The first time I saw my ex-boyfriend after our break-up, I wasn’t me.
We had broken up long distance after a tumultuous year that had involved me moving to another country. After a few weeks of a “break” (cue the Ross and Rachel comments) and trying to reconnect, he pulled the plug. Being 3,000 miles away, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do: he said that he couldn’t do it anymore, and that was that. I spent the evening wandering around Rome in a stupor, allowing reality to blur itself into an unrecognizable mass of lights and sounds, anything to keep my world from crumbling around me.
There was one thing that I knew for sure: that in just a few weeks, I was slated to be back in the States. I was slated to visit.
I held tight to this reality like a lifeline. I knew that we would see each other again, would talk again. That it wasn’t really over. That I would have a chance to fix this in person. It gave me hope, in a sick, twisted way.
And then I got there.
Nothing was as I expected. Our emotional reunion at the airport was circumvented by him deciding not to pick me up. It was decided that I would stay with a friend instead of at his apartment. He was too busy to see me that day, but he would try to fit me in the next.
But, even then, I still held onto my fantasy, that we would see each other and everything would be okay.
I woke up in the morning with butterflies in my stomach, nerves and excitement and anticipation all rolled into one. I had my outfit all picked out, was feeling super skinny because I hadn’t been able to eat anything the following day. All in black, I gave off the cool, sleek, “I’ve-been-living-in-Europe-for-a-year” vibe that I was hoping for. I looked like I had things under control, that I had been transformed into a confident, worldly, irresistible goddess.
All except my face.
As I looked into the bathroom mirror, all of my insecurities came to the forefront. They manifested themselves in the dark circles under my eyes, the stress acne around my mouth, the whiteness of my skin beneath the blotchiness of freckles just emerging from hibernation. The skin around my watery, reddish eyes puffy from crying. My usually smiling mouth turned down into an expression of unhappy resignation.
And so I did what I’ve always done, what experience and social pressure has always told me is the right answer:
I reached for my make-up bag.
Despite usually wearing nothing more than a couple flicks of mascara, I delved into the archives of my make-up bag to products that had been bought on impulse and might as well have been brand new. I coated my face with liquid foundation, covered it with powder until my freckles, where they could be seen, were faint and indistinguishable. I lined my eyes like I was going clubbing, not to breakfast, swiped on the new fancy lipstick that I had bought abroad. With ample application of various products, I transformed myself from a sad shell of a human to the goddess I wanted him to see me as. An irresistible depiction of the me that I wanted to project. A strong, powerful, confident, sultry woman, who no man would think twice about letting go.
And then he arrived.
As I slid into the front seat, even the air was different. I wanted to pull down the mirror, check that everything was in place, that the personification of strength that I had created was still firmly in place. But all I could think about was how he drove with both hands on the wheel, instead of one on my leg. How he kept his eyes on the road, and took his phone out of my hands when I went to change the song thrumming through the speakers.
We sat across from one another at breakfast, where I looked at him from underneath heavily mascaraed lashes. But there was no reaction from him. There was no sense of attraction or reaction to my altered appearance. He sat there, the man who had always told me I was beautiful, that I didn’t need to put make-up on before Skype dates, that my freckles were cute, that he loved kissing my un-colored lips smoothed by cocoa butter, and noticed nothing. And when we said goodbye, and he put his arms around me for the last time, he didn’t even look into my eyes, done in a smoky look worthy of a makeup tutorial.
And when I was finally alone, and the realization finally hit me, that I had lost him, that I was alone, all of that make-up came off in rivers along my cheeks, staining shirt and towels alike.
My first break-up had been in high school. I remembered the morning of, when, with steely resolve, I put on a fancy skirt, dusted on some bronzer, and went into school looking and feeling like a million bucks. I knew that I was beautiful, that I was a catch. And if my ex didn’t see that, then I would make sure that everyone else would.
But this time was different. This time I had lost the first person I had ever loved, the person I had planned a future with, around. The first person that I had let into my heart and allowed to have any sway over it. And that loss, that total devastation, couldn’t just be glossed over and made shiny and new with some highlighter.
I returned to my life in Europe, I life that he had always been an undeniable presence in but had never actually been a physical part of. I continued going to work, going through my routine, having conversations with friends, but like a zombie. I put on more make-up than I had ever worn to work before, just to hide my emotions behind the mask. To hide how much I was hurting. And at night, when I would wipe all of those products off of my face and was left just with those sad, watery eyes, bare, downturned mouth, and wan cheeks, I realized that, in reality, they weren’t really hiding anything. The truth was there, whether I wanted it to be or not.
And so I stopped. I started sleeping in later, spending those extra ten minutes doing a quick workout to jumpstart my day, or cranking up some feel-good music and dancing around my room. I focused more on what I was doing that what I looked like doing it. I owned the way I was feeling, and stopped trying to smother it beneath some concealer and heavily applied eyeliner. I stopped spending so much time staring at my face in the mirror, harping on my imperfections or disappointing myself by how much sadness I still saw there. I went back to being me.
And you know what? I grew more confident. It didn’t matter what I looked like, or how much makeup was on my face – I could still go into work every day and be amazing. I could still feel amazing. I could still look amazing. I found myself shrugging off my imperfections, and, eventually, embracing them. I realized that I didn’t need to look perfect. I didn’t need to hide. Because what I was going through was all part of healing: I didn’t need to be shiny and whole to be beautiful. I already was.
Some time has passed, and, though my heart is still broken, my mind is on the mend. I’ve been able to find a new appreciation in the little things, like turning my face up to the sun and welcoming the new burst of freckles that burst across my nose. Feeling the lightness of my smile when I’m not weighed down with the concern of marring my lipstick or getting it on my teeth. And, during those times when I need to cry, not being concerned about mascared tears dripping onto my pillowcase.
Makeup is a tool, to enhance beauty and positive affirmations, not to hide the negative away. Because ultimately, it’s inner beauty and happiness that shines through, and that’s more stunning than any amount of sparkling highlighter.