Womanhood was a difficult thing to get a grip on in those hills, unless you were a man. My sisters and I used to cling desperately to anything halfway feminine. For a long time I was a tomboy, but once I got a better idea of what it meant to be a woman, I wanted it with everything in me. We used to love when our aunts would come to visit. They had been out of the mountains, even to other states, and they knew so  much. We thought they were incredibly sophisticated and worldly. Best of all, they had purses filled with lipstick and powder and eyeliner and all kinds of things we had no access to. This was the real ammunition in the battle of the sexes.

They would sometimes let us explore these bags of ammo, and we would do so with all of the awe you would expect from art lovers touring a museum.

Lipstick was the most fascinating thing to me because it was red and got the most attention. Also, it went on the mouth, which I figured was about the sexiest part of a woman that was all right to show in public. For this, I used Merthiolate. Mama always kept a supply of it around to put on our cuts so that it would look stupid and burn like forty hells. If your lips were dry and chapped, and mine often were, it could sting like fire when you put it on. It wasn’t exactly red, a little too orangey, and was truly capable of making us look trashy and bearing out Daddy’s worst nightmares.

If we were lucky, we would have Mercurochrome. It was a truer red and didn’t burn so much. The one thing they both had in common was their ability to stain the lips so that the colour would last for several days. This meant that Daddy was bound to notice. “Where did you get lipstick?” he would demand through gritted teeth. “It’s not lipstick, Daddy. It’s my natural coloring,” was always the plea delivered in spurts between frustrated wipes with a coarse washcloth.

Next came face powder, or at least my substitute for it – flour. I didn’t have anything to even approximate base makeup, so I figured the flour would help hide my freckles. I hate my freckles even before my brothers figured that out and used it to torment me unmercifully. My “powder” also helped to hide the dirt. I wanted to be feminine, but apparently not at the price of having to actually break down and wash my face. This would have seemed like an act of treason against all of kiddom.

After considerable experimentation, I found that the most reasonable facsimile I could find for eye makeup was to burn kitchen matches, lick the blackened ends, and apply the black paste to my eyebrows and lashes. My impatience to become a woman sometimes caused me to get a burned tongue. It took several matches to do each eye, and I have never been one who found it easy to wait for anything.

Finally, I would use the juice of pokeberries for rouge and sometimes to color my lips. It stained almost as badly as Merthiolate, and I went through several days of looking like a clown before I learned the subtleties of pokeberry rouge. When the pokeberries weren’t in season, the pain I endured for the sake of beauty was of a shorter duration, but more intense. I would simply pinch the devil out of my cheeks until they took on a red blush. This would give a more satisfactory look than the tricky pokeberries, but the effect wore off and my “rouge of pain” had to be reapplied on a regular basis.

The quest for beauty has always been a struggle for me. I can’t remember anybody ever saying that I was one of the more beautiful children they had ever seen. I was a pale skinny little thing with corn teeth and hair that was fine and close to my head. And then there were those hated freckles. You could not have said that I was “as cute as a speckled pup” without the speckled pup to piss on your leg out of resentment.

Those old seeds of doubt about my looks have grown into quite a bumper crop for many a makeup artist, wig maker and plastic surgeon.

Source: Dolly – My Life and Other Unfinished Business. 1994