I bumped into Tim Gunn again the other day. That Tim Gunn, Project Runway guru Tim Gunn. It is Wednesday afternoon, right before Thanksgiving, and I had two seconds to get to the ATM before my son Leo’s ride dropped him off. As I am crossing Broadway, talking on my cell to my mother, I see Tim. (“Tim” it is. He’s on reality TV, so even such an august personage has thus ceded rights to an honorific.) He’s unmistakable: that pristinely sculpted head of white hair, the military carriage, the lean, impeccably dressed form. I’d been doing the dishes when I remembered I needed cash, so I had dashed out wearing the ancient garments I wear for housework, which are extremely comfortable and, by now, disposable as well. So here I am, not a stitch of makeup on, and coatless as well, in this blue-skied but 40-degree weather because I’ll just be outside a minute or two. I am wearing my well-loved, pale gray,none-too-clean, long-sleeved GAP T-shirt (at least it’s not the awfully baggy one) and the long, dark gray skirt, pilled like a chenille bedspread; on my feet are the coup de grace: green flip flops. I almost look down to see if it's as bad as I think, but what’s the use?
Our paths intersect just west of the median. My cellphone is glued to my right ear, and I continue chattering because if I pretend not to notice Tim Gunn, perhaps I will actually be invisible to one of the world’s best-known authorities on fashion and possibly Heidi Klum’s BFF. But I can’t resist; I look up. Our eyes meet. I see his glance flicker to my flip flops and my sincerely unmanicured, unwinterized toes. His examination is similar to that of one who involuntary swivels to check out a roadside accident when the traffic slows and you see the flashing lights of the highway police at the scene - but quickly checks himself. For a second -- do I really see it? -- a scintilla of a shadow of a moue crosses his elegant face, and then it’s gone. I almost expect him to tell me that I’m so deliciously low, so horribly dirty; would that he were the Higgins to my Eliza.
I should have known; looking that unkempt, I was bound to cross paths with Tim Gunn. Ever since he moved to the Upper West Side maybe a year ago, he’s classed up the place just by being here, but I seem to never see him when I look good. I actually spoke to him the first time I saw him; it seemed so unlikely that I would ever see him in person again, having never seen him around before, that I thought it would be ok to gush a bit. He was shlepping a massive laundry bag, which proved to me that (1) despite his godlike looks, he’s human and (2) he looks godlike even shlepping a massive laundry bag. As I confessed my admiration, I remember a voice in my head saying, “Let. Him. Do. His. Laundry.” When I finally, reluctantly, tore myself away, Leo, seven at the time, asked me who the man was. I giggled, “I know who he is because he’s on TV but he doesn’t know who I am.”
“So he’s a stranger?”
“Yes. He’s a stranger. I was talking to a stranger. You still can’t.”
It’s not like I haven’t been cautioned since I was at my mother’s knee to look good when I left the house. The first iteration of the rule was rather obvious: you never knew who would see you outside, which, when I came of marriageable age, emphatically included possible suitors who might somehow apparate onto Main Street, Harry-Potter like, just in time to check me out. That morphed into the more sinister, if slightly unlikely rule that if you left the house looking bad, you would of necessity encounter someone important, like the aforementioned phantom suitor or one of my mother’s friends. This latter rule seemed akin to the one that leaving the house without an umbrella would guarantee rain. I never completely understood the causal relationship at work here, but apparently, leaving the house bare-faced caused the planets to subtly realign so that when the shifting slowed to a stop, there was Mrs. Englehoffer, staring at me disapprovingly.
These thoughts were in part prompted by reports of a recently released study which found that a woman who wears makeup is perceived as more likable, competent and provided she doesn’t overdo it, more trustworthy. Researchers at Harvard were among those who designed the study, which was paid for by Proctor and Gamble, makers of among a billion other things, makeup. Their sponsorship of the study leads me to wonder, perhaps uncharitably, whether the study would have seen the light of day had it concluded that makeup makes no difference in the perception of one’s abilities. But the findings shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Certainly, the idea that makeup can make you look better isn’t new (that’s why you buy it), and studies have found that more attractive people get better jobs and earn higher lifetime salaries (see, for example, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, by the economist Daniel Hamermesh). This study just connects the dots: if (1) makeup makes one more attractive, and (2) attractive people are considered more employable and, implicitly, more competent, then (3) a bit of artful shading and contouring should cause you to be perceived as more competent. I confess that the fact that you can paint on a face and be thought of as actually better than one who doesn't, is kind of mind-spinning to me. I’ve never been completely comfortable wearing makeup. But maybe that’s just a vestige of the child in me who was distinctly unhappy with her looks and believed that brains could combat plainness (as Jane Austen might have called it) and were therefore, somehow incompatible with beauty.
The P&G study does make me wonder if I’m short-changing myself when I walk out of the house without so much as a smear of lipstick. One day last week, on impulse, I tried on some cheapie drugstore makeup I'd recently bought. Then, of course, since a made-up face demands commensurate accoutrements, I put on my black leather jacket and heels, fluffed my hair and walked out of the house. I felt great, if a bit conspicuous. I heard someone call my name. It was my friend Karen, who looked me over quizzically as she walked toward me. Finally she carefully told me that I looked good. Knowing her, I’m pretty sure she tread lightly because to squeal “You’re wearing makeup! You look great!” is to imply, “You know, when you don’t wear makeup you look sooooo awful.” But as we spoke about the usual stuff, in her eyes was the unasked question: Why? And in my own mind, I’m still not sure if the answer is that I’m selling out or being smart enough to accept reality. Maybe I’m just doing my part to spruce up the neighborhood for Tim.
Sharon Silver is a wife, mother, lapsed lawyer and aspiring writer.