I’ve lived in New Haven, Connecticut for the past decade, but I grew up in the hood. It’s fine, I can say that—I say it with love, and with some sadness, because my neighborhood and all the ones around it are rapidly gentrifying. I’m used to huge rats and flying cockroaches and pigeons having loud sex in the air conditioning units, but when I went to college and found a ladybug flying in my dorm room, I cried and called my dad to ask what to do. I had never seen a ladybug. When my younger brother (who was named after legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter) used to visit, he would tell his friends he was visiting his sister “in the country.” And last week, we had a blackout in the country. A blackout in the middle of a pandemic in the middle of a heat wave—I tried to stay calm.
As a writer, I have worked from home for many years, and having my book tour canceled and replaced by Zoom was a dream for me. I’m an amateur performance artist in the style of Amy Sedaris or a melodramatic toddler in drag, and the medium suited me. I’d wake up and meditate for about 30 minutes, doing body scans in particular. They help me think about my body as something…neutral. Not a political cry or battleground, not as this powerful! strong! invincible! ideal that often gets foisted onto women of color. I often feel fragile and soft, like a piece of paper soaking in water, yet unsure what sharing those moments would do to help other femmes of color. During my body scans, on the floor, my body takes up space. That mere fact feels radical.
After I meditated, I showered. I soaped my body with Body Hero, which doesn’t smell too sweet or gendered, then used a thick eczema lotion from La Roche-Posay followed by Herbivore Jasmine Body Oil. It reminded me that I was alive, still alive, a miracle, when so many who looked like me were dying from contagion. I felt guilty, and lucky—a miracle. And so I treated my body like it was rare.
Next, I put on light clothing and Stan Smiths and sat down at my desk to do my makeup. When I was growing up, my mom didn’t wear makeup unless it was for church—to be seen and admired by other women. Always dodging my father’s demands that she also wear it at home, she said to me, privately, that makeup is personal and not worn for a man. I’m queer, and I have borderline personality disorder, and am an undocumented immigrant in America, and my relationship with myself is shaky. So regardless of whether I’m at home, on a reporting trip, or doing something to promote my work, I always prepare the same way. I did the same routine in the blackout.
I parted my black hair in the middle and brushed it into a slicked bun taut with gel. Of course, I put on my hoops. Then I hydrated my dry skin and started my makeup: bronzed, flushed, like I just ran, like I just came back from the beach, like I just orgasmed, like I’m not vitamin D deficient, like I’ve been to block parties and street fairs, getting funnel cake from my Italian neighbors and arepas from my Colombian neighbors and gyros from my Greek neighbors. I used the Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer with SPF which is dewy but hides no blemish. I do not want to hide. I used the Hourglass lengthening mascara on vampier days, and the Ilia mascara on days when I wanted my lashes to look long but not glamorous. Most importantly, I finished with the Patrick Ta Crème and Powder Blush Duo. On my lips was a tinted balm like the Dr. PawPaw Rich Moca balm or Hurraw Hazelnut, which is slightly glossy, intensely moisturizing, and delicious. I love supporting brands by women of color like Mented, Fenty, Beauty Bakerie. As a Latina, I’m excited for Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty launch because her beauty philosophy seems a lot like mine.
After I put myself together inch by inch, I looked at the paper doll I created and I thought, “She seems nice. Her eyes look sad but they seem kind, and her eyelashes are long. How pretty. I like her. I think I’ll keep her.” I poured myself a gin and tonic in a mug supporting the national parks and wondered why my readers thought I so savored my coffee at 8PM. My look was fully glamorous, and the characters I’d put on made talking to journalists about intergenerational trauma easier. One journalist who did not do her fact-checking wrote that I had a “FUCK ICE” tattoo on my arm—in reality, it was KVD eyeliner.
In the dark, in the middle of the night, I am bombarded by thoughts that I am worth nothing. I have supported both of my parents financially throughout the quarantine, and since I have always been a statistical anomaly it is hard for me to love myself outside of my accomplishments. (My accomplishments keep my family, and members of my community, alive.) It often feels like there are crosshairs on my beautiful brown, smooth, oiled, camelia flowers-from-the-Body-Shop-scented back, which is exactly why beauty isn’t superfluous to me. These routines ground me. I don’t always feel happy, but as an immigrant, a queer woman, a sullen girl, it is important for my dignity. And sometimes that means looking like an Almodovar muse even when I’m writing from bed, in a blackout, in a heat wave, in a pandemic.
—Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Photo via ITG