by Carol M. Kaelin

"Can I borrow your lipstick, Mom?" my daughter asked me last spring. I wasn't sure exactly how to respond. She was six at the time. She'd just returned from a friend's home, blush emphasizing her high cheekbones, eye-shadow bringing out the blue in her eyes. And lest anyone wonder where she had visited, that friend hails from long line of preachers, the mother a religious instructor. Hardly a racy bunch.

"Can't find it," I said, stifling the urge to grab the nearest washcloth—undoubtedly what my mother would have done. I wasn't allowed lipstick until high school, I thought. She's six. I'm in trouble here.

I ignored it. I even bit my tongue when her friend told me she was seven and that my daughter should be allowed to wear makeup when she was seven because her mother had said it was OK. I ignored the "How come my ears aren't pierced?" I ignored the little-girl makeover kits in the stores, and the bins of children's cosmetics—real stuff, not pretend look-a-likes in toy stores, an obvious attempt to expand the market to younger and younger girls.

Later that night I called a relative who had raised a daughter. "Don't worry," she told me, "She's just imitating you."

Me? If Estee Lauder relied on me for income, it would be a hundred-dollar-a-decade corporation, not part of a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Far be it from me to part with a buck to look like someone else.

When I lived in Manhattan, I had a roommate who wouldn't get the mail without her face on. I wondered what she would do when she married. Would she sleep in her makeup? Possibly living with her had affected my genetic material and passed, unbeknownst to me, to my child. And then the child came home with nail polish-fingers and toes.

"Nah, she most have inherited a recessive gene. Or one from her father's side of the family," I said—convenient, as he was out of town at the time and wouldn't know he'd been blamed.

"All little girls do that," she assured me. "It's part of growing up, pretending to be someone else."

A few months later, after the leaves had fallen and the frost hit, I had to go to the bank to deposit checks for the nonprofit where I am the treasurer. While it seems odd to me that a bank wouldn't want money going in, they complain about the number of checks I deposit. So now I am phobic about that bank.

A friend said, "Oh, just put on some lipstick."

Indignant at her suggestion, I opened the closet to grab a coat. The answer hung in front of me. A mink inherited from a relative a few years back, unworn for most of the last season. I would not go out and buy one on my own, but it was already bought and worn, so I wasn't about to turn down a free coat of any kind, not with college tuition looming in the very near future. A mink works better than lipstick, trust me on this. Wearing a mink, I could have blue hair and twelve studs in my ear. I could have holes in my five-dollar blue jeans and be considered charmingly eccentric, not downright odd.

Armed with my equalizer, I entered the bank. The teller who processed the stack of checks smiled cordially and took my deposit with nary a raised eyebrow. Vermilion lips would not have done that.

So now, when my daughter asks for lipstick or nail polish, I let her cuddle up in the fake fur I got her last year. Or I read her stories about Nellie Bly or Helen Keller or Marie Curie. Possibly, with the money she saves at the cosmetics counter, she'll be able to buy a Mercedes or a Lexus. And enjoy the freedom to wear the face that's her own.

Originally published in The Altamont Enterprise

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