FACE VALUE

Anjana Basu 

Think glamour. Long drop dead eyelashes batting, the sweep of an eyebrow, a scarlet pout. Think men thinking women’s things, the way women think they think. Lipstick, golden cylinders unwinding red crayon tongues to be stroked onto pursed kiss-inviting lips. The neat click shut of gold or mother of pearl compact clasps. Then the lips prim together and she’s all ready with a new face. Think allure, the stark red and white mask of a geisha, the ultimate graphic design for the faces of all women.

This is the face she was born with: flat planed, broad, flat nosed, thin lipped. The other was the face she had before the world was made: tawny blush sculpting cheekbones out of non-existence, two thin gold lines making sense out of a Donald Duck beak nose and the gilt glitter of eye shadow to idolize it all. Make up is the ultimate illusion.

“It’s all right to gild the lily,” my mother said, making nonsense of naturalist protests. At 13, life was frilly petticoats and the can can of a Park Street restaurant with a windmill and a Parisian flair. Thickly mascara'ed and eyelinered mothers pushing their daughters in and out for a special birthday treat. A pink powder room with frilly skirted tables and flashing mirrors where the mothers touch up their faces and compare shades of lipstick - all universally Max Factor and unblushingly red. Then the can can, a froth of more frills and legs, dimly embarrassing in some 13 year old senses, but a foretaste of night life and adult excitement.

All the people who are somebody come here in suits, chiffons and cigarette holders, to sit between the muralled walls and listen to the crooner breathe huskily into the mike and watch the same can can. This is where the big bad world turns. This is glamour.

The crooner even has blue eye shadow on. Pure sapphire, startling against pink skin. I remember thick buttery cakes set in squares. Bright emerald, turquoise, sapphire and violet. Those cakes were basic, without today’s psychedelic swirls of peacock colour. Fingers spreading it on thick, with no sticks muffled in sponge to help.

The more drama around the eyes, the better. Thickly layered hooded lids with tragedy in the shadows underneath, loves lost in one bristly emerald flutter of the lashes, late nights, desperate gambles in a game of hearts, sad sirenical silences. Curtains hung around the windows of the soul. Growing up, practicing sweeps with the mascara wand. Easier than the toothbrush and the black matte cake of the fifties. A swirl, two careful sweeps to each eye. Fifties actresses carried as many as eight layers of mascara on their lashes, ten if they wanted the weight and the eye smoke to be more pronounced. (False eyelashes could be gummed over the real ones, then mascara stroked on, with a wait between each coat as it dried.) Young girls skipping to the hairdresser’s and blinking bravely at the tweezers and the stylist’s approach. Being beautiful is painful, though not perhaps as painful as the Chinese lily feet. However, some of them never never return to confront the ordeal again. Others, however, keep coming back, regardless of pain, allergy, or anything else.

And, when you can get the look right, then you’re really grown up. Make up was useful for slipping into A movies before the days of U/A. A little penciling, a touch of pink lipstick and a girl could jump from 16 to 20 in a matter of minutes. Make up got you into adult parties where you sipped shandy and pretended you knew it all when you actually didn’t, but you’d die if anyone found out.

It was the advantage you had over boys. Knowing their eyes would go to your red lips. Knowing a compact snap said, “Look at me,” the way the slither of silk hissed danger. All you had to do was choose the statement you wished to make, in a world where men drowned in pools of eyes fringed by starry lashes, romance lingered like a song on the corners of moonlit terraces for silken ladies draped in the misty soft focus of powder.

Dark eyes emphasized for glance contact on direct confidential days. Yellow and purple eye shadow for light banter. Gilt lipstick for a touch of conversational dazzle without real substance. Shades of the rainbow, shades of moods, the titles on a book jacket, a woman’s personal credits flashing on the screen of her face.

 


Anjana Basu is a full-time advertising person, a part-time journalist and a one-time academic. She also writes short stories and is based in Calcutta, India.
 

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