By Marjorie Frakes
Washing my face was the worst part of every day. I'd stand at the mirror, admiring my effort, feeling fully myself, before splashing on water, soap, and/or whatever magical concoction I was currently trying. My effort, sometimes an hour's worth, swirled down the drain, and my naked, red, blemished face stared back at me. I denied ownership and flipped off the light.
The causes varied. Helpful friends told me what I was doing wrong. They used a particular product and look at them. It was probably something I was eating. Stress, maybe. My favorite: the oft-recurring belief that it was punishment for vanity. I'd wanted to be beautiful probably from infancy, and this seemed a plausible and succinct way of letting me know that that was not part of the big plan for me.
More important than clothing, my makeup bag became my arsenal and my armor. Mornings were terrifying. I'd get up early early early, especially if I was traveling, and hurry through my shower. Communal sinks were also terrifying, and I'd try for a corner spot, ignoring the beautiful faces at the sinks beside me, paranoid by their glances. Makeup on, I'd smile, but now a few more people knew my secret, and I assumed word would spread.
A sentence in a book haunted me, and haunts me still. Subject, plot, and content have departed, but one sentence remains: a description of a minor character as "a woman with bad skin." How dare whomever? But that was accurate, I was sure. If anyone was going to remember anything about me, it was going to be that.
I dated, by some miracle, though not much. And the highest level of intimacy I could offer was my naked face. Camping trips were not fun. One boyfriend told me I was beautiful "real", and I tried to believe him. Another encouraged me to accept myself, and I went out to breakfast one morning with a completely naked face. But I was cowered under a ball cap, and it wasn't quite the victory I (or he) had been hoping for. Also, my face was almost clear. I had my limits.
Right before my wedding, I made my first trip to a dermatologist. "Yes, you have acne," she said, staring at my face, neck, and for some incredibly horrible and recent reason, chest. "Shsssh!" I wanted to say. I was prescribed topicals that burned my skin and bleached my towels. But it was an improvement. My portrait neck wedding dress looked stunning, and my skin looked acceptable.
I ditched the topicals eventually. They hurt. I was accepted and loved and generally cushioned from exposing my naked face to anyone other than my husband. I used natural products and natural makeup, and most days were okay. On bad days, however, I noticed I held my head differently. I looked at the ground or tossed my hair (if it was long enough) in an attempt to distract. I was less talkative, and I tried to exit the conversation as quickly as possible.
And my chest. How can I even discuss this? This, certainly, was some sort of wrath thing. It was a ploy to keep me buttoned to the top button, always. Google search: high neck swimsuits. No, this was not okay. During my annual checkup I told my doctor it was ridiculous and I was tired of pretending it was okay. I was thirty-six, because I am a very slow learner.
Three years after this pharmaceutical panacea, I still don't love my naked face. I'm older now, with bags under the eyes and wrinkles telling stories. But my skin is soft and smooth, and the somewhat constant visitation of at least one blemish is forgiven, seeming almost whimsical. In this I'm lucky, I know. My chest is clear, and scoop necks, v-necks, and a low plunge are the balloons that celebrate this wonder. Please forgive me.
I can still take an hour on my face, but now it's more likely to be a smoky eye. Made up me is me, and ever shall be. After a day of skiing, my husband and I remove our ski gear. "Dinner?" he asks. I look at my wide, naked eyes. "Gimme a minute," I say, reaching for my eyeliner.
Marjorie Frakes is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.