People have, I believe, areas of their body and health where they have greater strength and areas where they have and manifest weaknesses. For me, my skin was an area of weakness, excess and imbalance. Worse, it was something I tried to correct so that I could hide my imbalances and imperfections, yet I only made things the worse for the meddling.
I wrote this (rather long) piece when I started my business with an anti-aging company. Being in this field of skin care and anti-aging was so outside my realm of comfort, not just as a woman in her 50s, but in my lifelong experience of being in my skin.
One way I dealt with my discomfort was to write stories about my skin. I started writing a page at a time, a story per page. The stories aren’t particularly sequential or threaded together. They are what flowed when I thought of stories from my life and younger years.
Preparing for a long work-vacation coming up (that I’m now on), I had printed out these stories written two and a half years ago with the thought of editing them, but editing takes time and effort, and well, at this point, my choices feel like 1) never getting around to finishing these stories to a quality that is publishable or 2) simply publishing them as is, unedited.
I’m going for option #2.
So here, unedited, not proofed, as they spilled out of me, is a series of stories about me, my skin, my younger years, my life.
Down this road again …
There are many experiences in my life that have come and gone, buried somewhere deep in my brain in files forgotten and hard to find. Not so with my first foray into the skin care and beauty industry. No, those files, those memories, are quite accessible. At least the highlights are.
See, I was just turning 20. I’d come off of a cross-country, out-and-back trip, with two California-living, let’s-be-hippies-and-call-it-fun gals whom I’d met in my exchange-student semester at San Diego State: Denise, an ever-diligent thief, and Lisa, one prone to bouts of I’m-lost-in-the-stars blank stares … either for attention, low blood-sugar or who knows? … maybe she was lost in the stars.
We’d packed to the hilt the little Ford Fiesta I’d bought a week or so prior, headed out on a wonderful adventure and by the time we came back, I was mostly depleted of my funds, having been the only one, turns out, who had any cash to spend for our trip.
What was next? I wanted to move to San Francisco because gay people lived there, and I’d deduced that I must be gay because I hadn’t been so happy with the boys I’d dated. Logical, right? So off to San Francisco it was. I stopped in San Jose first where I stayed a couple with a lesbian couple, Jody and Carol, I’d met prior. I had no plan, mind you. I was just going to move to SF and … and, well, I didn’t really know. I’d figure something out. (For you Millennials who might be freaking out, it was another era, and my parents figured I’d figure it out, and I expected no help or support from them. In anything.)
Jody was a Mary Kay representative and Carol was a semiconductor manufacturer worker and crack head. It was the eighties, after all. Crack was cheaper than cocaine. But both of them were sweet and kind, and they offered me a place to rest my head while I figured out what to do.
My first trip ever to San Francisco, my ultimate destination, was with Jody. She was selling some of her Mary Kay skin care products to some gay guys who hung out at an all-day AA place; a row house in the Castro off of one of the main streets. I accompanied her in. It was dark. But in that darkness, my mind started to hatch an idea: I was going to sell skin-care products to gay guys. Lord knows, there were enough of them in SF and the early eighties, 1983 to be exact, provided barely a product for men’s skin care, and men — gay or straight — spending money on skin care had yet to be widely recognized as a possible market.
I could feel it. This was going to be big. Huge! Massive! Men’s skin care was going to become a big market and I was going to be in the beginning, riding the wave. Except that’s not quite how it worked out.
So, now that I had my utterly brilliant income plan set out, in my mind, now I needed to find a way to keep my expenses down. If I could just find a place that would let me live rent-free in exchange for some work, that’d be cool. I was the eldest sibling and one well-attuned to household chores, keeping the home relatively clean and, as an athletic 20-year-old, I certainly wasn’t averse to hard work and physical labor. I was sure I could find someone who had a spare bedroom in exchange for some housekeeping, or something.
It was latter, the “or something,” that I found.
Maybe it was in the newspaper that I found the “or something.” Maybe it was a notice on a community bulletin board; that detail I don’t remember. What I do remember is driving into a less-than-fabulous neighborhood (well, almost any neighborhood in SF is more fabulous than neighborhoods in other communities, if we’re talking architecture, but I’m talking vibe and feel here). So, I drive into this neighborhood, pull up to a relatively normal-looking house and get greeted at the door by a guy whose name eludes me and whose exact features I don’t remember. But he was as a middle-aged guy still stuck in the ‘70s, ‘fro pulled out, leather jacket with wide, large lapels. (It was 1983, after all … not too far from the ‘70s. I guess I should give him some slack.)
We talk for a bit and then he shows me the room where I’d be living. Dang, if it doesn’t have the exact same carpeting as the house in which I grew up: avocado carpeting with a swirly pattern in the weave. I spent countless hours being a bored kid tracing the swirly patterns with my fingers. Every house in my neighborhood — growing up in the sprouting new town of Columbia, Maryland — had this pattern of carpet in either avocado, mustard or burnt orange, or, for the upscale option, they had shag. But the decor didn’t stop there. The room was furnished with pink everything: pink bedspread, pink table lamp, pink curtains. Whodathunkit? I get and understand pink and green in matching hues, but pink and avocado. I was starting to get worried. This was not matching my vision of what I’d seen at all.
Then Mr. Pulled-Out-’Fro explained to me, quite calmly, what it was he needed me to do. I was to stay at home and be available for drug deals. I don’t recall if he articulated which drug in particular for which I’d be at home at certain times — mind you, this is a pre cellphone-era. Maybe it was one drug, let’s say, marijuana. Maybe it was cocaine. Maybe it was what was hot that week. I don’t recall.
He must have seen something in me change. Maybe it was my quicker and shallower breaths, or maybe he saw a shift in body language. Perhaps my eyebrows went up in surprise when he told me it was that I’d be doing. In any case, he assured me that there was nothing to worry about. If I got busted, his lawyers would have me out in no time at all. He had it all covered, all figured out. He just needed someone like me to be available when he decreed, and I’d just stay at home in my nice pink-and-avocado-decorated room, whiling away the time. Easy peasy.
The free-room (complete with possible jail time) option now gone, I needed to look for a place to live. In a world sans-GPS machines for the masses and no cel phones, I did the best I could as one with very little capacity to navigate the world vis-a-vis flat maps: I retraced the steps my friend had driven to the all-day AA hangout space in The Castro. I think I even parked right in front of the same building. Then I walked the streets … looking.
A community bulletin board seemed a good place to start. It was covered with dozens of fliers, many of them with multiple phone numbers, cut and ready to be ripped off the flier. (You know what I’m talking about if you were a young adult or older prior to the nineties.) There I found a hand-written notice about a room for rent, a furnished room, no less, for $250 a month. I pulled one of the phone numbers off the flier, found a payphone and called.
Dean answered the phone, and after a short talk, he invited me over to see the place. It was a few blocks’ walk from where I was and, shortly, I was at the apartment: one floor up in a beautiful Victorian home at Noe and 14th. A gorgeous, tree-lined street just a couple blocks off of Market Street. Having arrived in San Francisco with little more than a car’s worth of stuff and not a lick of furniture, a furnished room in an apartment was perfect. It even came with bed sheets and pictures hung on my walls. Little did I know it also came with a fanatical redecorator.
Dean was pleasant enough, though not the smartest cookie in the jar. He was probably in his 40s, thin with sharp features, dark-haired, and he seemed to subsist on coffee, toast and cigarettes. I don’t think I ever saw him eat a real meal, or even an apple or banana for that matter. Toast, unbuttered, coffee, black, and cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes. But it was 1983, and, well, I guess that was ok then. I smoked then, too. It was a thing.
Nicely settled in my new home, I would often come home to find, for example, the living room repainted and much of the furniture and art switched around. This happened often. And quickly. I kid you not. I’d leave for work (another story) and come back nine, ten hours later to a redecorated space.
One day I came home and my own bedroom had been repainted, new art was on the walls and even all the clothes in my drawers had been neatly folded. I probably mumbled some sort of “thanks,” though if I probe my memory better, I think all Dean and I ever talked about was his redecorating, and part of my unofficial rent agreement was to dote on his interior decorating skills.
Yes, he was gay. His friends were all gay. And, bless his soul, for he was gay in a world that was only just starting to accept people being out. I was in San Francisco in 1983 and 1984; 1984 being the year AIDS rose up and spoke loud and large. The city’s gay community was in turmoil; bath houses, called to shut down; public health cries rising up; the community’s needs being expressed with more ferocity, demand and passion. It was 1984. A major culture shift year.
Dean died a few years later. Of complications from AIDS.
But this is a story about how I’ve come to find myself in the skincare industry a second time, right? So back to Mary Kay and my adventures there.
I signed up as a MK consultant, got two large pink plastic suitcase-y things filled to the brim with a range of foundations, make-up colors and skin care products. For many women, this may have been a moment of joy: make-up and skincare, wheee! Not for me.
I knew hardly anything about make-up, how to apply it, what to do for different effects. I didn’t know much about art and sculpture, about shadows and lights. There were pink, green, yellow and maybe even blue and white tints that somehow I was supposed to sell people because it would help them contour and shape the look of their face into something … better? Talk about a fish out of water! That was me, flapping on the dock. Clueless. And not just in a pre-internet, pre-learn-it-on-YouTube era, but generally just clueless about beauty and feminine arts.
Then there was the whole skin care line: cleansers and toners and moisturizers, oh my. Masks and emollients and eye cream, oh my. I’m telling you: Fish>Out>Of>Water! I had grown up with Dial, Zest and Irish Spring soap (all disgusting), or worse, generic soap meant to imitate these brands. One of my earlier memories of independence and consumer choice was riding my bike to the village center/shopping area two miles away and buying myself a bar of Neutrogena soap. It melted into practically nothing within a few weeks, the bar’s glycerin base and my keeping it in a soap dish with a smidge of water in the bottom wasn’t a good strategy for long-term use. But I was happy: I finally had my own soap and could use something other than these stinky, sticky bars of soap that always left me feeling slightly assaulted rather than clean.
It was another era in skin care in the ‘70s when I was a teen and rising into puberty. Noxzema was the other brand available. I just googled the ingredients, curious to know what I was putting on my face back then: Wikipedia tells me they are “camphor, menthol, phenol and eucalyptus, among other ingredients.” It was tingly all right. Effective, I don’t know, but tingly.
Then there was Clearasil. Clearasil cleaning pads (so expensive for my 13 year-old’s allowance) and the treatment cream to dry pimples … creams that also bleached the heck out of any clothes that came in contact with the product. (My teen years were filled with clothes with bleached collars and neck lines.)
That was my skincare understanding and regiment as a rising teen. My mother provided no direction and little support, I had no older siblings and none of my friends seemed to know much beyond what I knew: Neutrogena soap, Noxzema for “deep cleaning” and Clearasil to dry up my emerging pimples.
Oh, and then there was the if-only-I-could-turn-back-the-hands-of-time practice of picking at my skin. The products weren’t doing much: blackheads were emerging in frightening force and pimples seemed to pop up with no respect for the face upon which they were existing — mine!
Not that you, or anyone, needs a blow-by-blow of the emergence of pimples or a quantitative analysis of the number of blackheads per square inch of my face. And, clearly, I wasn’t experiencing anything particularly abnormal with my first few years of puberty. Teens and pimples; teens and blackheads; they kind of go together. No big deal, right?
But as I look back on my life and understand more about my own journey with my skin, I can see now, the beginnings, the hints, of what was going to become an obsessive and significant part of my daily life for the past 35 years: an attempt to be pure and free of these marks and blemishes. Even as I type these words, I can witness my brain making connections and understanding things deep and present in my programming and world view. I’ll see where these pages and my fingers typing take me in how much I’ll see, share, reveal.
In those early teen years, I spent countless hours trying to remove and extract each blackhead, and never was a pimple was never left alone to simply dry and go away. I attacked each and all with a vengeance, with purpose. And in doing so, I probably caused more skin damage, exacerbated any pimple inflammation and, in having low-grade products at hand, caused more scarring and long-term skin damage than had I been (relatively) at peace with my skin and allowed it its course.
My mother was a nurse. It was drilled into our heads that we rarely needed medicine or intervention, and that our bodies not only would heal themselves but that it would be made stronger for the process of the battle against an infection. I understood this with scrapes and cuts. With colds and flus. And rare was the day we were tromped off to the doctors’ office to address a current malady or illness.
So rare were these trips, in fact, that when I stepped on and was stung by a bee on 7-7-77 — and my face soon after was covered in hives while babysitting some neighbors’ kids — my mother’s response to send my nine year-old sister as my replacement while she rushed me to the doctors’ had me convinced I might not make it to see 7-8-77, though clearly, I did. And I did have years of experimental, and effective, allergen treatment in which eventually I was receiving the equivalent of 10 bee and wasp stings every two weeks to cure me. Yeesh.
So while, intellectually and experientially, I knew that my body would cure these staphloccus infections (the pimples), I never — ever — had the patience or trust that it would happen quickly enough. And my intervention — the squeezing, picking, FOCUS on and of them — made them worse by factors many times over. Not just in the short term but the long term.
One small scar on a 14 year-old’s fresh skin is nothing. Ah, whatever. It’s life. You get some scars, right? But add that up week after week, month after month, year after year. The irony is that in trying to thwart something — the blackheads, the pimples, the imperfections — I gave them more power: power over my time, my focus, my sense of self and, in the long run, a lasting impact of numerous small scars, enlarged pores hacked repeatedly to remove the offending blackheads and make myself appear clean … and free of fault or blemish.
I don’t know. I can wonder. I can speculate. But I don’t know.
I don’t know if the attempt to erase the show of puberty in the form of blackheads was to make the changes go away. For them not to be so. I can remember be curious, fascinated and mortified, at different times, regarding puberty and its arrival.
Was it an increasing awareness around beauty and the need for women/girls/ladies to be pretty to attract men/boys/gentlemen? I’d certainly not grown up with much orientation to beauty, finding more my comfort as a so-called tomboy in the company of the numerous, prevalent and popular boys in my neighborhood. I was so proud to play soccer on my neighborhood league team and wore with pride my SAC (Soccer Association of Columbia) navy blue team shirt, which indicated my team to be Thunder Hill. I wore said shirt each almost every single day in seventh grade. It was a clean shirt each day; I knew that. But it was the same shirt.
I remember I used to stare in fascination, with a curiosity my mind couldn’t sate, at a gal in my seventh grade French class. Her name was Annette, if I recall correctly. She was bigger than most of us — taller and heavier — and black with a very puffed out ‘fro which she kept pulled off her hair with a headband; she always sat in the front row, she was “the teacher’s pet” … and she wore a lot of pink. Pink dresses in particular. I could not comprehend why she did that. Seriously. What in the world would motivate anyone to wear a pink dress? I simply could not understand. And I would stare at her often, wondering, content with my outfit for the day: either jeans and my SAC navy blue shirt, or my tan corduroys and my SAC navy blue shirt.
It was another era. A Title IX era when girls were, by federal law, allowed to play sports in schools. Girls athletics, including mandated funding, were, in essence, a civil right that had been won just a few years prior. It was not the era of glitter-covered notebooks for girls, Girl Power pink T-shirts emblazoned with images of flowers and soccer ball, or sequined flip flops. It was the era of “girls can be like boys, too,” sorta. And while there were — Annette and others as testament — many a girl who had a proclivity, and probably parental support, to wear skirts and pink dresses, I did not.
This was 1975. Women were fighting for civil rights, the right for equal pay for equal work, the right to have a career beyond the prior choices of secretary, teacher or nurse, and the right to have choices defined of their own desires. I was 12, in seventh grade, playing soccer in the spring and fall, swimming in the summers, riding my bike wherever I needed to go, and playing “Smear the Queer” (a version of throw the ball, catch it and then tackle ruthlessly the catcher; rinse and repeat) with the neighborhood boys.
How could I have any sense of what was coming? What shifts were about to happen? How my life and life course, my identity and my understanding of myself, my body, my mind, my feelings … how could I comprehend that vastness of change that was right around the corner? Somehow, the pimples and the blackheads, the nascent body changes, my curiosity about Annette and her pink dress … all of these things portended great change.
No surprises here. Like every other human being who lives to see these years, I went through the developmental stage of puberty and into young adulthood. My body changed, I tried to figure out how to make my hair mold into wings like Farrah Fawcett’s, and I even bought some blush and eye make-up, though I was expressly forbidden from wearing make-up until I was 16. As much as I complained and whined and shouted how about that wasn’t fair, I was actually grateful, between me and me, because I didn’t really know what to do and make-up was way too adult and sophisticated for the person I was inside.
I was also forbidden to shave my legs or date until I was 16.
But at 13, I started to take control of my wardrobe. Well, as much as I could. My mother and I had had a row over a shirt she bought me for my thirteenth birthday. I didn’t like it. She said she liked it a lot, to which I told her then she should wear it; to which she responded, “Fine, you can buy your own clothes from now on.” She gave me $200 for my year’s wardrobe and promised to always make sure I had a good winter coat and a good pair of shoes. Beyond that it was my budget, my choices and my responsibility.
I had no older sister, my mother was a nurse and had three types of outfits — nurse clothes, dancing clothes (she and my dad were seriously into international folk dancing) and gardening clothes; there was no internet to turn to for fashion advice, and TV programming was not designed with teens and young adults in mind at that time. It was the mid-’70s, an era in which the Silent Generation made it clear that the personal development and life path of adults was most important; children — the faster they grew up, the better — were served by exposure to life’s harsh realities, rather than being protected from them. Mind you, of course, other girls’ moms were shopping for and with them, buying them clothes and making sure they were primped and preened, but I got a very classic, iconic GenX childhood. And so be it, I’m an early-wave GenXer.
So as I transitioned from tomboy-hood to puberty, without any female guidance, with very little help and resources aimed at teens and with little personal knowledge of what to do, my understanding of skin care, make-up and fashion were rather hobbled by almost no information, save a few ads, and mother-to-daughter message that said, “these things aren’t important.” (My mother was 52 before she got her ears pierced and I once called my siblings living in another state to tell them something was up with our mom as I had spotted her wearing nail polish, a very light pink nail polish, sometime in her early 50s!)
I slogged through my high school years probably as depressed and confused as any other kid; maybe more so; maybe less so. Eventually a cheerleader, an honor student, a soccer player, an avid pot-smoker and whatever other combination of high-school-ness I had, I passed my teens and into my twenties, ready as ever for my pimples and blackheads to go away. They were just a symptom of the transition into puberty, a teen thing, right?
I remember being rather shocked and somewhat confused when my skin didn’t clear up in my twenties. Not only did it not clear itself of these teenager pimples and blackheads, but they almost seemed to get worse. Why not get into the skincare business? Mary Kay was certainly a reputable name and company.
So, at the ripe age of 20, a new resident of one of the gayest cities in the world, with my Mary Kay pink party (and product) bags in hand, my new career as a hip skin care sales rep serving the vibrant gay community seemed a sure bet; my path was clear, my future success, a breeze.
Except, of course, that’s not at all how it played out.
There was this huge hurdle to jump which is that I knew nothing about sales, had no confidence about sales and was, frankly, mortified of doing sales. Twenty, young, inexperienced, my job history including filing receipts at a rental company, head cashier at a popular local pizza place, various dining hall jobs while in college, a research position and a slew of babysitting and house-sitting gigs in my early years, I had no firm ground upon which to stand. Well, that’s how it felt, at least. And it was another era. The self-help movement had yet to arrive en masse, the publishing era hadn’t met desktop publishing yet and the interwebs were, if anything, a playground of the uber-geeks and aspies.
My Mary Kay sponsor, Jody, tried to show me how to sell Mary Kay by taking me along to a party or two, but I just didn’t have it; I didn’t have the product comfort, the skincare knowledge and especially not the cajones to try to sell skin care and/or make-up. (Oh, yeah, the make-up part: I thought/figured/assumed that some gay men might be interested in some light foundation and cover up. Seemed a good enough idea.)
Along the way, in using the products, my own skin did not react well to the Mary Kay product line. I know millions of people are very happy with the products, and I trust they’ve made improvements over the years, but in 1983, at the age of 20, with my own skin producing oil and ripe conditions for acne and blackheads, the addition of the Mary Kate skin care and make-up was like pouring grease on a fire. My skin reacted so badly, flaring up with deep, painful pimples more intense, uncomfortable and difficult to treat than anything I’d encountered before. Any attempts to improve the condition with the products made my situation even worse.
I eventually went on antibiotics to try to clear my skin (a first, and the only time I’ve ever done so), and I used a topical antibiotic for over six months before my skin eventually returned to its normal level of pimples and blackheads (which was still a lot more than most other 20 year-olds’.)
Full of fear, armed with almost zero knowledge, having little to no support from the company and with my skin looking absolutely the worst it had ever been by a factor of many, I floundered in the business, I flailed, and I, eventually, folded in and failed in my first forray into the skincare business.
The short version of my short history of a Mary Kay rep is, of course, that I failed. The more interesting way of saying this, I believe, is that me and my life took a different turn.
Who’s to say one path is better, more right, the best? We get the lives we get, and we make of them what we do. Our will, our destiny, our karma, our choices … some combination thereof in some formula that I’m sure all makes sense somewhere in the scheme of things is clicking along, allowing us all the opportunity for joy and happiness, much of which seems to come, at least on this planet, from overcoming adversity, facing challenges and wending our way through life on a path of development and progress that may not always be clean, clear and obvious to the outside observer … and most certainly to ourselves. That’s how my life has felt, at least.
My time in San Francisco, as a twenty-year-old in the city, was at a time of great cultural change. I’d learn later in life about generations and “turnings” and would come to understand that 1984 was a Third Wave Turning in which GenXers were rising into young adulthood, Boomers were moving into middle-age, the Silent Gen was moving into elderhood and a brand new generation — Millennials — was just emerging in the maternity wards across America. But that’s part of the beauty of generations and cycles; they don’t require conscious knowledge, belief or adherence. They happen. And while my own young adulthood and life started in San Francisco, a city roiling from the AIDS epidemic, springing with new technology emergence and the feeling of “something new” coming, the whole country was also beginning to feel the shift. It just happened to be more visible in a city, in a city in America, in a progressive city in America and a progressive, gay-friendly city in America.
One way I experienced this cultural change was in a newly emerging area of employment: temp workers. Not factory, shift, hourly workers, but professional, white-collar and pink-collar (it was the ‘80s) work. I did temp work in the highest of high level offices of AT&T-turned-PacBell. I floated around the city and across the bridge to East Bay. I rarely knew if I had work for the coming week, and even if I did, that was subject to change. Society might as well have put up big bulletin boards and run an ad campaign that said, “Welcome to Young Adulthood, GenXers. Go figure it out and count on us for nothing.” But I don’t think any of us expected otherwise; it’s our generation’s lot in life.
Seeing my inconsistency with work, my roommate Dean offered to connect with me some good-paying work. All I needed to do, he explained, was beat, abuse and dominate some men. A dominatrix would be my job, and he told me it paid well, required few hours and that training for the job was available.
The lure of the big money for few hours of work was appealing, but I knew, deeply and fully, that this choice was one of those forks in the road: the kind of fork that once taken would change many things in my life. While no one held a crystal ball, I knew this was not a choice to activate. I’ve come to know people who have made such choices and love them all for following their own paths; however, for me, this was not in the cards, as they say. I knew, felt it … and plodded along wearing suits and ’80s professional attire at my very off-an-on-again temp work in San Francisco’s financial district and beyond.
I had tasted corporate life in a mega/behemoth/massive corporation — AT&T in the executive offices at the time of divestiture (when the courts mandated the company break up into regional and separate companies). I typed letters on carbon paper and one day cried bitterly at my desk when the senior secretary who supervised me refused to accept a memo I’d typed for one of the execs because I had corrected a letter with White-Out™. For those of you only alive in a post-computer world, said product was a gloopy, opaque liquid applied over an offending typo that, when dried, allowed the typist to place on the paper a different letter or word. I tried typing the memo again. It wasn’t perfect again; she refused it again. And this went on for a few rounds.
I knew this couldn’t be right. There was something profoundly wrong with this situation. I don’t know if I could give it words, but it would have sounded something like” NOT THIS!” And yet it was 1983. The skies weren’t bright and open for young career women. Heck, I wasn’t even a “young career woman” (though that term was rather apropos to the ‘80s), I was a 20-year-old kid trying to make some money in a city where I had few connections, in an era when typing pools (envision lots of women, mostly, sitting in a room typing memos, papers and reports … all day long) still existed and were considered the norm, and in a cultural era where the Boomers were just starting to get into mid-management and weren’t about to budge or mentor their junior colleagues.
Eventually, I found my way to some temp work in the City of San Francisco, first in the typing pool, but within a week, in The Computer Room! This was a sealed-off, air-conditioned room with lots of not-particularly-handsome, mostly older men who were doing “computer work.” It was exciting, new and, even though I was still mostly typing and entering data, I was in heaven: it felt fresh, forward and exciting.
By this time, my Mary Kay pink bags had been given/sold/I don’t remember back to my sponsor. I had declared myself a Women’s Studies major in my first year of college at the age of 18, but there wasn’t a degree in said subject, per se. My next year as an exchange student at San Diego State University, I’d found an interesting research assistant job for a woman writing a book about women and technology (there wasn’t much to research, I can guarantee you that … ), and in my part-time-ness at San Francisco State University, I had “happened” to find and sign up for the first two culture and technology courses offered by the school, ever. I took them both. Working at the city in their “computer room,” taking classes about culture and technology with an eye to my intended degree, and living in a beautiful, world class city, things once again were feeling good.
Eventually I headed back to Maryland, presented my idea for a self-designed degree in Culture & Technology: How women and men are affected differently by technology, and proceeded along those lines to be aware and always watching a cultural change of mass proportions, both while it was happening in front of my eyes, and historically, back through time. A job in said field, with just an undergraduate degree was near impossible as the concept of culture and technology was not yet “a thing,”, but in the realm of energy and intention, I got such a job. It was in the heart of D.C. working for an emerging nonprofit. Oh, yeah, forgot to mention, it was an unpaid job. An internship. For a year.
I was in my early 20s. It was the mid-’80s. Hair volume was not just a thing, but the thing. I used hair products to mold and form my hair, to give my already full-bodied hair even more volume. My skin, however, was not digging this. I’ve fidgeted a fair amount my many years, often touching my hair, touching my face, my hands, my arms. My hands so often felt sticky and gross. And my acne wasn’t any better despite having left my teen years behind. Somehow I’d assumed that blackheads and pimples were a teen thing and that they went away when one was no longer a teen. This was, alas, hardly the case for me.
One day my hairdresser suggested a new product: Molding Mud. It was a new product (read: more chemicals!) to create volume while still keeping one’s hair soft, vs the often hard and crunchy effect of other styling gels so popular in the ‘80s. I was keen to try it, so I did.
Within a week, the breakouts and deep, painful pimples on my face, especially around my jaw line, had emerged in full force. A light bulb of awareness went on in my head and I understood that what went on my hair, went on my hands, and what went on my hands, eventually was on my face. I stopped using the product right away and from then on watched carefully as I tried different hair products to see how they affected my face.
Over the years — and as the ‘80s hair volume craze subsided — I aimed to use more natural products, even trying at one point to use olive oil straight out of the bottle and coconut oil, too. I had mild success. Then I decided to use lotions, balms and emollients. Nivea skin cream, Honeybees cream and more. I figured if whatever I was going to put on my hair was eventually going to land on my skin and face — through hair touching, fidgeting and so on — that I might as well start with the end in mind. This worked best of all my approaches over the decades.
Until, that is, I made the leap and went no-poo, where I don’t use any shampoo on my hair. It can take a week or so–a challenging week–for your hair and scalp to balance out, as it did for me. The results, though, are amazing. My hair and scalp are naturally moisturized by my hair oil. I know, it can sound gross to the uninitiated, but it works. It’s God’s system; the natural way. My hair feels richer and silkier than ever before, I need no styling gels and anytime I touch my hair, the oils on my hands (that eventually get to my face and skin) are all natural. It works for me. And I love it.
More so, I love that I’m at peace with my hair. It’s there, my hair, every day, every time I look in the mirror. Sometimes it’s grand and glorious; sometimes it’s awkward and odd; sometimes it’s fine and ok … it’s like life. I can’t make it be what it doesn’t want to be. I can’t force it into some vision of what it should do at this exact moment in time. Yes, I get a good cut and color; I haven’t gone all granola and hippy; and, yes, I do pay for my dirty-blonde color. But the texture, the shape, the smell and the expression of my hair is real, and that is what feels good.
People (MEN) often tell me I should grow my hair long. I have grown my hair long. And short. And medium. I’ve permed it, died it, blow dried it, curled it. What haven’t I done to it? Now, I care for it … and then let it be. It’s glorious … inside and out.
I’m writing these pages in fits and bursts. One a day. Though not one each day. The stories told here aren’t particularly sequential. Today I am just back from Burning Man, my annual trip to Mecca, wherein I am cleansed, renewed, rebalanced. Burning Man is held in an ancient, dried sea bed, flat and vast, dry and devoid of any life that anyone would recognize with their eyes. There is no scrub, no brush, no trees, no cacti. Not a plant visible. Any bug found probably came in on a truck someone drove in.
The dust at Burning Man, an event which is held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, is for many a spiritual experience. There’s no comparison to it. No equivalent elsewhere. It’s not dirt of Earthen making. It’s not sand, as one might associate with a desert. It’s dust. Talc. Alkaline. Burning if left too long on sensitive skin such as lips. It gets everywhere. It coats everything. And it’s magical. There’s no escaping it. There’s no ability to be clean of it. We inhale it, smell it deep in our reptilian brains; we eat it as it gets in our food and we drink it as it gets in our cups. We sleep with it, play with it, make love in it. It’s everywhere.
My skin is coated in the dust. My hair, too. After two days at Burning Man and the playa, I can’t get a comb through my hair. I do, sometimes, give myself a thorough sponge bath and lotion-up afterward, and I’m lucky enough to be in a village (a super-organized group) that offers showers. But the feeling of being “clean” and dust-free is temporary; the dust settles back in right away, and I am, once again, dusty.
The texture of my skin changes with the dust. It’s an annual experience I have (one I relish!) in which my whole relationship to my body, skin and hair changes. Any modern/current/2014-ish definition of clean is jettisoned. The playa dust feels clean. It absorbs oils in the skin. And sweat. My hands feel clean, though covered in dust. My skin feels clean, though covered in dust. There’s a purity and a purification that comes from this dust.
I had visions of bringing my Nerium creams and treating half my body with the Nerium cream; the other half with “normal” cream and moisturizer to see how that would work. This didn’t happen. I’d forgotten how much more complex and time-consuming even the smallest of tasks can be on the playa.
On my final day there, packing down the last bits of the village infrastructure, doing a sweep on the ground for any bits of MOOP (matter out of place, i.e. trash), I ran my fingers through the soft alkaline dust. I wanted to roll in it and cover myself fully in the dust so that it’d be in every pore in my body. While 340-some odd days of the year, I aim to be clean, free of anything on me, these days on the playa, I relish the contact with this substance covering the land, this moon-like, alien, ever-so-comfortable dust.
I was graced later that afternoon by an epic dust storm which, in effect, covered me and everyone else in dust. My eyelashes, every single hair on my body and face, my whole body … I was awash in dust. I bothered not to get my goggles or dust mask, instead taking a final bath for the year in the dust.
As life goes on, we accumulate in our personal histories conversations. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of conversations, short and long. Most probably long forgotten; some seemingly etched indelibly in our lives … moments when the information and the exchange caused something in our brains and lives to re-examine, to re-order and to re-imagine.
One such conversation for me was as I was leaving the country of Namibia. It was the early ‘90s, my brother and sister were both teachers in the nascent-to-independence country and my mother and I had joined them for an epic, weeks-long trip through the country. I was leaving earlier than my mother and needed a ride to the capital city and the airport. How to get there? No shuttle service or taxi. That’s for sure. No Lyft, Uber or Zip cars; it was another era and another realm of the world.
Somehow I got a ride with a middle-aged German man and we traveled together for a few hours en route to the capital city of Windhoek. I don’t recall 97 percent of the conversation, but I do recall that he spoke with relish about the opportunity to not bathe for several weeks, how his skin had the chance to get re-moisturized with his natural body oils and rebalanced with his natural bacteria.
I think my brain did a, “Halt! What! Replay. Rewind. What did this guy just say? Huh. He wants to not wash, to not cleanse, to not rinse away the dirt, grime, accumulation of body waste (sweat, pheromones, etc.)?” I didn’t understand — or appreciate — then that there is a massive difference in the feeling of cleanliness (even in the midst of being “dirty” and unwashed) that comes from city/suburb/pollution/chemicals/smog vs the kind of “dirty” that comes from being outside, in dirt, open air, away from the things of man. It would take me more camping trips, more cabin trips, more self-awareness and more curiosity to understand there are very different types of feelings of clean and dirty.
On that day, in this I-don’t-remember-his-name German man’s car, as he extolled the awesomeness of weeks without a shower, of his body oils having the time and opportunity to nourish and replenish his skin’s moisture levels and for his skin to have a break from the harshness of chemicals, soap and cleansers, I did find myself utterly aghast and concurrently fascinated.
In my late 20s at the time, my own body was pouring out oil (sebum), sweat, pheromones. I felt my skin and its eruptions — pimples and blackheads mostly — was a constant battleground of clean vs not-clean … I felt that somehow I could get ahead of it, or, if not, at least fight the battle and keep the enemy from advancing too far. My own ignorance of skin, internal chemistry, ecosystems, self-love, emotions and cycles was such a battlefield in its own right; how could I possibly have understood then that harmony and balance were possible?
On that day, in that car, a seed of a thought was planted in me. My body has more ability, more power and more self-knowledge than I had been giving it.