In the late 1950s, in my Catholic school in Birmingham, Alabama, girls wore their hair short, their skirts long and tight, and their lips coated with dark red lipstick.
I was o.k. on the hair and skirt fronts, and I even had a little orange scarf that tied around my neck, like everybody else. But none of this meant anything if my lips were bare. Lipstick was the magic wand that would camouflage my all-too-obvious foreigness, catapult me into American teenagerhood, and give me a chance of becoming at least slightly popular.
“I’m the only one in the entire school who doesn’t wear lipstick, besides the boys,” I complained to my mother.
“What about the nuns? Do they wear lipstick too?” she said, trying for irony.
“Is that what you want me to become, a nun?” I answered. “Because that’s what will happen, if you force me to be different from everybody.”
“That’s enough!”my mother said.
I stomped off to my bedroom and sat biting my nails, dreaming of the boys I’d date and the dances I’d dance if only I were allowed to wear lipstick.
I endured ninth grade without lipstick or dates. Then, on my fifteenth birthday, a savior appeared in the form of Miss Harrington. Tall, thin, gray-haired and bespectacled, she was the very image of the spinster school teacher. She even lived with her mother. Miss Harrington taught Spanish at a public school, and she adored my parents, who were the only native Spanish speakers she had ever known.
Miss Harrington knew teenagers, and she understood the drive for affiliation that at that age rivals the sexual urge in intensity. So on October 3rd, 1959 Miss Harrington showed up at our house, made a little speech in front of my parents about what a grown-up young lady I was becoming, and presented me with a tube of Tangee lipstick.
It was a deep red bordering on purple, a color that would make even a fifteen-year-old face look middle-aged. But hey, it was a lipstick, and I could always tame it by blotting. I thanked Miss Harrington, barely restraining myself from kissing her feet in gratitude, and, with a triumphant glance at my mother, ran to the bathroom to try it on.
When Miss Harrington left, my mother pointed at my purplish mouth and said, “Take it off.”
“But Miss Harrington gave it to me. She’s a teacher! She knows Americans, and she doesn’t think I should be different from everybody.”
“And why shouldn’t you be different from everybody? We are not Americans. We are Spaniards, and in Spain little girls don’t wear lipstick.”
Why, you ask, didn’t I simply pretend to throw away the purple lipstick, hide it in my book bag, and put it on the minute I got to school? Because I was a good girl, that’s why, and I believed that obedience to my parents was second only to obedience to God.
But nothing said that I had to obey gladly, and as I fumed and ground my teeth, I had an idea. My mother’s sister was a teacher in the German nuns’ school I’d attended in Barcelona. She would know what Spanish teenagers were wearing, and, as my aunt, she would have my moral welfare at heart. My mother would, I reasoned, have to abide by her verdict.
So I wrote my aunt a letter begging her to intercede on the lipstick question, and sent it off by airmail. It took a week to get there, and her response another week to arrive, but when it did it contained these magic words: “a bit of pink on the lips would not be unbecoming…”
My mother was sautéing garlic for a sofregit when I ran into the kitchen waving the letter in the air. “A bit of pink’s o.k., she says! She says the girls in her school are wearing it! So now I can too!” But my mother tightened her lips, shook her head, and went back to stirring her sauce.
I was in my forties before I became aware of the deep rivalry that existed between my mother and the elder of her two younger sisters, and to realize that my aunt was the last person on the planet whose advice my mother would have taken on matters concerning me.
That summer, we went to Spain. My mother’s sisters, seeing me shapeless, pimply, and awkward, took me in hand. One bought me a bottle of Depurativo Richilet, a potion designed to purify the blood and get rid of acne. The other sewed me a sleeveless dress, full-skirted and cinched at the waist,that made me feel almost beautiful.
One night, as I was leaving for a party wearing the new dress, my aunts beckoned me into their bedroom and put a tiny smear of pink on my lips. I could barely see it, but I knew it was there by its weird, sticky feel, and I felt glamorous as well as guilty. I was almost out the door when my mother saw me, turned me around, and pointed to the bathroom.
She finally gave in on the lipstick issue when I turned sixteen at the start of eleventh grade. She was forty-two years old and nine months pregnant with her second child, and I suspect that she was too tired to keep up the fight. But my lipstick adventures were not over.
My religion teacher that year was an older Irish priest, Father MacCauley, who taught a cerebral approach based on the theology of Thomas Aquinas. This made us feel grown-up and intellectual, and we would argue in the cafeteria about which was the most convincing of the five proofs of the existence of God, and whether birth control really was a sin against human nature.
In one of his more bizarre lectures, Father Mac announced that, whereas it was man’s essence to be rational, women were by nature incapable of rational action. (How he got away with such pronouncements when the majority of his colleagues were Benedictine nuns I have never understood.) The boys in the class hooted with delight when they heard this, but at the end of the hour we girls got together and formed a compact: we would come to school the next day without wearing lipstick! That would show them!
I don’t remember what effect our bare lips had on Father Mac’s theories, but when we walked into English class, Sister Mary Rose took one look at us and exclaimed “Is something wrong? Y’all look so pale!” A few minutes later, I was called to the office. It was my father on the phone, telling me that the baby had arrived, and it was a girl.
In retrospect, I don’t hold it against my mother for taking a stand on the lipstick question. Who among us parents hasn’t on occasion put our foot down unnecessarily?
What I do object to is her holding me hostage to her own issues as an immigrant. It was very well for her, at forty, to emphasize her Spanish identity, which, among other things, made her an exceedingly entertaining dinner guest. At fourteen and fifteen, however, my identity was as fluid as a bowl of unset Jello.
Yes, I was proud of being Spanish, and I enjoyed the attention that being the only foreign student in the school occasionally got me. But I also intuited, in a nebulous way, that clinging to my foreignness would never get me invitations to sleepovers, or that holy grail of adolescence, a date to the prom. The exotic—unless it’s carried by someone far bolder and more self-assured than I was—doesn’t hold much fascination for teenagers, who generally prefer conformity.
With one foot on either side of the Atlantic, trying to interpret America to my parents while striving to please them in all things, I didn’t have an easy time of it. But I don’t envy my mother her task, either, and I’m certainly glad that I didn’t have to rear my adolescent daughters in a foreign culture. Which is why I can confer on my now-deceased mother the absolution that compassionate adults sooner or later bestow on their parents: “She did the best she could.”