as I wanted the uncomfortable coat of makeup off my face, I never wanted to wash my hair again. I immediately resolved to ask Shoshanna for a second lesson in this on the morrow (she could re-flatten the bumps that would surely crop up as I slept) and also to ask for a flat iron for Christmas. I gingerly undid the ponytail holder I had used to tie back my hair while washing my face, patted myself dry, looked in the mirror, and gasped. I had two enormous black eyes, and looked as if I had been in some kind of low-rent playground fistfight. Watery streaks of mascara and liner coursed down the sides of my face in a manner I had seen on teary female guests of certain daytime talk shows my grandma often watched. Clearly simple soap and water was no match for this facial tempera.

“Shoshanna?” I called down the stairs. “Can you come up here and help me?” Apparently one not only had to learn how to put makeup on, but also how to take it off.

Yours in superficiality,

Matilda Darling

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.