In my sobriety journey one of the issues I have been walking through is my struggle with vanity. As a kid, I got called ugly all the time by my peers, both boys and girls. It absolutely hurt me to my core. It wasn’t just once or twice, it was often and it was widespread. I heard it from kids at my own school, from kids in my neighborhood, from kids at church camp, kids on the bus, just everywhere. In 5th grade an older boy in my neighborhood casually referred to me as “that girl with the horse head” and all the other boys standing there just about died laughing. From then on until I moved away to a new town I couldn’t walk outside or ride my bike through my neighborhood without hearing some kid say “Hey horse head”. I can’t recall who said it but there’s a joke that goes, “If a guy calls you ugly he is being mean, if a girl calls you ugly she’s jealous, but if a kid calls you ugly, you’re ugly.” I was 100% certain I was ugly.
When I was about 15 that started to change. I remember with clarity how I came back to my junior high as a freshman in high school to visit my 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Lopez. She said to me, “Wow Liz! You have really gotten very pretty over the summer! I mean, you were pretty before, but you have really gotten even prettier!” I didn’t know what to say so I just said, “Thank you Mrs. Lopez, I think you’re pretty too!” That was the first time anyone other than my mom or dad told me I was pretty, and the first time I considered that I might not be ugly to everyone. After that I started working to be pretty. I paid attention to fashion and tried to dress in style as much as possible (my family couldn’t afford lots of name brand clothing). I would stay up late practicing putting on makeup and fixing my hair. I think my Dad was convinced I was going to try sneaking out of the house but I would just wash it all off and go to bed.
Makeup became a security blanket for me. That’s not to say that I wore it 100% of the time, but rather I knew I could put it on and transform my appearance. At school, preparing for a theatre competition once, a friend said to me (with no makeup on and her hair in curlers) “It’s okay if people see me like this right now because I know I’ll be cute later,” so I learned to keep in mind that I could always fix my hair and makeup and be cute, and that’s where I derived my confidence from. It’s okay if you think I’m ugly because I can fix myself up and knock your socks off. So I thought that was true self confidence.
When I started coming to Celebrate Recovery at church it was really hard. It felt like walking into a carnival fun house full of mirrors and every one reflected an image back at me of selfishness, excess, drunkenness, uncontrollable rage, gluttony and shame. It was physically painful being there. After coming I realized that even though I had achieved sobriety and maintained it for two years, I hadn’t ever dealt with the root causes of my alcoholism, and at first I felt very victimized by the program which asks attendees to self examine and look at the wrong turns that brought them to a place of addiction. After recognizing that this was not victimization but actually healing, I asked God to start revealing my masks to me. I have long known I am a mask wearer. Not the COVID surgical masks we are all necessarily wearing lately, but the metaphorical masks many people wear to convince everyone else we are functional adults with our lives together.
I put on the mask of humor to cover my parenting mistakes and upsets. I put on the mask of nonchalance and apathy to cover my grief over broken friendships. I put on the mask of contented domesticity to cover my shame over my professional failures. For me, getting made up was another mask. It covered my insecurities about my looks. Paradoxically, it was also a power trip. If I felt like being lazy and not showering it was okay because I would be cute later when I decided to get dolled up. I thought beauty was a garment I could put on and wear at my choosing. I thought that made me powerful, but really I was a slave to it. My appearance had become an idol to me, because I thought my beauty was tied to makeup. That thought was buried so deep that I didn’t even recognize it as a conscious belief. Outwardly I projected confidence, but inwardly I was still horse head. I kept those feelings buried deep inside.I hadn’t dealt with my identity as the little girl who cried alone in her bedroom because she knew she was ugly.
So as He does, God started working on me. He put absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful women in my life who I almost never saw wearing makeup. He showed me that they didn’t look much different when they do wear it. I wondered if I could be like that, so I did an experiment. I was attending my church’s women’s retreat so I thought, this is a safe place, it’s going to be all women, I know I won’t be the only one there without makeup on. So I chose not to wear any. It was really freeing to connect with people and not feel like I had to be all done up. On Sunday though, I decided to put some makeup on. I thought, I’m going home, I’m going to see my husband today, I should look cute. It wasn’t really for my husband though. He has seen me innumerable times looking an absolute wreck. But that’s the excuse I made to myself. That’s what I thought at the top of my reasoning. My true motivations though were buried a little deeper. I hadn’t looked cute the whole time I was there, and I wanted to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t just a sloppy human, I had the capability to look good. So as I got out my makeup I started to feel conviction from the Holy Spirit. Don’t do this. You don’t have to. You don’t need to. I was confused and irritated because it’s just makeup. So I disregarded Him and as some of y’all may know when you ignore the Holy Spirit He just tends to get louder. So I went to go put on my makeup and as I reached for my concealer out of my purse I actually looked at it and for the first time I realized the tube doesn’t say “concealer” it says “CONCEAL” in all caps. The font is rather intense actually, it looks like you’d imagine a file marked “CLASSIFIED” in a 007 movie might look.
As I held it in my hands the Holy Spirit said “Conceal means hide.” I rolled my eyes and was like “I know.” So He said, “Go look out the window.” I was full on acting like a sullen teenager though. This is stupid, no. I thought. So He reminded me that to do my makeup I probably needed the rest of my makeup that was in my makeup bag in my suitcase around the corner. So as I went to go grab it I caught a glimpse out the big picture window in our room. The beautiful pinks and oranges of early dawn breaking over the Texas Hill Country struck me and I was transfixed, and as I stood there gazing in wonder He said gently, “What of my creation needs to be hidden?”
Y’all would think I would have stopped right then, but I didn’t. I was disobedient and headstrong insisting that I wasn’t sinning and therefore didn’t need to stop. As I continued putting on my makeup He continued convicting me “Wasn’t it you, just yesterday, telling Danielle that God made her to be exactly who she is including the parts she sees as flaws? Did He not also make you that way?” As I finished putting on my makeup I looked at myself in the mirror and He said, “You’re not more beautiful now than you were before.” and for the first time I saw it. I saw through the mask. I audibly groaned out loud in irritation. “FINE!” Fortuitously, or by design, there happened to be a bowl of individually wrapped makeup wipes on the counter provided by the property. I took one and made good use of it, washed my face and left to go to breakfast. At breakfast one of the women from my retreat small group said she thought she had never seen me before the retreat but after seeing me with my hair down and fixed she realized she did recognize me from around church. So I shared with her and the rest of the table that I had started my morning with a big dose of conviction and told the story of my makeup struggle.
After retreat I kept tugging on that thread. Why did God convict me of wearing makeup? I didn’t feel like He was convicting all makeup. It felt really very personal to me. But why? And then He revealed to me, “Because you asked me to.” He reminded me I asked Him to help me remove my masks and learn more about myself.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
Psalms 139:23 NIV
I have long called myself a social chameleon but I only recently realized that it is a trauma induced defense mechanism. I was really very sensitive as a kid and it was super easy to hurt my feelings. I learned pretty quickly that if you cry in front of a bully you pretty much make their whole day. And I didn’t just cry when I was hurt, I cried when I was frustrated or angry. So I learned to stuff my emotions to the point where I actually had a hard time crying when I really wanted or needed to, sort of like Cameron Diaz’s character in The Holiday. After that, I learned to ingratiate myself to people. Eventually I got so skilled at this that I could enter a room, spend about five minutes getting to know the feel of the group and then simply adapt to who they wanted me to be. I could charm everyone in pretty much any environment. I didn’t do this to intentionally be manipulative, I did it because if I act how people want or expect me to act, then they won’t be mean to me. They won’t single me out or make fun of me. I will be accepted and not rejected. It’s a false acceptance though because it’s based on a false persona. God on the other hand, truly accepts me, and wants me to accept myself. He knows me fully and has since before I was born. He sees through all the masks and knows the real me, even when I don’t know myself. Pretending to be who everyone else wants me to be for so long brought me to a place where I didn’t even know myself. What DO I like? What DO I believe? Even I didn’t know, and it is harmful to exist in that space. I constantly felt like a victim because I was being hurt, but no one else knew I was being hurt because I hadn’t ever shared the truth of myself with them. The raw, vulnerable, sensitive person that I really am I kept hidden deep inside. But hiding wasn’t protecting me from being hurt, it was simply protecting others from knowing they had hurt me. My friends and family are not bullies though, and they need to know when I feel hurt so that we can resolve it.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
James 1:5 NIV
Praise God for giving me wisdom to know myself. Praise Him for showing me that I am still beautiful without makeup, that I can wear it if I want to, but I don’t ever have to. My worth doesn’t come from my beauty, and my beauty doesn’t come from my makeup. I am fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and so are you, and we are beautiful in His eyes no matter what the world says.