A Beautiful Life

By Taylor Ellsworth 08/05/12
Connecting with other women over nail polish and lipstick may seem shallow. But this kind of beauty bonding isn't just skin-deep.
Nailing it Photo via

Growing up, I always hated my face. I felt chubby, blotchy, undefined and unlovable. Drinking and using did not make me more beautiful but at least I could feel sexy when I was drunk. Ironically, or maybe consequently, beauty products have always had a special place in my heart. Because I started reading fashion and beauty magazines far too soon, I learned how to fill in wrinkles before my skin had any. The beauty that I discovered in magazines—from the material beauty of glossy advertisements to the before and after photos to the incredibly fulfilling feeling of successfully imitating a look—has always been incredibly important to my identity. Some might call me a girly-girl or femme; others, stereotypical and shallow. Before I got sober, though, I felt like my internal connection with Allure magazine and Smashbox products was something to be ashamed of. I ignored it, using it only out of necessity to pursue men or drugs. 

Before I ever knew how deeply cocaine and Mike’s Hard could change how I felt, I found the power of altering my appearance. I dyed the tips of my hair pink when I was 10; my first big change. It looked disgusting but my peers paid attention to me. Everyone wanted to know if it was “real” (whatever that means—if you have to ask, it’s probably not, right?), how I’d convinced my parents to let me do it and other useless pieces of knowledge that made me feel adult and important. At age 10 in Southeast Portland, Oregon—before winged-eyeliner, topknot-wearing hipsters took over—any unnatural physical addition was automatically glamorous regardless of its aesthetic appeal. Most of the women in my world wore Dr. Scholl’s clogs and ordered their lipstick from the Avon catalogue. My ends were bright, manic-panic pink for about four days before they began to fade into a dull creamsicle hue but in those four days, I learned how truly transformative one simple product could be. I began to save up my allowance to purchase clear mascara (a complete waste of money but it made me feel glamorous and that was what counted) and tinted lip balm. I scoured beauty magazines for DIY tips. I became obsessed with beauty.

Beauty had never been a way to bond or practice self-care after my days concocting kitchen-cabinet face masks with Sierra; it was just a pageant, and we were all going through the motions, trying to be the best.

I often spent entire afternoons with my childhood best friend—let’s call her Sierra—concocting brown-sugar face scrubs and lying in the sun with cucumbers on our eyelids. We shared our Jane magazine gems and painted each other’s fingernails. This was our central activity for at least 10 years. Then we found drugs. She lived two hours away and gradually we stopped calling each other. Our shared love for glamour had bound us together but our mutual cravings to escape pushed us apart and tore our attention away from anything worth sharing. By the time I got sober, I had only seen Sierra on a handful of occasions in the previous five years and though we’d gotten high together every time, I had never felt farther away from her than I did during those visits.

At some point in my adolescence, beauty stopped being about feeling pretty and became a source for both validation and shame. I would spend 20 minutes applying and re-applying lipstick in the mirror before school only to wipe it off as I parked my car, afraid that the bright-pink hue signified my need for attention. The goal was always to look pretty without letting on that I had any desire to look pretty. If people knew that I wanted to feel beautiful, they would realize that I wasn’t, in fact, beautiful—right? 

On the nights when I went out drinking—and by “out” I mean to a house party armed with Milwaukie Ice—I would meticulously pile on my favorite gold-flecked purple MAC eye shadow, doll-like fake eyelashes and 12-inch hair extensions until I looked like Teenage Coke-Whore Barbie. The strange combination of insecurity and glamour that this ritual afforded me provided a sort of armor to protect myself from other girls by looking (or thinking I looked) better than them. I might be wasted, I might have lost my right shoe, but I’m prettier than that girl over there, I’d tell myself. It also made it easier to convince the boys to give me alcohol, cigarettes, weed, and whatever other contraband items I wanted for free. It usually worked but when I woke up the next day, lashes stuck to my cheek, extensions hanging by a single bobby pin, breath rank with beer and general grime, I was right back to hating myself.

When I got sober, I felt ugly in every sense of the word. My skin was dull and covered in acne, my hair was fried from obsessively straightening it before too many nights out and all my makeup and skincare products were from Walgreens because I’d skimped on just about every luxury in order to afford booze and drugs. Beneath my haggard surface, I was broken and afraid: by drinking, snorting, eating and vomiting up my feelings, I had lost any piece of identity or self-worth I’d ever been able to grasp. Of course, guys in the rooms hit on me anyway. Either a surprising number of them are into the whole self-destructive, low self-esteem, hot mess, too much-eyeliner thing or they just liked newcomers. Probably both.

After meetings, I lingered around the boys, seeking validation for my insecurities. I went to meetings nearly every day for a year, internally repeating 12-step mantras and the third step prayer at life’s smallest hiccups and spending all my free time fellowshipping in late night diners and coffee shops. I didn’t have much of a life outside of listening to other fucked-up peoples’ stories and hanging out with other people (people meaning dudes) only because we happened to share the misfortune of hitting bottom at an embarrassingly young age. I didn’t know how to make friends with women or entertain myself so I attempted to use my male program friends to fill both of these needs. For a time, this sufficed as an identity and lifestyle. But eventually I had to learn how to take care of myself, which meant living in a way that made me feel good, not just living as I was told to by old timers and the Big Book. This isn’t to say that I wanted to stop following all 12-step suggestions; I just wanted my life to stop revolving around them. There came a time when I realized that many of the suggestions I heard in meetings were for newcomers, and that if I didn’t do every single thing someone else claimed to do every day (pray and meditate morning and night, call my sponsor before making any decisions, attend a meeting, and on and on), I wasn’t going to immediately fall face-first into a pile of coke.

Luckily, not only did my sponsor know what those sober guys were up to but she also happened to be an esthetician and makeup artist. One of the reasons I picked her was because she seemed so confident: she didn’t need to flirt with the guys after meetings to confirm that she was beautiful. She just was. After I’d dried out a bit, she gently but firmly told me that my eyebrows needed some work, then she waxed them for free and gave me a stash of her old makeup. When I moved into my first studio apartment after six months of sobriety, I crashed with her for the week between the end of my old lease and the commencement of my new one. We watched Absolutely Fabulous, ate raspberry sorbet, and she taught me how to do a smoky eye. It was like having a weeklong sleepover with Sierra all over again—if Sierra were a cosmetics hoarder with six years of sobriety. I hadn’t talked to Sierra in years, though, and after the disintegration of our friendship, other women were solely sources of fear or competition; nothing more. Beauty had never been a way to bond or practice self-care after my days concocting kitchen-cabinet face masks with Sierra; it was just a pageant, and we were all going through the motions, trying to be the best. This was different.

The longer I stayed sober, the more important it became to take care of myself—to treat myself, even. Seemingly basic components of self-care which had always eluded me in the past, like washing my face before bed or applying lotion to my legs after shaving them, became mandatory while frivolous things like applying red lipstick or weaving a side braid no longer felt like embarrassing cues of my need to be accepted. When someone complimented my hairstyle or shade of eye shadow—particularly if it was a woman—something was different. I actually believed them. As an active alcoholic, makeup had been a tool for crafting my image and getting what I wanted. In sobriety, it was an intrinsic part of growing up and becoming a woman. And, even more importantly, it was a way to bond with other women rather than compete with them for more free drinks or slurred compliments or cute Facebook pictures or whatever. For any woman struggling to meet other women in the rooms, I seriously suggest wearing some bright lipstick, crazy nail art, or fake lashes. (Funny Face, a bright purplish-pink satin made by Nars, is my favorite conversation-starting lipstick.)

When my boyfriend spent a term abroad, instead of being devastated at being forced to sleep alone and cook for one and rely on myself for reassurance that I do, in fact, look cute in that weird flowery-denim dress I bought on impulse at Forever 21, I used the extra free time to take up nail art. Not to attract random dudes, though; men tend to be as completely blind to details like nail polish as they are to new highlights, especially self-obsessed alcoholic men sitting in the basements of churches. At meetings, the women would ask about how I made the polka dots on my ring finer so tiny, or how the lines were so precise, and then I would explain my technique in detail. No, we weren’t bonding over our similar experiences with alcoholic parents or snorting Adderall but we do that enough in the rooms. It can be easy to forget what it’s like to relate to another person in a non-alcoholic capacity when so much of your time in meetings is spent trying to share in a way that helps the newcomer relate. Of course, being able to relate deeply to another person and share experiences I once thought I would take to the grave is wonderful and cathartic but to share a part of myself that I have chosen to cultivate—my interest and expertise in beauty, shallow as it may seem—rather than the deeply flawed part that I have been forced to live with, is also incredibly freeing. To actually want to help other women feel beautiful, after having seen them for years only as competitors for all that was sacred (free drinks and male attention), is simply profound.

When I was a teenager, I lost myself in Burnett’s vodka and stimulants and when I got sober, I lost myself in meetings, fellowship and flirtation. I had no idea I would eventually find myself, and my connection to other women, inside of Sephora; just like I had so many years ago, inside of the kitchen, whipping up honey-oatmeal masks.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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