By Gretchen Peters
In my makeup kit there are at least three or four tubes, tubs, or wands of concealer. I accumulated them because they all promised — with words like airbrush, blur, glow, youthful, dewy, refreshed — to hide shadows, wrinkles, stress, sleep deprivation, sun spots, age spots, blemishes, under-eye circles. I keep them all because I can’t quite give up the dream. The dream is what they promise; the reality, something less. I keep looking for a better one, a holy grail, one that will perform even more miracles, hide the glass of wine I had last night, the jet lag, the tour, the stress, the worry, the doubts, the years.
I swallowed the beauty magazine ethos whole as a young girl. Even while growing up thinking of myself as a feminist (I turned 12 with the first issue of Ms.), I found the possibility of transforming myself into something “better” irresistible. I like makeup. I’m not as devout as my mother, who wouldn’t go to the grocery store without lipstick, but don’t ask me to give up mascara. Still, the pressure to conceal is feeling like a burden I shouldered ages ago without asking why.
Why did I make this bargain, to hide the things that prove who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been? I’m exhausted by the world’s expectation I should conceal the evidence of the 60 years of life I’ve lived — the privileged but tumultuous childhood, the family secrets, the estrangements, the divorces (my own and my parents’), the tears, grief, laughter, isolation, reconciliations ... all written on my face. The efforts to conceal it, fix it, hide it make me so tired.
There is a tipping point, and I am there. I feel more of a pull toward the admiration of youth with no ego attached to it. These days, everyone I see under the age of 30 looks beautiful. I don’t want to be young, but I like to be around youth. As my anxiety about aging wanes, it makes room to appreciate youth on its own terms.
And it’s not simply exhaustion from all the effort. Sometime around age 50, in both work and life, I felt a mysterious pull, away from hiding and toward revelation (interesting that the word revelation, itself, comes from the old French “to reveal”). By necessity, the act of revealing means rejecting your own shame; you can’t tell anyone’s truth if you won’t tell your own. At this point in my life, what my heart yearns to do is reveal.
Concealment was so ingrained in me as a girl growing up in a fractured family, and as a codependent adult living with an alcoholic. Secrets were buried deep and had to be kept that way. An intuitive and oversensitive child (the fact we even label children “oversensitive” speaks volumes about our culture), I became very good at it, very fast. But I’ve been trying to unlearn the urge to hide things. The hardest parts of life have shown me it’s a terrible idea. To reveal is to share your humanity. To conceal is to shut yourself in a prison of your own making.
Secrets, kept from others or from oneself, are what I am always digging for in my work as a songwriter. I’ve learned that the real gold, the stuff from which the most compelling songs come, is in the inner dialogue of my characters — the things they will say only in their heads, at 4 a.m., or maybe after a few too many glasses of wine. Saying the thing that scares you (because it reveals you) binds you to the listener. In telling the stories of girls and women over the course of my songwriting life, and especially in the latest batch of songs on my album Dancing With the Beast, I’ve had to listen hard to what they are saying. When I’ve felt the urge to prettify them, I’ve resisted. What we gain from concealing ourselves from the world is debatable; what we lose is incalculable. We lose our story.
My friend, the singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, posted a photograph on Facebook of herself during one of her shows. In the photo, she is cradling her guitar, bare-armed, mid-song, a beatific expression on her face. She looks like she’s in a state of musical ecstasy. I’ve seen that expression on her face dozens of times; I’ve worn it myself. It’s the look of someone transported by music, someone who’s given herself to it with total abandon. Under the photo was a comment from a man in her age bracket: “Wear sleeves, girl, please.” Offended by the sight of a 60-something-year-old woman’s arms, he felt compelled (and entitled!) to tell her to cover up. With all the beauty and sensuousness in that photo, he saw only her arms. No wonder women spend millions of dollars on makeup, plastic surgery, and “beauty” treatments. No wonder they feel a sense of helplessness and horror about aging.
The misogyny of the Facebook poster is crude and bald-faced, but his basic premise is something our culture tells women every day — that they are objects for the male gaze, not the subjects of their own lives. And that once they’re past the age of sexual viability, they’re of no use to anyone. Better to disappear than dare to bare your 65-year-old arms to the world.
I tried to write about this idea in my song “The Boy from Rye” — that moment when adolescent girls realize they are not the central characters in their own lives anymore, but prizes to be won by the alpha boy. The unspoken but understood idea we must compete with each other sexually is devastating to women. It taints some of the strongest and most important relationships in our lives; at worst, it destroys them, or prevents them from ever happening. It divides us; and divided, we never know the power we would have had together. As a young woman in the music business, people encouraged me to see my female contemporaries as rivals, enemies. Several, lucky for me, have turned out to be my best friends, and have had my back during the tough times.
I understand better now, in my 60th year, what beauty is. It’s not something that hides, it’s something that reveals. The ethereal beauty of age is there for all of us to see, if we stop insisting it be concealed. It’s the transcendent, transparent look of someone whose body is slowly ceding way to their soul. I witnessed, with a motherlode of sadness but also a strong sense of the rightness of her transition, my mother approaching her death at age 94. She looked like she was becoming an angel with her halo of white hair, her skin so thin and streaked with blue veins it seemed with each accruing year to reveal everything inside her. To conceal that is to work against all that is human and good about us.
We are born, we are young, we are old, we are gone. While we’re here, the most holy, humble, generous act we can perform is to reveal ourselves as we are. It’s our gift to the world. Bare your damned arms. Bare your legs. Bare your faces, and for God’s sake, please bare your souls. Call out anyone who tries to shame you into concealing who you are. We need to see you, so we can see ourselves.