To this day, I feel uncomfortable doing any makeup in the ladies bathroom at work. The president of our small firm, a woman, once walked in while I was applying a Milani lipstick that I had searched several different drugstores to find. It was early in the morning, when people are still checking emails and debriefing each other on their exploits from the weekend or the night before. Surely, a little sprucing up before diving into a day’s work would be OK, right? But as she swept into that lounge, the space seemed to get smaller, probably as my paranoia inflated.
She thinks I’m a shallow dimwit! Especially because it was only a few days ago when she walked in while I was brushing up my edges – because you know we sisters have to have laid edges – and now here I am putting on lipstick. Terrific.
I snapped the lipstick shut and tried to talk myself out of being ridiculous. The date book and task list have another day full of work waiting. It’s OK to just add a pop of color before starting your day, if that’s what you feel like doing.
I wasn’t raised this way at all, to feel so awkwardly self-conscious about putting even a modest amount of effort into my appearance. My mother, as I’ve described her before, is a beautiful woman. She also knows how to dress elegantly, which only magnifies it. While She didn’t influence my style heavily, and I figured out a lot of it on my own after moving out, my mother did encourage me to make myself presentable and appropriate for every occasion. I remember one specific tip she passed on when I was teenager: When you feel down a little makeup can help brighten your mood. Not one of these dramatic, glittered, smoky-eye makeovers. Just something to enhance your skin and face so you don’t look haggard.
The thing is, after I graduated college and started working I ran into very few women like my mother — or the ones in my social circles at church or the neighborhood — who were smart, hard working, and stylish. Seems like smart women judged each other as harshly for dressing up as vain women did for slacking off on even the smallest detail in their appearance.
That’s why Chimamanda Adichie’s lovely essay in April’s Elle, caught my attention. It’s written perfectly, of course, and perfectly reflects what I think about this quirk smart women have. We love the words on the page and the clothes we wear, because there is enough room in our very open minds to love fashion as much as we like discussing the human condition. Ignore whatever the surly, dressed-down versions of the mean girls will tell you: It’s OK to look your best, or close to it.
At a newspaper where I once worked the editor in chief sniped at my hair style du jour, another one of the other writers popped off about how my mother probably did my laundry for me. Dressing neatly incurred scorn as well. After I started dating Hubby, we often ran into women who were happy to be shabby. One woman at a party watched me negotiate a steep, narrow set of stairs in heels and suggested I ditch them altogether. Clearly nobody took me seriously, because although I could explain to you what a waterfall in the repayment structure of a mortgage-backed security was and how it worked, these surly people took such issue with my generally secure attitude as to comment about it.
Listen, at a certain point I just had to forget about all the sharp-toothed, downer remarks from the Fashion Resistance. I knew the subject matter of the field in which I worked, and the people around me who mattered recognized that. Worrying about making a serious enough impression on the surly crowd who considered brown a ‘splash of color’ really didn’t help me solve any of my problems. But a little nude lipstick in the mornings did help brighten my mood for the day.