As I edged my way towards my teen years, Helen Reddy’s song, “I Am Woman”, was adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Lib movement, catapulting it to the top of the music charts. This conflagration of events ignited my mother’s rebellion against my father’s restrictions.
The irony of my mother’s name being ‘Helen’ here wasn’t lost on any of us then. She would declare herself “Helen Ready” and with this song playing at high volume in the house, Mom proclaimed herself an emancipated woman. She changed her wardrobe from house dresses and cobbler aprons to pants and tunics, dyed her hair blonde, and put on makeup. To top it all off, she also began smoking cigarettes in public. (Up until then, she only smoked at home, and then she didn’t inhale. Yeah, I knew what that meant way before Bill Clinton showed up on the national scene.) Within a year, Mom handed me her apron, mop, and frying pan, and took a full time job, leaving the care of the house and my younger brother to me.
The fact that expressing her independence included putting on makeup, seemed ironic. The point of the feminist movement was to reject external limitations on women, famously argued for in Ms. magazine and demonstrated with bra burning episodes smeared across the tabloids’ front pages. No, this was about direct rebellion against ‘the dictator’ and his dictates, pure and simple.
There were both benefits and disadvantages to me in this battle of the sexes playing out in my parents’ house. In me, Mom saw an ally; someone to shop with her for new clothes, and play with makeup. It was difficult for Dad to resist us both. And I wasn’t looking to anger him so I refrained from going to extremes with makeup or anything else. I knew he had enough stress in his life with Mom’s being bipolar. Her self-proclaimed independence was exacerbating the ongoing argument between them exponentially.
So for Dad, I kept the peace as well as a smooth-running household. Everything was clean and seamless in its operation based on what I’d learned in my earlier years. I improvised and embellished when inspired to do so, especially in cooking, where I seemed to be most creative.
Years later, I realized my dad’s insistence that I not wearing makeup wasn’t because he believed me to be pretty or anything like that. That just wasn’t something that was ever said in my childhood home. No one ever told me I was beautiful, or even pretty for that matter, until I met Len. Not that it was important, but it mattered. It just about always matters to women despite what we might tell you. No, Dad’s decision was based on cultural and religious beliefs imprinted on him by his parents, who’d immigrated from Italy. It was because of the belief that ‘only whores and fast women painted their faces’ that I was restricted. His dictates were based on fear and restriction, not in seeing me.
I internalized my parents’ struggle with each other and themselves, and through the years it showed up in different ways, not only in my wardrobe and makeup, but in my career choices, and relationships — especially how I interact with our children. Along the way, I have learned not only how I make the choices that I have, but why. Maybe Dad had the right idea all along, even if for the wrong reasons. It was always my choice to take on the beliefs, or not. I simply didn’t realize I had a choice. Until now.
As this goes to publish, the month-long reveal of peeling back the layers of my unconscious, culminating in the removal of my physical and energetic mask is winding down. There’s no longer a charge on how I feel when I see my reflection, just as there is no longer the need to explain or apologize to anyone for my appearance. It’s none of my business what anyone thinks of me. What matters is how I feel about myself, and who I think I am.
Copyright 2014 by Donna Cerame. All rights reserved.