The Insult

The day I turned sixty, I woke up feeling pretty good about myself. My (now ex) husband of forty years was by my side, and my grandchildren lived nearby. I felt fortunate to have my health, full height, original teeth, a thick head of hair, and a slim, shapely figure. As if those weren’t blessings enough, later that evening I received the kind of compliment most women my age would want to hear—and from a man at least twenty-five years younger. When I entered the private dining room my husband had arranged for my birthday party, the thirty-something waiter asked if I’d like a drink while waiting for the guest of honor to arrive. He did a triple take when my thirty-five-year old daughter laughingly told him, “This is the guest of honor; this is my mother.”

“You look amazing,” he said, looking me up and down. “You don’t look sixty. Not even close.”

If only I’d stayed in that room. Instead, the next day, I made the mistake of going to an upscale mall to indulge in some guilt-free spending. Ordinarily, I shopped at discount stores. My mother, a child of the Great Depression, had instilled the fear in me of being one needless expenditure away from poverty. Don’t pay five cents for Coca-Cola at a filling station; bring drinks from home when you travel. Don’t buy more than two brassieres; wear one, wash the other. Now that I’d entered my seventh decade, I thought it was high time to silence that frugal voice. I was, after all, married to a doctor and was at the pinnacle of my own career as a college professor. I could splurge if I wanted to.

I started my shopping spree at the Lancôme counter in Bloomingdale’s. No more $4.99 CVS mascara for me. The salesperson, Laura, an auburn-haired beauty in her twenties, had no trouble convincing me to purchase Hypnôse Noir Mascara ($24.00), as well as Cils Booster XL Enhancing Base ($21.00) to prime the lashes. But she took me by surprise when she said, “You’d look good with some color on your cheeks.”

In retrospect, I can see Laura may have been paying me a compliment, but at the time I took it as an insult. I felt offended by the implication I didn’t look good as I was. Hadn’t the young waiter told me I looked “amazing” just the night before? I wasn’t wearing fake color then.

“Actually, I only wear lipstick,” I said with as much equanimity as I could muster.

“Your lipstick is very dark,” Laura said. “A deep blush would balance it nicely.”

I suspected Laura knew what she was talking about. She was, after all, a beauty advisor. But my mother had warned me about aggressive sales pitches. If they sense you’re susceptible, they’ll move in for the kill.

“I prefer a natural look,” I said, forgetting makeup artists use blush to achieve that effect.

“I know the perfect color for you—Rouge Glow,” Laura said excitedly, as though she had chanced upon the magic formula for persuasion and hadn’t heard a word I said.

“I appreciate your help,” I said, which I did, “but only mascara and base today.” Before Laura could use her impressive sales skills to coax me into buying the blush, I whipped out my credit card, signaling the end of the consult.

Laura whipped out a big fat make-up brush. Touching it with a flick of her wrist to a rosy sample, she blushed my cheeks in less time than it took me to think, You should look so good at my age.

Averting my eyes as Laura pushed a tabletop mirror toward me, I quietly said, “I’m just not the kind of person who wears blush.”

Laura nodded politely, but I could hear her thinking, Perhaps you’re just not the kind of person who should shop at Bloomingdale’s.

 As I handed Laura my credit card, a familiar voice resounded inside my head. Don’t waste forty-five dollars on makeup; save your money for what you really need. Shaking it off, I signed my name.

Feeling depleted by the extravagant purchase, I headed toward the parking lot. No more Bloomingdale’s cosmetics for me. But as I pushed against the massive glass exit door, I realized it was the specter of my mother’s frugality, not my own heart’s desire, urging me to leave the Chestnut Hill Mall. The whole point had been to treat myself on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday. Resolving to buy something more upmarket than what I usually purchased, I turned back, wound my way up the circular staircase to Ann Taylor, and made a beeline for the full-priced racks. In the dressing room, trying on gray slacks and a lavender sweater, I looked in the full-length mirror to see if these expensive, stylish items were destined to be mine. What I noticed first was not the outfit, however. It was my face. Much to my chagrin, I liked what I saw. A kind of glow. A softness I hadn’t had before. The blush. It was the perfect color for my skin. The shade did balance my lipstick. Laura was right.

If I wanted to replicate that glow, I knew I needed to swallow my pride and return to Bloomingdale’s. But that was a daunting prospect. After my refusal to even consider buying blush, I thought Laura might cringe at the sight of me. Arriving at the store, I stopped within a few feet of the Lancôme counter to gather my courage. But I needn’t have worried. Laura was the consummate professional.

“Hi,” she said with a welcoming smile when I reached the counter. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“I’d like to take a look at the Rouge Glow,” I said without making eye contact, still feeling sheepish despite Laura’s gracious manner.

She was gentle with me. “Take your time,” she said as she handed me the case.

Much to my delight, the case included a tiny make-up brush free of charge. And Laura told me the blush itself contained mica, a natural mineral whose fine powders have been used in cosmetic decoration for centuries. In buying Rouge Glow Blush Subtil ($29.50), I told myself, I was simply taking my place in Natural History.

Studying Laura’s face as she rang up my purchase, I reflected on my initial resistance to blush. I now understood it had nothing to do with beauty or frugality or sales pressure. Laura was young. I was not. Wittingly or unwittingly, she had tapped into the anxiety I felt about growing older. No matter how gracefully or naturally I might age, just like everyone else, I am vulnerable to the ravages of time. It wasn’t Laura’s fault I’d lost the bloom of my youth. She was smart to assume I’d want it back. No doubt she’d been savvy enough to observe that my artificially colored brown hair gave the lie to my claim to favor a natural look. Intuiting my yearning for youthfulness, Laura had skillfully guided me to alter my look and my sense of self—and she got me to spend a total of seventy-four dollars and fifty cents while doing it.

Years have passed, and I’ve yet to invest in the fat Lancôme Cheek Brush ($48.50). But on rare occasions, I use the tiny brush to apply Rouge Glow to my cheeks. Whenever I do, someone compliments me on how good I look. It’s an insult I’ve learned to live with. 

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