My upcoming memior with the working title, The Makeup Artist Must Die: Taking Off the Mask, shows my transformation in learning how to take off the mask of not just cosmetics, but also insecurty, perpetual hiding, and our cultures dictations of what it means to be a woman. I am seeking representation for the book, and hope you enjoy reading the first ten pages of chapter one in my ten chapter memoir.
Taking Off the Mask or Otherwise Known as Death Without Lipstick
The sun comes up and sets at the same time on the equator day after day, year after year, and the temperature varies only slightly in what I knew as seasons. There’s comfort in this, as every day I reached for the same wardrobe of shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops. Every day, by the time the girls and I walked the five minutes it took to get to the Singapore American School where Ruby was in first grade and Ripley in preschool, I would already have sweat running down my back from the heat and humidity of Singapore. The same moms would be there from our Woodlands neighborhood, dropping off their children, kissing them goodbye. The same maids would be there, too, handing off the same kids they cared for. The moms would say hello, talk about the heat and plans for the day, and then head off to our cushy expatriate lives. In so many ways I craved comfort and stability, and I thought I might get that from the consistency of living in Singapore, but instead it brought a deeper and deeper sense of unease.
Our house backed onto the lush, expensive private school in a neighborhood of houses almost fully occupied by westerners. In a country where over 80% of the population lived in government provided apartments, we were lucky to reside in a 3 story, 5-bedroom house with a marble ground floor paid for by my husband Jim’s employer, the NCIS (Navy Criminal Investigative Service). In an even luckier happenstance, our next-door neighbors were Singaporean, and both Jim and I had developed neighborly friendships with them. I’d always felt that the most amazing perk of living abroad is peeking into other ways of living and thinking. Unlike Jim and many of the expats I knew, I was keen on integrating what I picked up from abroad into my own life. I am like water that way, rushing around all the boulders and rocks, picking up bits and pieces of each and carrying them with me wherever I go. My deep sense of being incomplete, not enough, half good, and unfulfilled, drove me to constantly add the values and habits of others because my own were somehow wrong. There is also this fascination I have with why people behave a certain way, like why do people add sweetened condensed milk to coffee in Singapore but in France that would be considered an outrage. It’s almost as if my unanchored childhood created a deeply insecure adult who felt overly compelled to mimic everyone else and that by doing so, I would in turn become whole. It never worked.
In my past life before I carried the title of ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ I was an international model and celebrity makeup artist. I’d lived in six different countries, and by the time we relocated to Singapore, I had moved 34 times in 38 years. My ungrounded childhood had given way to ungrounded adulthood where I leapt at every opportunity in search of value, worth, even love. In my youth I was transient. I felt like an imposter in this world of beautiful people, even though people described me as elegant, sophisticated, and worldly. Instead of seeing myself that way, these were more like concepts that I aspired to. They did not reflect the reality of my inner world.
There was a hyperactive disconnect between how others perceived me, and how I saw myself. No matter what I did, or how successful I was, or where I traveled to, or how hard I tried to be different, I was always that kid who’d grown up in a trailer park with a mother who judged me as competition, and who kept getting divorced. My identity became wrapped up in obtaining, however fleetingly, my mother’s acceptance, and then the acceptance and love of people in general. Deep inside, though, sat a little girl who felt unlovable and unwanted and who wore the mask she thought others found most presentable.
As a kid, I lived in homemade clothes and hand-me-downs. I had stringy brown straight hair and buckteeth. I shoveled horseshit out of the barnyard stalls and weeded my section of the garden every week, which turned out to be a blessing because it at least got me away from Louise, my mother, for a short amount of time. My goal in life was simple: not to be her, to be loving, godly, accomplished, married, and a good mom
Here in Singapore, I had all the tools I needed to distance myself as far as possible from my upbringing. I was living in a high end, elitist, overpriced neighborhood with enormous Beverly Hills type homes with an Asian flair. Due to the Singapore American School being there, the majority of the homes were filled with expatriates from the US, that were large enough to accommodate not only the families, but a few maids as well. Only 20% of Singaporeans owned cars, yet nearly every house in this part of Singapore, the Woodlands, had a fancy car parked out front and some had drivers who ferried wives to parties and fund raisers, kids to school and soccer practice, and husbands to high level meetings and rendezvous with God knows whom.
I dressed for my friend Pam’s birthday party at her gorgeous six-bedroom home, about a 5-minute walk from our house. Jim had just returned from a two-week trip to India for work and was downstairs talking with our housekeeper/babysitter, Halija. Finding something acceptable to wear to a party where everyone would pull out there finest had burdened me all week. I still felt heavy, having gained 65 pounds during my second pregnancy. I’d taken off well more than half of that, but I still felt fat. Having spent most of my life as a size 4, my current size 10 body felt gargantuan. Even dressing to the nines couldn’t hide my anxiety at having to attend a party full of people where we were the poorest ones there, and my hips the biggest.
As I looked into the mirror at my makeup that would no doubt run down my face in the Singapore humidity, I saw only emptiness. Who was this person? While I longed for the satisfaction and fullness I thought this life was meant to bring, I didn’t feel it. I had the labels I’d so strived for. I was a wife to a successful man and a mom to two beautiful girls, but instead of thriving, my life felt like a tin can that someone was prying the lid off of to show me how lost and vacant my so-called wonderful life really was.
When I looked in the mirror that day I was surprised to discover that the usual pessimistic version of me didn’t surface. I was used to seeing the dirty trailer park girl with stringy hair, buck teeth, and no shoes, but instead today I saw the pretty young girl I’d been when I was the flower girl in my aunt and uncle’s wedding where I’d worn a pink dress and a crown of flowers. I’d torn off my shoes and run around the garden giggling at the butterflies and sunshine. Unlike my mother, my dad delighted in me, and I remembered how I felt that day as he watched me with joy. I was his little girl: pretty, loveable, smart, funny, and inescapably perfect. In his eyes, I was everything I longed to be—real, true, worthy. What had happened? How did I end up like this? Feeling like a fake, a fraud, in a cold marriage and in a hot country with makeup sliding down my face like a mask insisting it reveal the truth underneath even as I fruitlessly struggled to keep it on.
“You ready, we’re gonna be late.” Jim stood at the bathroom door. He looked handsome and trim in a Tommy Bahama yellow and blue floral button down shirt and tan pants, the blue in the shirt bringing out his bright eyes and dark blonde hair.
“Um, yeah, I’m nearly ready. Um, Jim, I really hate to ask if this dress makes me look fat, but . . . does it, um, hide the lumps?” I smiled weakly, motioning to the black wrap dress I’d decided to wear.
His impatient expression gave way to distaste as he paused and said, “You look fine, Suzanne. Can we go?” With that, he walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs, leaving me to further confirm the fact that you should never ask that question of someone who eats anything they want and doesn’t gain weight.
We walked in silence to the party with Jim leading the way. I wore a pretty diamond necklace he bought me for my birthday, and the ruby ring and matching earrings I had picked out in Phuket, Thailand, but I was no match for the wives of the C.E.O’s, C.O.O’s, P.O.O’s, or whatever other acronyms might be there. I hated being so superficial as to allow stuff like income, job title, or recent holiday location to dictate how I felt, but it was inescapable, and impossible not to compare myself. In my modeling days in Paris and New York I attended a few parties with famous people, where wealthy men were always looking to be seen with a model. Those parties were uncomfortable in a whole other way, but they’d taught me how to fake my way at any shindig. In truth, where I felt most comfortable was in the company of books and down to earth people, but I hadn’t managed to cultivate a life that was drawing me to what I truly craved.
“Hi Suzanne!” called out Pam, as she and her glass of white wine greeted us at the gate entrance to her house. With her long blonde hair and wearing a blue and green floral fitted dress, Pam looked beautiful and exuded the warmth I liked about her. “Hey Dick, come say hi to Suzanne and Jim.” Pam motioned to her husband, who sauntered over carrying his own drink in hand.
Shaking Jim’s hand and ignoring me, Dick said, “So, you still at that government job? How they paying these days?” Dick smiled ruefully, sticking his free hand in his pocket.
“Yeah, it’s going great, I just got back from India and I’m leaving for two weeks in the Maldives next month, after our family vacation to Perth.” I watched as Jim imitated Dick’s pose, burrowing his hands into his own pockets.
“India . . .not my favorite place. Not sure why anyone would wanna do that job,” shrugged Dick. When he bent his head down to slurp on his potent drink you could see his bald spot.
Jim looked disgusted and Pam, laughing and rolling her eyes, grabbed my arm and led me toward a gaggle of wives standing around a high top table covered in drinks and snacks. Pam’s house stood in a corner lot, so as we walked from the gate to the pool area, we passed the trampoline, outdoor seating area, and large cobblestone parking section of the property. About fifty mock lotus flower tea lights floated aimlessly in the lit up pool, and American rock music played on the speakers. A beautiful house with beautiful people, I mused as Pam and I giggled about the trials of hosting a debauchery with upper crust white people in an Asian culture. Pam was unique in that she never bought into the idea that America and American culture were the best, and that all every country and people needed to do was just become like America and all would be well in the world. Like a cloak over a person’s heart, bigotry and prejudice blind those who surrendered to the notion that any people, culture, or value system was, in fact, the best. I found this attitude particularly prevalent in church. It seemed like being religious was synonymous with being right, which consequently made everyone else wrong. Why would one religion be better than any other religion and why would that choice make Americans or any group more moral or trustworthy? My views, in this group and in my marriage to a stone ground Christian Right Wing Republican, were not welcome.
“Oh my God, it’s the model! Hi Suzanne!” said Terry, tripping over her feet as she draped herself over me in a palatial hug, spilling her girlie drink with the pink umbrella onto my black made-to-hide-the-bulging-bits dress. Tall, dark haired, and incapable of deep conversation, Terry was a blast of happy don’t-look-too-deep energy.
“I’m not a model anymore!” I laughed. “Too chubby now. They’d toss me in the streets with a chocolate croissant!” Pam and Terry laughed, but I caught a sidelong glance from one of the thinner moms at the party sitting a few feet away. I imagined she was affirming with that look that she thought I was, indeed, ginormous.
“Here,” whispered another friend, Julie, handing me a glass of red wine with a smirk. “You need this in order to survive a Woodlands party, and to prepare for your holiday in Australia. Aren’t you leaving tomorrow?”
“Yes . . . tomorrow afternoon.” Julie was a former schoolteacher whose husband did cancer research at the University of Singapore. She understood the fabricated life of this place. Midwestern and pretty with long curly dark blonde hair with perfect highlights, our kids were the same age and we had become friends and playgroup buddies. No matter what was happening in my life, it was the diamonds like Julie and Pam who made it bearable.
A server in black dress pants, white button down shirt, and black waistcoat brought our gaggle a platter of Asian nibbles to gnaw on as we downed our drinks, which were promptly refilled by another server.
“Wait!” said Terry to the waiter as he attempted to walk away, “you forgot to bring the Popiah! Go get some plates of that . . . it’s my favorite. How could you forget to bring my favorite thing?” She laughed as the waiter hustled back to the kitchen to find the Malay appetizer. I felt excruciatingly embarrassed in moments like these, where I was sure the wait staffs were in the kitchen berating the pompous snobby entitled Americans.
“Have you tried Popiah?” Terry asked the group of women who’d gathered around us. “It’s divine, and especially with this thing I’m drinking. What am I drinking?” She stared closely into the bottom of her concoction, as if the brew would actually respond to her question. We all laughed. Obviously Terry was having a great time.
“Pam, this is a fabulous party,” said Paige. When you looked at her you couldn’t help but notice her newly suctioned thighs, tummy, and pumped up boobies. Her low cut top, skintight skirt, and heels told us all where she had been: the plastic surgeon in Bangkok, Thailand. My church leaders would deeply frown at this behavior.
As Paige started telling a story, she and her boobs were now the center of attention. I missed the first part of it, totally overcome by her now elevated booty. How do they actually raise up your backside? I wondered. The group fake-laughed at whatever story Paige was telling and I didn’t even pretend to be listening. I was too consumed with the thought that every move she made highlighted the fact that her boobs, if flung correctly, would break her nose.
The group dispersed a bit and I watched Paige head over to where Jim and a few other CEOs were standing. As she walked, she began to bop to the latest song on the speaker, Joan Jett’s I hate Myself For Loving You. All the men stared at her with that wolf-like expression men get. Only Jim looked down and began to edge away from the dancing go-go woman and drooling men, a look of revulsion on his face. He didn’t like her, or me, I observed. On the one hand I was grateful, but on the other hand I didn’t understand my puritanical husband.
We stayed at the party for another hour and a half before calling it a night. Americans tend to get up early, while Singaporeans don’t arrive at work before 9:30. They stay up late, enjoying the cooler temperatures, and eat long dinners with family. I always found this to be a more humane way of living, but my daughters boycotted any ambition I had for sleeping in and rose before 7 a.m. every day.
A few hours later, after the girls were tucked in and the house was quiet, Jim and I readied for bed.
“Are we packed and ready to go?” he asked.
“Yes, I’ve packed the girls’ stuff, and have to finish my own, but I should have it all ready by tomorrow afternoon when we leave.” I pulled out my small-attempt-at-sexy pink floral nightgown
“I’m going into work for a bit in the morning and then when I get home be ready to leave,” Jim instructed, walking into the bathroom and closing the door. I guess we’re not going to have sex tonight, I thought. Again. It felt like an ice castle, living in our marriage, and it seemed like no matter what I tried, from being extra serving and giving to being extra-sexy, nothing seemed to work. My pleading conversations on the topic only seemed to push him away even further, and any time I tried to warm things up, my attempts fell flat. I felt responsible, burdened, wrong, and a failure, and as I stood there in the bedroom, I wondered if I lost that extra weight if things would improve. Never mind that before the children were born, when I wore a size 4, things weren’t much warmer. I touched my thighs and decided to try that cleanse diet when we returned from Perth. Climbing into bed, I curled up in a ball and started to cry.
The Margaret River wine region of Australia glimmered with bright sunlight and peaceful surfer beaches. The low humidity and warm people offered a striking contrast to the stifling heat and curt Chinese manners of Singapore life. We need this break, I told myself as I drove our rental car to the next winery where Jim sampled wines and chatted at length about wines and wine making with the staff, and I watched the girls as they played on a jungle gym outside the tasting rooms. I love wine, but Jim needed to relax from his stressful job and the fact that he traveled about 75% of the time for work, so I caved to childcare duties and couldn’t find my voice to express how unfair our highly defined marital rolls were.
In the Bible men led and women submitted, but did that mean women were voiceless? Obedient subjects? Was this arrangement meant to bring happiness or just order? Who did this benefit? Certainly not the girls. I didn’t want to raise them to be obedient silent servants. I wanted them to grow up to be powerful women who knew what they wanted and believed in themselves. Our choice of how our relationship was arranged seemed to work great for Jim, and felt suffocating and minimizing to me. Or was it that Jim had tried to make me happy and found that he couldn’t fill that dark hole inside me and had given up? Truth was, I didn’t know how to have or be in a successful marriage, I just knew I wanted a better marriage than Louise had.
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