I have a picture of me, when I was seventeen, wearing a jade green sweater and red lipstick, my arms around my grandparents. Of all the photos I have from between the ages of fifteen and nineteen (there aren’t many), it’s the only snapshot where my smile is unselfconscious and full of joy, the red lipstick making my skin seem paler and flawless. The lipstick was part of a phase where I thought maybe makeup could be transformative in some mysterious way, and I started to pay more attention to clothes. The record of that moment is also a record of an unusual circumstance, a day where being with people I rarely saw made me happy. It makes the unrecorded moments seem less likely, all the days and weeks where my frown rarely altered during the year long red lipstick phase.
When I said today, nine years later, to a friend that I’m not sure I can rock the lipstick I bought for Halloween outside of a costume, he said it’s about the confidence, about knowing I can rock it, and that I could. He mentioned that the friends who commented on the photo of me modeling the bluish red had all said the same thing– I could rock it. His interpretation of my hesitancy was that I’d feel silly. Feeling ridiculous may be part of it, but it’s wrapped up in memories I couldn’t articulate at the time.
I suck at expressing things when talking to people. I’ve started to realize more and more how much my brain operates in images, which take more effort to translate than if my complicated thoughts started as words. The weird part for me with writing is that I spend so much time translating the ideas that the images I began with are sometimes lost.
There isn’t much left of the seventeen year old version of me. Back then my hair was almost always long and pulled back, and the only time I had it cut to shoulder length I wasn’t comfortable with it. I wanted to be able to pull it back, trap it in a neatly pinned bun. My posture was terrible, and I always seemed curled in on myself, withdrawn. For whatever reason, I had gotten into my head that I was overweight and was very self conscious about my body (at the time, I was well within the normal range). If anyone complimented me, I was shocked and couldn’t quite believe it, tried to convince myself they didn’t mean it because obviously I was not worthy (yeah, teenage me was very awkward). Back then, red lipstick highlighted my tendency to frown or look pensive. Smiles, except for the polite imitation for the benefit of friends or family, rarely appeared, and the eyeshadow and eyeliner helped to bring out the uncertainty in my eyes rather than the blue. One of the records of my own expressions is the collection of sketchbooks I retain from the time, where I used the easiest available reference (me) to add verisimilitude in drawing after drawing of made-up people. It doesn’t matter whether the drawing is from my manga phase or my American comic book phase; the heart behind the characters is mine just as the hand that held the mechanical pencil is mine.
The extent of my makeup use in the last five years has mostly been eyeliner and a little shadow, some mascara, and, if I’m feeling adventurous, lip gloss. All the shadows and glosses are in neutral tones. My subconscious believes the strong colors I once used would highlight the same flaws it brought forward years ago, that it would bring attention to emotions I rarely feel now that I was consumed by then. Wearing a similar color might make it a costume, something that when donned brings back the me I discarded. Part of me will forever associate red lipstick with a girl who had very little confidence.
The person I am now can rock a pixie haircut and big, shiny earrings. I can wear a purple trench coat with a yellow purse and not worry the complementary colors might be too much together. I can rock the look because I’m happy. One of my friends even described me as effervescent, which both horrified me and made me giggle (we evidently have very different ideas of what “bubbly” indicates in regards to personality; I think of the people who are relentlessly peppy and grate on my nerves after awhile). I think she meant that when I’m cheerful I project it.
These days, I laugh. I remember leaving for work one day, wearing dress shoes with hard, slick heels and grippy soles under the ball of my foot. I was rushing and the heel hit first, making me slide on the concrete step, and I had to struggle to keep my balance. A man standing in the street noticed me, and I laughed, amused at my own near misfortune. Nine years ago I would’ve noticed the guy observing my clumsiness and I would’ve hunched in on myself, face red, and tried to quietly slink to work, hoping he wouldn’t remember. After all this time I’ve lost so much fear; the man probably wouldn’t remember the girl running out of her building unless her ass hit the step or her forehead met pavement. Maybe he remembers the woman who laughed, but had I not reacted at all, the instant would have slipped away from memory.
The 26 year old I’ve become understands how much my intention and belief influences how people see me. However, rationality and experience have a limited effect on memories as strong as the ones surrounding the photograph of the girl whose hair is pulled tightly back, who wore red lipstick and a jade green sweater and whose white haired grandparents hold her and whom she holds.