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Zipper lips and helmet heads

February 25, 2011


The goddess all salesladies worship, and you'd better too if you want to be taken seriously at the cosmetics' counter

There are people whose watch stops at a certain hour who remain permanently at that age.

~Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

I don’t know who this guy I’ve quoted is, but I do know that this is pretty much what the salesladies behind the counters think about older women who come to them like pilgrims to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle.

There are women who stop looking in a mirror at the same moment their children are born. The mirror is stored in a back room somewhere, along with everything you were going to get to someday. Then some kind of life event occurs, the mirror comes out, and the unrecognizable face staring back at you does not resemble the one you thought would be waiting.

Their son is getting married, or an old friend is coming to town, or, god help them, they’ve been dumped by their husband of 25 years for a much younger woman who wears makeup. Any of these are traumatic enough to force many women who refused to give in to their Inner Girl to open her mind to new possibilities. But now you’re terrified, and rightly so.

You don’t know for sure that the salesladies are making fun of your 50+ year old face, but you suspect their disapproval. Well, I’m here to tell you, you’re not wrong if you think they’re snickering—they are. I’ve had this conversation with salesladies. They’re too professional to snicker to your face, but if you push the right buttons, they spill the beans. They’re not snickering because you’re old. That’s what I used to think, but old they’re used to.

What they’re snickering at is that you didn’t get to this sooner for one simple reason: you were raised to ignore your Inner Girl. You never learned to embrace Pink, and now you’re finally realising, oh my god, there’s so little time left.

Anyone who shows up at a cosmetics’ counter for the first time at the age of 50 is very brave for a couple of reasons. One reason is, if you haven’t jumped into the Pink Pool prior to this, the girly water might feel very weird.

Now that your children are gone, you have all this time on your hands to think. For some of us, thinking brings you to one inescapable conclusion: somehow, you missed being a girl, and you want to make up for lost time. So you go to the cosmetics’ counter, hoping they will sell you the magic elixir, the perfect Jar of Goo, to undo 20 years of damage you were too busy to notice.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, but women make certain basic mistakes about the way we look all the time, and believe me, others, who are snarky and judgemental, notice and comment and make fun of us for these errors in judgement. They just do it behind their fans, where you can’t hear them.

See that snarky expression on the woman in blue? She's judging you

Older women do one of two unconscionable things, according to fashion mavenistas. We tend to fixate on an era in which we looked our best, and then shellac that look into place, hoping against hope it will carry us through until we’re laid out on the slab. Another version of this mistake is living as though you’re sitting atop Jules Verne’s time machine, while the rest of life changes and swirls around you. In this version of reality, you end up looking very much like a bag lady while everyone else wears clothes that look cute and fit them properly (I was going in that direction, and I’m not convinced my Fashion Compass is set properly even now).

Both problems mean that you’re not changing or adapting. You are becoming a social dinosaur, hoping against hope that no one is noticing. Ah, but they are noticing. I’ve heard comedians refer to older women’s zipper lips and helmet head. You know the look, but you associate it with my mother’s generation. Both the zipper lip and helmet head describe women like Margaret Thatcher, who perfected the look in the 70s. The message was supposed to convey competence or something, but if you had that look and never updated it, you appear more calcified than confident these days.

The look, set in cement during her best era

The ‘zipper’ occurs when your lips no longer look separate from one other, but instead become one solid bright red gash. ‘Helmet head’ is caused by too much hair spray, cementing hair firmly in place, rather than letting it move freely. In both cases, the look arises because the woman is doing too much, trying too hard, fixing her style in time, much like a taxidermist working over a dead fox.

But do not think that because this look is, mercifully, dying out, that subsequent generations are off the hook. Oh no. We make mistakes too, we just tend to veer in the opposite direction—we don’t do anything to our skin, and then wonder why its texture resembles asphalt. If you’ve never learned to soften the edges, you’re going to end up looking like Margaret Thatcher during her rise to Ultimate Power.

Most women who come, for the first time, to the cosmetics’ counter at age 50 are likely to be stuck in their teenage years, back when they wore little makeup, because, let’s face it, that’s what youth gives us: a blooming canvas you can do almost anything to, knowing you will spring back the next morning, refreshed and bouncy. For the over-50 set, ‘bouncy’ is just a memory and ‘refreshed’ is a long afternoon nap. You’re gonna have to make a really huge effort at this age if you want help. Salesladies selling jars of goo can only do so much, since cosmetics cover over damage, they don’t undo it. You need sandblasting and major architectural realignment. This is gonna cost you.

I’ve stood at counters listening while women who waited too long to dive into the deep end of the Pink Pool express their frustration to one of the white-coated temple priestesses, but there’s very little the priestess can do for them. A nice priestess will do their best to patch your ego back together and send you to a specialist spa, which is where your asphalt belongs. The less scrupulous will take you for as much of your money as you can shell out, which can get pretty pricey. Some of the jars of goo on the market now sell for hundreds of dollars per ounce, after all.

Recapitulating the look of her best era, forever

Meanwhile, yes, they are making fun of you, because it’s a highly competitive world, and others judge us based on appearances, as well you know. I don’t mean to make your trip to the hallowed halls of womanhood any harder, but please, for your own sake, do not go to a cosmetics’ counter for the first time when you’re in your late 40s or early 50s unprepared. I beg of you.

Go to a spa first. Get sanded down (aka microdermabrasion). Learn to apply makeup. Only then can you enter the sanctum sanctorum, the Pink Palace, with any hope of being taken seriously. Salesladies and their anointed customers have been listening to the messages from their Inner Girl their entire lives. You can’t expect them to show you mercy, not if you haven’t made proper obeisance to the goddesses they worship, all of whom learned Rule #1 early in life: Your head changes over time. Change with the times, and don’t force your head (or, your overall style) to look like it did at that one pinnacle moment when you looked your “best,” cause you don’t look like that anymore, and neither does anyone else on the planet. Except Margaret Thatcher, of course.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 8:28 AM

    I am a woman who doesn’t wear make-up. I figure that if none of the men I know wear makeup and don’t worry about what the gals at the cosmetics counter are saying behind their backs, why should I? I believe in gender equality.
    When I look in the mirror, I see my face, not a painted on mask of someone else who looks a bit like me. I believe in honesty.
    Perhaps the glass ceiling in the workplace is the mirror women keep looking into to see if their make-up is okay…

    • February 25, 2011 9:21 AM

      Makeup. Who would have thought mere jars of goo would become so controversial.

  2. Miranda Remington permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:21 AM

    You know you’re getting old when they have discontinued the entire brand of makeup you wore throughout your 20’s and 30’s and can now only purchase it online. Yes… I’m talking to you, Perscriptives, my last umbilical cord to my youthful glow.

    • February 25, 2011 10:43 AM

      I’ve had this happen, not so much with entire lines of goo, since I stuck with Clinique (amongst others), but with specific items I was foolish enough to become attached to. It does not pay to become attached to anything in that world, since so much of it is run by fashion, and “advances” in science that do little more than alter my life irrevocably and irritate me and force me to do something new, never a desirable state of being. But generally, colors get discontinued faster than entire lines!

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