One Saturday afternoon, after brunch at Taverna, I opened the notebook in which I jot down ideas and directions to Oak Cliff, and I wrote in all caps: “Dallas women, stop wearing so much makeup.”
I am prone to these declarations of crank. (“Traffic light, stop being so red.”) But this rant had been building for some time. I’d stared into the faces of so many young women, their radiance buried under smoky eyes and delusions of Kim Kardashian. That day, during prime hangover hours, a stunning blonde sat at a table with marbled blue eye shadow and lip gloss I could see from across the room, and I wondered: but why? Why would someone so naturally gorgeous feel the need to work so hard? I’ve heard you can measure a woman’s insecurity by how much makeup she wears. Did the whole town have an inferiority complex?
I realize I’m on sacred ground here. The lessons of the vanity mirror are traditions passed along from mother to child, as beloved as recipes and the family Bible. In 2003, the chairman of Estée Lauder told Texas Monthly that, per capita, Dallas sells more makeup than New York or Los Angeles. No one knows why, exactly. “Maybe it’s what happens when a fashion-forward town meets the South,” says Terri Tomlinson, a makeup artist who runs the Makeup Training Academy. Tomlinson started her career at NorthPark’s Neiman Marcus makeup counter, long rumored to be the top-selling makeup counter in the United States. (Neiman’s won’t share figures, saying only that it is “one of the largest counters in the country.”) And there she learned another truth about makeup: “Women in Dallas want to be sold.”
Our city’s makeup roots run deep. It was 1963 when a good Christian lady named Mary Kay Ash launched her revolutionary direct-marketing empire. Something else happened in Dallas in 1963, and it’s worth noting that just as Dallas’ self-image shattered, its destiny as a cosmetics center was sealed.
Growing up in Dallas, I loved makeup. My mother rarely wore the stuff, not even on her wedding day, but I was drawn to those candy colors and neatly clicking compacts like it was a sixth sense: I see sparkle-shimmer. This was the ’80s, an era of teal mascara and regret, and in seventh grade, I camouflaged my pale Irish skin with tan foundation. I even slept in it. My pillowcase turned orange, like I’d been playing Othello.
Makeup was fun. It was art for the face, a benign decadence. To be a Dallas beauty was to be All In: hair, makeup, nails. But I went to college in Austin, where liberal arts kids in Doc Martens and torn Dinosaur Jr. t-shirts teased me for all that flash. I was “so Dallas.” And I began the process of walking it back to the place I am at 38. My brain wants natural balance. My heart longs for drag.
A few weeks after my Taverna brunch, I met a colleague for coffee. She grew up on the East Coast, and she pointed out something that I have not been able to stop thinking about since. “Dallas has very little natural beauty,” she said. No mountains or sparkling ocean views. “I’ve always had this theory that Dallas women transformed themselves into the beauty we can stare at. They became the landscape.”
I wrote that down in my notebook, too. Over the months that followed, I asked friends: do Dallas women wear too much makeup? The answer was about 50-50, although women who said yes admitted it wasn’t as bad as it used to be. And most of them professed a bone-deep love. As my friend Nikki said, “I could live at a hippie commune, and I’d put a cat’s eye on.”
“I’m tired of hearing that Dallas women wear too much makeup,” Michael Marcus told me. He has a line of cosmetics that can be bought on his eponymous site. “There is a boldness and confidence in Dallas women that I don’t see elsewhere. New York is kind of depressing. Everyone’s in all black.”
And I like that razzle-dazzle, too. One afternoon, I went to the MAC makeup counter at Dillard’s. A woman named Erica did my makeup, and her eyes were like something out of Cirque du Soleil, purple glitter on brown skin. As she leaned in with her fluttery brush, I remembered how vulnerable this exchange was. A woman’s face is intimate terrain. It contains the tree circles of her lifetime. How she puts it together tells you so much about her, and you can look at that in so many ways. That she takes care of herself. That she is maybe a bit vain. That she is hiding her flaws, flaunting her status, anxious about getting older, hoping to be loved. And as I looked in the mirror, I thought: yeah, all of that.
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