The day of my dad’s funeral, my mom sat at her vanity and applied her Clarins moisturizer, took a deep breath, applied her foundation, took a deep breath, applied her lipstick. A ritual. On this day I sat at her feet, watching, not peppering her with questions, not demanding attention.
My abuela came in every five minutes, making up excuses to check in on her. My mom who hadn’t said much, hadn’t eaten much or moved much, willing everything to stay the same—willing her husband to walk through the front door like everything was fine, like it was all a big misunderstanding. We were worried. But on this day, she put on her makeup, pulled the hair out of her face, looked at herself in the mirror, shoulders back, ready. From that moment on, these minutes in front of the vanity would be the only ones she could steal away for herself—and raising two kids on her own, they were crucial.
To outsiders, a woman staring at herself in the mirror, appreciating herself, making herself feel confident and ready for the day might seem vain—vain being one of the worst things a woman can be in society. We are not supposed to know we are beautiful, not supposed to know we have power, not supposed to look at our own reflections without flinching.
Vanity is especially foreign in women of color, immigrants, like my mother. Women who aren’t expected to build themselves up and look you in the eyes, be bold. My mother passed on the ritual of vanity to me the way other families pass down inheritances, as a form of security. As armor.
Cuando te sientes mal de ti misma, she’d say, arreglate. “When you feel especially down about yourself, fix yourself up.” Not the mantra of millennial feminists. The mantra of a woman who survived this world and knew I’d need as much love for myself as possible to do the same.
There are a million ways to define womanhood, and a million ways that women are liberated and constrained by those definitions. I’m still trying to figure out how I fit into that landscape, and what inheritance, what ritual, I will leave behind. And yet, still, when I think of strength, I see a woman in front of her bathroom mirror, standing up tall, ready to face everything the world has in store for her.
Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.