Margaret Atwood Wears Mascara

There was a time, which lasted quite some time, when I wouldn’t think of leaving home without wearing makeup. To face the world with a naked face was unthinkable to me then. It just wasn’t done.

Without makeup brightening my colorless complexion – pale skin and hair, pale eyes, nearly invisible lashes and brows – I looked half-dead, or ready for bed. Makeup was as necessary to me as clothing when entering the outside world.

And besides, there was my mother’s often-repeated directive echoing in my mind: “You must always look your best, honey!” As a member of the appearances-are-paramount generation, she drummed this belief into her three daughters’ heads.

I looked best with makeup on my face.

Fast forward many decades to today, when my bulging old makeup case – with its tubes of golden-hued foundation creams, rosy blush-on powders, subtle bluish eye shadows, glossy pinkish lipsticks, light-brown eyebrow pencils, and lash-lengthening wands of dark mascara– sits on my bathroom shelf gathering dust.

But who wears makeup anymore anyway – especially now, during this COVID-19 pandemic, when faces are covered with cloth masks from the top of the nose to beneath the chin? Why bother with foundation or blush-on — or even lipstick – when they will only be hidden?

I read recently that the global beauty industry, which generates something like $500 billion a year and accounts for millions of jobs, has suffered a drop of roughly 50 percent in sales compared with a year ago. Lipstick sales have been especially low.

This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? People are working from home now, not dressing for success or to impress, nor going out on the town. Most of us are spending our days at home in front of our computer screens in our scruffy old play clothes or pajamas.

This pandemic has even managed to put a pall on beauty.

And then, of course, there’s age. We can’t forget that particular pall. These days I see in the bathroom mirror a person I have trouble recognizing. I see a face that’s sunken, shrunken, and saggy, with deep-set pale eyes and a thin colorless mouth fallen at the corners. All quite beyond the help of makeup.

Who ARE you? I want to ask that old person in the mirror. Where did I go? The other day, I stared at this image long and hard and thought: If my mother had lived to the age I am now, would she have looked like this? If so, what would she have done to “look her best”?

My mother died of brain cancer (glioblastoma) in October 1984 at the age of 69, when I was 39. Ever since, it seems, I’ve been quietly seeking out role models in older women who might point the way to a meaningful and “beautiful” (inside and out) old age.

In fact, one of my main motivations in starting this weekly WOW blog nearly six years ago was to regularly interview women over the age of seventy on this among other topics to learn their secrets.

(The pandemic has also curtailed such interviews. I haven’t done any interviews in the past year because the older women of accomplishment here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, whom I’ve approached have not wished to break their strict isolation for fear of contracting COVID-19; and I’ve always preferred doing in-person interviews.)

So I’ve had to look elsewhere for older role models lately. This week I lighted on Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood at 80 (stock photo)

Canadian novelist, poet, literary critic, essayist, and teacher Margaret Atwood is one of my living sheros. In November she’ll turn 82; and as far as I know, she’s still writing, still creating, still dazzlingly brilliant. A role model indeed.

Since 1961, when she was first published, I learned, Margaret Atwood has produced 18 novels, 18 books of poetry, 11 books of nonfiction, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels. Her most recent novel, The Testaments (2019) is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was made into an award-winning television series produced by Hulu and starring Elisabeth Moss that premiered in April 2017.

Margaret Atwood

I marvel at Margaret Atwood’s face in recent photographs: Yes, she’s wearing makeup, including, or should I say, especially, mascara. It’s clear she’s not striving to look younger than her years. I’m assuming she just wants to look her best. She’s a woman of immense accomplishment who doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, least of all youthfulness or superficial beauty. Ah, to be like her when I grow up, I think.

I sometimes imagine having conversations with my mother now. When I explain to her the uselessness of wearing makeup to “look one’s best” during this ongoing awful pandemic – especially for ordinary people like me and not rock stars like Margaret Atwood – my mother reluctantly concedes the point.

“Well, then,” I imagine her saying to me, “promise me you’ll wear mascara. At least mascara. Without it you look dead. And you’re not dead yet, honey.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Confession: I’m beginning to actually like hiding my aging face behind a face mask these days and not having to get all made up to “prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet” (from T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).

I even had an inspired thought recently. It’s a fun idea I think my mother would approve of: Find a younger, happy photo of your face (in full makeup), enlarge it to actual face size, transfer it onto plain cotton fabric, then sew this image onto an existing mask or use it to make a new one. Just imagine the surprized  expressions on the faces that you meet!

[See this link for the simple how-to of photo transfers onto fabric:]

25 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood Wears Mascara”

  1. Happy Saturday Bonnie and thank you for this meditation. I read an article this week that said women who wear make-up are perceived to be more powerful than women who don’t. Maybe that’s a reason to stop wearing make up! Saludos. xoxoxo

  2. How timely! I began reading Mary Pipher’s wonderful “Women Rowing North” last night so this is a perfect addition to the things I’m currently pondering.

    1. Marianne — I just listened to the Strayed interview. It’s fabulous!!! I’m so grateful that you sent it, and I hope lots of WOW readers who are Margaret Atwood fans take the time to listen to it.

  3. I actually got tired of makeup when I was in my fifties. Since I was traveling to Mexico quite a bit for work, I decided to have my eyes tattooed (permanent eyeliner). That way I only put on lipstick and nothing else. Very convenient. Then I went to just lip gloss. Now nothing. But my image in the mirror reminds me that I can’t strip down completely. Like your mother, Bonnie, mine also wanted me to “tidy up.” Gina

    1. Ah, yes, Gina, I remember having the same tattoos done — but they faded quickly. 🙁 I think our mothers were from the same generation. What would they think of our bare faces now, I wonder.

  4. Hi Bonnie, I so look forward to your essays. I must confess that I too have had the same thoughts about wearing a mask and secretly enjoy not having to look at a face that I simply do not or maybe, refuse to recognize.
    Unfortunately this face has to be on camera teaching remote classes to 150 adolescents five days a week. Oh, seeing myself in that camera was such a shock! I had stopped wearing make-up a few years ago feeling those jars and tubes were far from the miracle I needed to reverse the jowls and folds. What was the point?
    Once again I could hear my mother’s voice, (same as yours), Never leave home without your face on honey, success comes to those who look their best”. Well, leaving home in 2020 meant walking into another room and getting on camera so, on went the make-up. On as well went that pricey ring light that does more to remove 20 years than any foundation ever invented, just to be in front of a gaggle to teens who put their camera’s facing the ceiling or show only the very top of their heads.

  5. Oh, la Bonnie! Wonderful essay. But “sunken, shrunken, and saggy” are NOT adjectives that describe your beautiful self. Tú eres muy bonita.
    I do not like make-up, never have liked it, but I am not above resorting to certain “aids’ like fillers and Botox, hehehe….

    1. Gracias, querida Te, but you haven’t seen me in-person in a LONG time! And you are 20 years younger than I am. 🙂 More importantly: Is Margaret Atwood one of your literary sheroes too? — xx

  6. Great article, Bonnie! I love the word ‘shero’ which is especially apt for MA. It took me ages to believe in makeup, but now it’s part of living, whether alone or not, as when one dresses up the body, so should one dress up the face. It is not necessary nowadays to wear lipstick, as most of it gets on the mask, anyway but as the eyes are the windows to the soul, so is the shock when looking in a mirror without complete eye makeup!
    I, too, am 82, and the creases and shadows get more prominent each year. cheers

  7. I loved this article, and absolutely adore Margaret Atwood. I was raised in a family that frowned upon the use of makeup. However, my position did evolve from that. Now I am in my 70s and find makeup a real bore, but – pre-pandemic – used it because it, annoyingly, does seem to figure into some sort of weird power equation (in work life). I also travel back and forth between the US and the Caribbean (family ties), and makeup is de rigueur in the islands. In these Zoom-times, I try to put on makeup – at least a bit of lipstick – before meetings because I look perfectly ghastly onscreen without it.

    1. Ah, yes, “ghastly” is the word, Liz! For me, “ghostly” also fits. Like you, I make an extra effort to make up before Zoom meetings. Thanks so much for sharing your makeup story.

  8. Bonnie, I finally got to read this blogpost. Wonderful comment you imagined your mother making. Knowing what I do about her, I think you may be at least partly right. But she’d probably insist on lipstick, too. And maybe eye shadow.

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