Comedian Chris Rock has this hilarious routine I love about who are the biggest liars, men or women. His premise is that men tell the biggest lies, but only when pressed ("The blonde? That was my cousin from out of town!"), whereas women tell little lies all the time. Then he addresses the ladies in his audience directly, pointing fingers and bellowing, "Look at yourselves! Liars, all of you! All that makeup you're wearing - your face don't look like that! You're wearing high heels - you ain't that tall! And I KNOW you weren't born with THAT color hair!"
Ah, the truth hurts. I spend an embarrassing amount of time and money trying to fool Mother Nature and other onlookers. I have numerous accomplices, co-conspirators in the illusion: Hair by Janice, Nails by Stacie, Lashes by Juliette. On the inside, it's all me. But on the surface, the zits and the extra layer of fat are the only things that are real.
I try to ease my guilt and embarrassment by justifying the expense as a necessary part of my profession in the performing arts and the public eye, but the truth is, I've been a willing victim of vanity all my life. As far back as I can remember, I've wanted to have a pretty face and longer legs, or at least a couple more inches in height. As soon as my parents allowed it, I think it was in 7th grade, I started wearing heels. Fortunately for me and other vertically challenged girls, platform shoes became the rage during my high school years. Falling off a pair of 6-inch-high clunkers and twisting my ankle didn't faze me a bit; for the past 40 years, all my footwear has been height-enhancing. Even my rubbah slippahs have platform soles.
The illusion of height was a lot easier to pull off than a semblance of beauty. I don't think there has ever lived a teenage girl who was completely content with her looks, even the perfectly perky pretty ones. Most of my friends and I were obsessed with making our Asian eyes fit the mainstream ideal. We dis-Oriented ourselves with Scotch-taped eyelids and pencil-drawn creases. I wouldn't leave the house without my thick black Longs Drugs false eyelashes, two pairs at once on special occasions.
Hair was another big issue. Lots of girls used lemon juice or peroxide to get the desired ehu shade. I was more concerned with taming my coarse Okinawan mane into the sleek, straight style that all the popular Japanese girls wore. I tried ironing it once, nearly scorched off my ear. Other girls went for the opposite extreme, using Toni home perms and Dippity-Do styling gel for volume and curls.
My first lessons in the art of facial deception came from my friends, who learned from their older sisters or their mothers. My mom never taught me how to use cosmetics; in fact, she discouraged it. A subtle shade of lipstick was all the makeup she ever wore. Of course, that's all the makeup she ever needed. Both my parents valued inner beauty over outer trappings, and at least through my childhood, Mom was my standard of loveliness. It was clear to me that Daddy thought she was perfect, and I saw her in the same light. Once, when I was 5 or 6, I got into a nasty fight with a neighbor girl over who was the most beautiful mother in the world. She said it was Elizabeth Taylor. She was wrong, of course, but she was older and bigger than me, so I didn't get to claim the title for my mother.
With the onset of adolescent peer pressure and mass media influence, my ideals of attractiveness changed from Mom to Mod in the late '60s. I graduated from high school in the mid-'70s, a child of the women's lib movement and The Me Decade, torn between casting off the shackles of fashion slavery and turning heads at the Foxy Lady. You can guess which won, I'm sure. Those were double eyelash nights.
Now that I'm over 50, I think I've arrived at a good balance of vanity and integrity. I love my eyelash extensions; they make me feel pretty. At the same time, I believe, as my parents taught me, that beauty comes from within, and that my looks are not nearly as important as my thoughts and actions. And after 40 years of primping and painting, and now fighting new foes like gravity and gray hair, I could say I'm comfortable enough in my sagging (only slightly!) skin to gracefully throw in the hot towel. Accept the extra pounds, embrace the wrinkles, let my silver hair and inner beauty shine through. I could say all that. But I'd be lying.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.