In spite of all that I learned in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, to this day when I get ready for parties, I picture a best-case scenario. There will be a permanent underscoring of laughter and light jazz. Everyone will find instant familiarity, gripping each others' shoulders and forearms, performing double cheek kisses, like a bunch of vital Europeans.
In my ideal world, charades and other Victorian party games evolve naturally. No one has to explain the rules, and everyone is delighted when I act out Titanic by pretending I'm standing on the bow of a ship. Conversation feels less like talking and more like confession, even revelation. No topic will be too shallow, or too profound. There might even be a sing-along.
In my ideal world, we are all confident in ourselves, and for this reason we can be light, generous, and open with sharing who we are.
"I wish I had your hair," says my best friend Becky as we both stare into her bathroom mirror. We are getting ready for her birthday party together, which starts in 3 minutes at a small wine bar in NYC's West Village. Neither of us is fully dressed. Sprawled on Becky's bed is a bright red jumpsuit with an off-the-shoulder neckline that she just retrieved from the dry cleaner. When it comes to fashion, Becky is the definition of confident. She is the only person I know that dresses like a movie star in real life.
Personally, I am wearing jeans.
"No, you don't want my hair," I say.
On some level we are partaking in an ancient modesty ritual among girls -- putting ourselves down, picking our friends up -- but mostly I really mean it. I have a ton of thin, light brown, salon-highlighted hair, and it frizzes, knots, and is just generally unwieldy in all scenarios. Also, anytime I have asked a stylist to cut my bangs they curl up aggressively and tightly, like Home Depot blackout shades.
Becky makes the comment about my hair without any irony. It's bizarre, because she has the best hair imagineable: long, thick strawberry blonde hair that's never once been dyed or processed. It air dries with a subtle wave, similar to Jennifer Aniston's in her Friends years. Tonight, however, is special, and she has purchased a new curling iron from the drugstore.
"I don't even know how curling irons work," Becky says as she shreds the stiff plastic packaging. She crosses her wrists awkwardly and starts grappling with her own hair like it is a duel. The iron's jaws clamp down on a giant mound of hair and I hear a light sizzle. She starts to twirl up and around, fighting gravity, the hair coiling around itself, tangling into a double helix.
I swoop in.
"Wait, can I try?"
"God help me."
I make my way from side, to back, to side, explaining my technique of curling AWAY from the face, allowing the ends to stay unclasped, and how when you get to the front, you have to curl IN to frame the face. The result are soft, easy waves.
"Holy crap! How do you know how to do this? I thought you never curled your hair even a single time."
"What? I curled my hair this morning."
"But I thought you were like Alexa Chung!"
"One time in an interview Alexa Chung said she literally just washes her hair and it turns into easy ringlets."
"What? No. I learned this technique five years ago when I took my actor headshots. The stylist gave me a tutorial. Now it takes me like five minutes to do. But it's a technique. It's not natural."
(My headshot, by the way, is a photo of me mid-laugh, like I'm shouting "Oh no you didn't!" Sometimes I like it, sometimes I think it's the worst photo of all time. At least it is an archival record of my very first good-hair day.)
"Nutrageous," Becky exclaims, and I know she is shocked, because she never says "nutrageous" unless she means it.
"So you don't just wake up with that hair?"
"Nope. Alexa Chung is full of shit."
This is when I start to feel it.
A deep pit of frustration.
I don't get frustrated unless something needles me on a personal level. And I realize that I've been needled.
It takes me a second to understand the feeling. Then it hits me.
I'm tired of a world that peddles the "Faux Natural."
Cosmetics are designed to make your face look exactly like your own face, but without imperfection -- like a photo-retouching in real life. You cake on the foundation so the fine lines disappear. The more expensive the makeup, the more it proclaims to be "invisible." Cover it up, but don't show the man (or, I guess, woman?) behind the curtain. It's exactly like those articles about celebrities who have insane bodies that say, 'I don't watch what I eat, I just eat to feel good. Oh, and sometimes I do situps.'
But it's like…no you don't; you have a personal chef and a personal trainer.
To clarify, I don't believe there is anything wrong with putting effort into looking your best. Do it up, sister. All I'm saying is: in the aftermath, don't pretend it was no effort at all.
You don't have to be superhuman. You just have to be honest. Because being honest -- and confident in that honesty -- is maybe the most superhuman feat of all.
"My name is Felicia, and sometimes I use a curling iron on my hair," I say, breathing heavily. I realize I've been ranting to Becky. "I mean, if I don't admit it, other girls with frizz hair and bangs like blackout shades will feel alone and ashamed. We all just need to band together, Beck. We need admit that sometimes we wake up looking like shit!"
"Bangs like blackout shades!" Becky says. She is shouting, too. "That is a great simile!"
"It's like this other time I was in Lululemon at the mall and a girl that worked there had an amazing, elaborately styled hairdo -- we're talking Taylor Swift ringlets -- and when I complimented her she dropped what she was doing, turned to me and said, 'People hate me, because it's natural!' Because it's natural! It wasn't natural. It just wasn't. I wanted to run away from the store screaming! Which I eventually did, because Lululemon is so expensive!"
"It IS!" says Becky.
I take a deep breath.
"Anyway. I should probably keep getting ready."
As I fill in my eyebrows with a brow pencil, I think about how my eyebrows look a bit more like eyebrows now, but in an uncanny way. In the mirror my resting face looks noticeably more wry, like I could be laughing silently at myself.
Maybe Faux Natural hits a nerve because I never really felt comfortable in my looks and body until the past couple of years. Because my former career working in theater made me look at myself from the outside-in. Because I'm still working on being un-self-conscious about my appearance. Because it's two steps forward, one step back.
"You look fantastic," I tell Becky as we regard her reflection together.
"Stop. You look fantastic."
I'm in jeans and a chiffon blouse. It's a pretty good look. Becky is fully jumpsuited, and her hair falls in subtle, loose curls. It's like it might have air-dried that way, entirely on its own.
"Shall we?" she says, and I nod.
Together, we stride toward the door.
* * *
To be continued...