The Makeup of a Monster

The heavy price of the masks we wear


At the beginning of the 1931 Universal Studios film Frankenstein: The Man Who Made a Monster, Edward Van Sloan, famous for his roles in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, sweeps the stage curtain aside.

“How do you do?” he says politely, but there’s an imp-like smile on his face. He’s been sent to caution viewers; Carl Laemmle, the producer of Frankenstein, felt the need to prepare the audience. Similarly, I also feel “a word of friendly warning” is warranted before we begin. What follows is not merely a tale of monsters and princesses. Stripping away ideals of beauty tampers with the forces of human nature, creating a savage defensiveness in some, a lonely vulnerability in others.

This essay jolted into being after the many-layered conversations I had with my mother and two sisters concerning our cultural obsession with beauty. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even enrage you, particularly if you are a woman who only wears makeup “for myself” or “because it makes me feel good.” So if you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to. . . . Well, like Edward Van Sloan says—we’ve warned you.

Opening Act

Boris Karloff—born William H. Pratt—sits in a makeup chair in 1931, months before the release of Frankenstein. Many hours of his life have been spent in this chair. Standing over Karloff is Jack Pierce, the old-school, “out-of-the-kit” makeup artist for Universal Studios. Pierce—circular glasses on his nose, a focused frown on his face—places a coat of spirit gum on Karloff’s already heavy brow, the same jutting brow that caused director James Whale to invite Karloff to audition for the role of Frankenstein’s monster, an invitation that both flattered and insulted Karloff.

“Spirit gum,” my sister Marie tells me over Skype, “is kind of like rubber cement. It’s an adhesive made out of tree sap, which gets tacky and stringy, like cheese on a pizza.” My sister is a special effects artist in California; I’ve seen the pictures of zombies she’s created. Some of her victims’ faces look like pepperoni pizza with the pepperoni torn out. The effect terrifies me—as does makeup in general, which I have foresworn for years. This is monstrously ironic since it’s partially because of me that Marie, my other sister, Katie, and my mother are all professional makeup artists.

After Pierce applies the spirit gum, he sticks cotton in it to build up Karloff’s already high forehead. The two materials are then sealed in place with a coating of collodion, a strong-smelling liquid plastic that binds the two materials together and dries into a skin-like layer. The stench of the collodion makes Karloff’s eyes smart and head spin. Marie says collodion smells just like nail polish, and she is more accurate than she knows—collodion is found in many types of nail polish.

“I try not to breathe it in,” she adds. “It’s great for manipulating shapes and textures, but the kind of rigid collodion I use reeks to high heaven. I feel sorry for the actors when I have to put rigid collodion on their lips.” She’s careful to add that she spends 99 percent of her time making sure the actors are protected, usually by sacrificing her own comfort, and she uses rigid collodion very rarely.

Collodion is also highly flammable. Knowing this as I stay up late to watch Frankenstein again, I can’t help but think that some of the fear on Karloff’s face as torches are thrust at him might be genuine. I am, in fact, afraid for him. I pause the film as Fritz—Dr. Frankenstein’s original hunchback companion—tortures the monster with fire.

Spirit gum, cotton, and collodion—these are the three main materials used to create the monster, and yet the mask is flexible enough to allow Karloff’s expressions to filter through. A layer of green greasepaint gives an additional deadish cast to the skin in a black-and-white movie. Scars and stitches and hair, laboriously painted and glued on, complete the look.

After hours in the makeup chair, Karloff dons the accoutrements of the monster: the heavy black shoulder-padded jacket, the cumbersome high-soled boots. Silver electrodes—not bolts—are glued to his neck with collodion, in the same fashion that medical personnel still use collodion to glue electrodes to patients’ heads for electro-encephalography measurements. Science and science fiction overlap in odd and eerie ways sometimes.

Being a monster is not easy: the film is shot in August, and the black wardrobe and heavy makeup and boots do not make Karloff’s job easier. The pain he suffers while shooting the film does not end after its release: the strain of carrying Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) up the hill and into the windmill time and time again causes excruciating pain that necessitates three back surgeries, none of which is fully successful. The monster lives at the expense of the man.

But Karloff obediently subjects himself to these conditions. He is even a willing participant in the monster-making: Karloff tells the director that his eyes look too alive, so Pierce builds heavy eyelids made with mortician’s wax. Karloff also takes out the bridge in his mouth to give a sunken look to his right cheek. Every morning for three to three-and-a-half hours, and every evening for almost the same amount of time, Karloff sits at the mercy of the makeup artist—the daily physical creator and destroyer of a monster, a man whose intense dedication perhaps rivals that of Dr. Henry Frankenstein himself.

“I made him with these hands,” Dr. Frankenstein says, “and with these hands, I will destroy him.”


For my family, it all started with the clowns up the street. Steffanie and Doug were literal clowns: they hired out for parties. Juggling, performing magic tricks, walking on stilts, beaming brightly, with white faces and red spongy noses—they did it all. They hired me as their assistant when I was seventeen. All four women in my family would eventually work for them, but I led the way. I normally ran the bubble machine, blew up balloons, gave out prizes, and painted pathetic Blue’s Clues faces on children. Then, one Saturday afternoon, I moved up in the entertainment world: I was asked to transform myself into Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

It all started with the clowns up the street.

“You have the lips of Marilyn Monroe, my dear,” Steffanie said.

I was sitting at her dining room table, and she was applying layer after layer of mascara to my eyelashes, having already deduced I was inept at the task.

“Oh … thanks,” I said. I was flattered but also a little concerned. As a rather sheltered young Mormon from Utah, all I knew about Marilyn Monroe was that she once wore an inappropriate white dress when it was windy—and she killed herself.

“There,” Steffanie said, stepping back. “Lovely. On with the show.” She turned her head toward the stairwell.

“Doug,” she called, “Jamie’s ready.”

While she wasn’t looking, I tugged at the sparkly golden frills hanging off my shoulders. I was worried: good Mormon girls weren’t supposed to wear things like this, but performance art was a bit of a gray area. The only physical feature I really had in common with Belle was long, silky brown hair. Like Belle, I also loved books, but that’s not why you get hired to perform as a princess.

I don’t remember why they wouldn’t let me sit in the front seat on the way to the party, but I remember awkwardly trying to situate myself in the back of Doug’s van, which doubled as a makeshift dressing room. I bumped my head on the corner of the overhead light as I tried to maneuver around assorted clown things. Cursing, I reached up to check if my hairpins were still in place. The dress came with its own push-up strapless bra sewn into it, and my bare shoulders and the tight bodice made me unbearably self-conscious, even alone in the back of the van.

When we arrived, Doug threw open the back doors. Taking his proffered hand, I stumbled out into the fading light of the chilly March afternoon. Doug was dressed as a courtier with lace at his cuffs, green stripes on his red pantaloons, and buckles on his pointed shoes.

“Ready?” he asked, straightening his cuffs.

I tried to smile in response but grimaced instead, my face stiff with makeup. I followed him in my clunky golden heels across the crab grass, past a pink plastic tricycle, up a set of crumbling steps, and into a run-down townhouse. I waited in the living room while Doug built up the excitement down in the basement, and I couldn’t help but smile as I recognized the clown voice he used with little children. He was good. As I looked around, I realized how terribly simple my surroundings were, how frayed the couches and the carpet looked, how the pictures of the little Latino family didn’t quite hide the discoloration of the walls.

My eye-catching frippery, instead of elegant, was absurdly garish in that simple place. I wrung my sweating, golden-gloved hands.

Family Philosophies

Face painting, it turns out, is a gold mine, even in conservative Utah. After my mother worked with the clowns for five years, she opened her own entertainment business and enlisted the help of my two sisters, Marie and Katie, to help with the face painting. My father often managed the long lines at events, and even my brother used an airbrush gun to ink fake tattoos for a time.

“Why is face painting so popular?” I ask my mother. I’m astounded that people want to wait in long lines and pay good money to have slimy chemicals swabbed across their faces. The very idea of putting paint on my face makes me cringe.

“It’s a fantasy,” my mother says. “An escape.” She breaks out her top-of-the-line face painting kits at kids’ birthday parties, holiday parties, and events sponsored by multimillion-dollar corporations. I’ve seen picture after picture of both children and adults painted in all sorts of ways at her hands, and the resulting creations range from gruesome to gorgeous. “As human beings,” she continues matter-of-factly, “none of us arrive at a point where we’re willing to accept ourselves as we are.” I nod: this is something I understand. She adds that makeup has a long history and many functions: war-paint, status tattoos, body art that tells a story, paint that promotes desirability, paint that mimics, paint that differentiates.

“Why do you like face painting?” I ask. I know my painting abilities pale in comparison: I can hardly color inside the lines of my son’s coloring book.

She laughs. “I do it to make great money.” This is accurate: she currently charges a minimum of $80 an hour. Individual faces, depending on the intricacy, scope, and number of shadows, highlights, and colors involved, can cost up to $55. And that doesn’t include the generous tips she often gets or the delighted gasps as her patrons see themselves in the mirror afterward.

Our conversation turns to the makeup industry in general. “It’s true that the makeup industry makes an enormous profit,” she says, “especially from women. It preys upon the vulnerability of women feeling they need to measure up to some impossible cultural standard.”

“I never liked makeup,” I tell her. “I never liked dresses, never liked any of it.”’

“I know,” she says.

We don’t speak of the teenage battles I had with her: Why should I wear blush, Mom? My cheeks are already red. A girl in junior high told me I wore too much blush, and I wasn’t even wearing any. Did you know that lipstick and mascara are made from fish scales, Mom? Why do I have to wear makeup and boys don’t? Why do I have to wear dresses and boys don’t? I’m not going to wear that. I can’t move in it, I can’t run in it, I can’t breathe in it, I can’t be myself in it! It was a never-ending battle.

“Boys like what they like,” she’d say, and I’d scowl, not necessarily at her but at the world as a whole. Why couldn’t boys understand what I liked, then? Or, what if we women were just doing this to ourselves?

ILLUSTRATION by Stephen Knezovich


I ask Marie what the full extreme-end makeup regimen might entail for a woman living in Hollywood, and as she’s telling me, a movie scene starts rolling in my head. The setting has all the trappings of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab: so many exotic electrical appliances and various jars of chemicals cover the bathroom countertop that even Kenneth Strickfaden, electrician and set designer for Frankenstein, would be proud.

A woman enters in a bathrobe, or maybe she’s already dressed so the makeup won’t smudge if she’s pulling on a sweater. She is her own Jack Pierce: she first puts wrinkle-reducing lotion on her face, agonizing over the pores and the developing blackheads she sees. After the lotion, she applies under-eye corrector and zit concealer, then contours the highlights and shadows of her face with cream. Then comes foundation cream, blended carefully down the neck, then a secondary concealer, then bronzer and one to three varieties of blush—for a short while, a glittery goldish sparkle was popular, applied to the tops of the cheekbones.

Next, she uses an eyebrow pencil to shape her eyebrows, then applies eyebrow gel to make the hairs lie the same way. In a day or so, she’ll go to the salon for a microblading procedure, injections of ink to fill in her thinning brows. She’s already had the hair above her lip lasered off. She then uses one to five varieties of eyeshadow powder. Next comes eyeliner, two kinds, either in liquid or pencil form: a darker, heavier line for the top eyelid; a lighter line for the bottom eyelid. She then reaches for a device that looks as if it could inflict some kind of torture: the stainless-steel eyelash curler. After increasing the curvature of her eyelashes with this tool, she applies eyelash primer; she may or may not attach fake strip eyelashes or glued-on individual eyelashes. She adds mascara, and her lashes now flap like a bat’s wings in the mirror. Her eyes, like Karloff’s before the mortician’s wax, now look too alive—but that’s the goal.

She’s almost done. After applying lip primer, lip liner, lipstick, and lip sealant to make the perfect cupid’s bow—the little widow’s peak on the top lip, at the base of the philtrum, which makes the lips appear fuller—she uses a setting spray.

Now to style her hair, paint her nails, and don necklace(s), bracelet(s), ring(s), earrings, clothes, and matching heels. Noting the time on her expensive new watch, she takes one last critical look in the mirror, grabs a matching purse, and lurches out the door.

Makeup artist, entrepreneur, and YouTube phenom Michelle Phan says, “Makeup is not a mask that covers up your beauty; it’s a weapon that helps you express who you are from the inside.” If this is true, then no wonder I feel rather bludgeoned after thumbing through a fashion magazine. Reducing self-expression to the purchase and application of beauty products surely reflects broader issues of gender inequality.

I’m more curious about the woman who doesn’t follow an extreme makeup regimen in the morning, who doesn’t have a job that depends on her appearance, who isn’t auditioning for a performance, but who nevertheless feels nervous to leave the house unadorned. Maybe she experiences unspoken pressure at work, at church, or from friends. Or maybe she believes all those layers can protect her from the critics of the world, those who wield words like torches. Maybe she’s weaponized makeup as a form of defense, not offense.

Hide and Seek

How do we learn what is safe to show to the world and what is necessary to hide? Nine months after I donned Belle’s dress, when I was a senior in high school, my mother discovered she had breast cancer. After two surgeries, she had aggressive chemo and radiation.

“I’m going to my cooking class, and I’m the meat,” she’d joke. Leaning back in one of the chemo recliners at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, she received a concoction of chemicals into her veins that made her head feel as if it was receiving a sustained electrical shock. Any light she was exposed to after the treatment made her face and forehead throb.

Mom never let her husband and five children see her bald, and she kept to her room during the worst of the chemo aftereffects, wanting to make life as normal as possible for our family. She kept up the laundry and cooked the freezer meals she’d made beforehand. I remember laughing as my two brothers tried on the wigs she wore until her hair grew back.

My sister Marie would later use a latex bald cap and stark makeup to portray a woman with cancer in Wendy Marie Martin’s play Rock Me to Sleep. The wig was used to pretend things were OK; the bald cap was used to pretend things were not. The odd distinction between real appearance and desired appearance took on new meaning for me during this time, all of it shrouded in intense emotion and fear of loss—and very little of which I allowed my own face to display. Wearing an unhappy face around the neighborhood would cause too many questions and pitying looks at church. The righteous were supposed to be strong and beautiful and cheerful and content, impervious to the shocks of life. If you weren’t happy, it was probably your own damn fault.

How do we learn what is safe to show to the world and what is necessary to hide?

At Brigham Young University, I dutifully filled out a survey sent by the administration to all freshman girls. The survey was meant to measure a growing epidemic of anorexia and bulimia at our school. I sat at my clunky laptop, clicking round option buttons labeled NEVER, SOMETIMES, OFTEN, FREQUENTLY, and VERY FREQUENTLY.

One question I remember very clearly: “Do you feel embarrassed or ashamed when you sit down and your thighs spread out?”

I needed an option button for NOT UNTIL THIS MOMENT.

Through many small moments, I learned to be self-conscious. At times, I wasn’t even in my own head anymore, but in an outside observer’s, someone whose eyes were constantly, critically examining me. I was both doctor and patient, movie critic and actor, Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. A bizarre thing, self-objectification. But I was also slowly realizing I was not the only one in my community struggling with sense of self.

Personal Reflections

My husband once told me he loved me in part because I didn’t hide my own face from him. A former girlfriend had refused to let him see her without makeup. I love him for loving me as I am, with my skin zebra-striped from our eleven-pound baby, the third earlobe I was born with, and my eyelashes uncurled and unencumbered. I think men like him are more common than women believe.

When we moved to the Marshall Islands for his job in 2011, even the little makeup I wore seemed ridiculous—it just melted off my face, which reminded me too much of the creepy Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, who wanted more than what was natural. Marshallese culture welcomed me with open arms, and for the first time, I felt truly free from external cultural pressure. In fact, Marshallese women actively made fun of women who shaved their body hair. Why change what evolution gave you, especially if it wasn’t actively causing you pain?

Insights of understanding and acceptance, like wave after ocean wave, washed gently over me and began to remove the greasy cultural layers caking my soul—a slow, natural baptism. The double vision caused by self-objectifying began to resolve itself. Like the biblical Saul receiving his sight anew, the scales freshly fallen from my eyes, I started noticing things I hadn’t let myself notice before.

Show and Tell

According to the April 2017 Utah Women & Leadership Project report, Salt Lake City, Utah, has the second-highest number of plastic surgeons per capita in the United States, second only to Miami and beating out Los Angeles. Breast augmentation leads the list of common services, followed by nose surgery, liposuction, eyelid surgery, and facelifts.

Many explanations have been proffered: women have more children, younger, and want to reclaim their bodies afterward via “Mommy Makeovers”; more cosmetic surgeons settle in Utah because of the family-friendly work hours, so surgery is more cheaply available; the homogenous demographics of Utah cause a “contagion effect” so that keeping up with the Joneses—specifically, Sister Jones—jumps to a whole new orbital level; the patriarchal Mormon culture—which still promotes the belief that only those who are married can achieve the highest degree of heaven—encourages women to compete for men’s attention, favor, and continual validation by out-beautifying each other.

In fact, a thorough 2013 study of Mormon women (most of them from Utah) found a common belief among participants: since marriage and motherhood were heavily prioritized over education and career achievements, the participants perceived that physical beauty was the number-one means of securing status as a Mormon woman. These Mormon women viewed elective cosmetic surgery as an acceptable vehicle to reach the standard of beauty they needed so they could be the kind of woman they’d been taught to be. Church leaders can—and do—say, “God loves you the way you are,” over the pulpit each Sunday, but it’s more complicated than that, and signals are getting mixed in odd ways. Something fundamentally grotesque is bursting at the seams of this society when it comes to gendered background expectations, and I’m saying this as a Utahn who dearly loves her Mormon people. This is not solely a Mormon problem, either: like Frankenstein, it is a cautionary tale for all those who struggle with unrealistic expectations of physical beauty and immortality.

The proliferation of billboards advertising cosmetic procedures surprises me every time I visit my family and friends. BREAST AUGMENTATION: “BE THE ENVY OF YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD,” says one that portrays six white babies sitting on the ground and looking up together. Clever one-liners advocating body modification somehow find their way into church lessons on the importance of physical health: “Our bodies are temples, and even temples need remodeling,” and, “Even an old barn looks better painted.” I heard both statements more than once growing up; the latter is often attributed to former church president David O. McKay and has been restated by other leaders from the pulpit.

Church leaders who say these sorts of things to their parishioners do more damage than any kind of natural, normal weathering to those old, rustic barns—and even brand-new barns. Take, for example, the comments of Apostle M. Russell Ballard during a 2015 youth devotional in Provo, Utah, recorded on video. Near the end of his sermon, casually leaning with one elbow on the pulpit, the white-haired leader speaks into a thin microphone.

“I know you’re just waiting for me to talk about marriage, aren’t you?” A young red-headed woman sitting on the stand just behind Ballard breaks into a surprised laugh, as does the rest of the audience. The camera pans out and a middle-aged blonde woman on the stand can be seen chuckling and trying to wipe mascara from under her eye. Ballard continues:

I will not want to disappoint you. [More laughter.] I just simply say to you brethren, wake up! Open your eyes and look around a little, and you beautiful girls, don’t wander around looking like men. Put on a little lipstick now and then, and look a little charming. It’s that simple.

The redhead does not join in the general laughter this time: she looks down into her lap, a tight smile on her face. The blonde woman next to her is taking furious notes. Message received: if you’re a woman and want to get married, you need to wear makeup and look charming. It’s that simple.

After the subsequent media uproar, Ballard’s comments were wiped from the Church’s website, but not from YouTube. Nor are these remarks easily wiped from the minds of those who hear such messages so frequently and from so many sources.

A few years ago, visiting around Mother’s Day, I heard an advertisement on the radio. “Your mother has given you so much,” a sickly sweet voice said. “Isn’t it about time you give her the gift of herself back again? This Mother’s Day, treat your mother to a new body.” I think of my mother: that she is still alive in her own body is gift enough for me. She has cheated death once already; she doesn’t need to waste precious time chasing after the desert mirage of eternal youth. These days, my mother says, she’s more interested in the beauty of the cell: how eating healthy food, avoiding drugs and alcohol, exercising, drinking water, and sleeping well all impact the health of the cell. It’s the kind of health that radiates outward.

Utah also suffers from consistently higher rates of lifetime depression and suicide than the national average. In 2016, according to the Utah Department of Health, 21.5 percent of Utahns reported having doctor-diagnosed depression, compared to the U.S. average of 17.3 percent. Adult women had significantly higher rates of doctor-diagnosed depression than men (28.3 percent to 14.8 percent). In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death for young people ages ten to seventeen—24.5 in 100,000 deaths, compared to a national average of 15.7 per 100,000 deaths.

Are there connections between high religious and cultural expectations and cosmetic surgery rates, depression, and suicide? Obviously, it’s complicated, and church members are especially quick to point out that correlation does not equal causation. I agree with them, but this societal syzygy does equal a perfect storm, and I can’t help but draw a parallel with another dark and stormy night.

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?” Dr. Frankenstein asks in Mary Shelley’s original novel. His expectations for his creation were high: “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God!” The creator suddenly realizes he sought to cheat death “with an ardour that far exceeded moderation.”

“But now that I had finished,” Dr. Frankenstein says, looking upon the man he created in his image, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”


How to remove a zombie foam-latex appliance from your own face:

1. Dip Q-tip in Pros-Aide Remover.
2. Saturate the edges of the prosthetic with remover, being careful not to drip any into the eyes.
3. Gently roll the Q-tip under the edges of the prosthetic, letting the remover dissolve the adhesive. Gently work your way around the outer edges.
4. Use a new Q-tip when the current one gets too gummed up with remover.
5. DO NOT rip the appliance off. Pros-Aide adhesive is so strong that ripping it off can remove the top layer of your skin.
6. After you have removed the appliance, soak a cotton ball in remover, and continue to wipe off the rest of the adhesive.
7. Any residual cream makeup can be removed with baby wipes, cleansing cream, or makeup remover.
8. If you want to go the extra mile, soak a clean cloth in warm water, and rest it over your face for several minutes. This is not only relaxing after a long shoot, but also helps loosen up the pores and makes any residual makeup removal easier.
9. Apply lotion to skin afterward (optional).
10. Look at your face. If possible, see it for the miracle it already is.

Family Philosophies Revisited

One day in the Marshall Islands, my husband handed me Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex.

“You should read this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.” Some intense self-introspection followed as I read de Beauvoir’s words:

Costumes and styles are often devoted to cutting off the feminine body from any possible transcendence: Chinese women with bound feet could scarcely walk, the polished fingernails of the Hollywood star deprive her of her hands; high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended less to accentuate the curves of the feminine body than to augment its incapacity. Weighted down with fat, or on the contrary so thin as to forbid all effort, paralyzed by inconvenient clothing and by the rules of propriety—then woman’s body seems to man to be his property, his thing. . . . In woman dressed and adorned, nature is present but under restraint, by human will remolded nearer to man’s desire.

I was stunned. Pressure to deprive yourself willfully of physical mobility in search of validation: this was what I had felt so often but had never been able to express. I differed from de Beauvoir only in assigning the source of this pressure, feeling that it came less specifically from the men around me and more from the general Western culture of beauty I had unknowingly, even unwillingly, internalized.

From de Beauvoir again:

Make-up and jewelry also further this petrification of face and body. The function of ornamental attire is very complex; with certain primitives it has a religious significance; but more often its purpose is to accomplish the metamorphosis of woman into idol. Ambiguous idol! Man wishes her to be carnal, her beauty like that of fruits and flowers; but he would also have her smooth, hard, changeless as a pebble. . . . We come, then, to this strange paradox: man, wishing to find nature in woman, but nature transfigured, dooms woman to artifice.

The princess lives at the expense of the woman, just as the monster lived at the expense of the man. I think of how I felt, pretending to be Belle, and how I have felt similarly constrained at other points in my life, trying to follow an ideal. I think of Boris Karloff stumbling down the steps in his clunky boots, his face stiff, his eyes heavy. This is artistic expression, not necessarily freedom of expression; this is artifice, a performance not for the well-being of self but for the viewing pleasure of others.

My sister Katie, an educator as well as an extremely talented painter, believes there are a lot of underrated or undervalued aspects of physical beauty. “Take, for example, scars,” she says. “Scars are so cool! They show that your body wants to live. Or, look at the way bones and muscles and organs and all kinds of innards are all integrated with each other, squished into a bag of skin, then made to move through space. It’s pretty amazing.” My sister doesn’t wear a lot of makeup herself, she says, and she thinks it’s a shame that men don’t have the same freedom to play with makeup as women do. “It should be optional and not socially mandated to wear or not to wear,” she adds.

In addition to painting faces with my mother on the weekends, Katie works for a Utah-based nonprofit that hosts retreats and provides resources for women who were sexually abused as children. She mentions that in seeking to become what is “natural,” we can actually end up being more artificial.

“Sexually explicit images parallel what you see in makeup,” she adds. “When makeup or sexually explicit films portray things that aren’t actually natural or real, and the audience is not educated in being able to tell the difference, it creates a lot of false expectations and altered realities, leading both men and women to disappointment and personal shame.”

I’m proud of my sisters and my mother. It’s been healthy and interesting to broach a topic we’ve disagreed about for ages, and while we still disagree on many aspects of women’s fashion, I find I’m often nodding my head as they speak. I’m fascinated by how time and travel and training and trials have affected us since the days we worked for the clowns up the street all those years ago.


“Are you ready to meet Princess Belle?” Doug asked, his cheery voice bouncing up the stairs. A few high-pitched voices shouted an affirmative. “Good! OK, let’s have you all sit here, and I’ll bring her in.”

I started rustling down the steps, flipping my hair over my frill-encrusted shoulder.

Doug came to the entryway at the bottom of the stairs. “My lady,” he said, bowing and holding out his hand. As he led me into the brightly decorated basement, the excited whispers of the little girls petered out as they beheld me in my fake sparkling glory.

“Look! It’s Belle!” the adult women in the room said in hushed voices. The men in the room stared and sipped their beers. Ten small pairs of eyes drank me in, all fooled by the frippery. Time to perform, I told myself. In my best princess voice, I greeted them and asked if there was a Mattie in the room who was turning four. One tiny girl with dark brown hair and dark brown eyes stood up and smiled, the fingers of one hand in her mouth. She was wearing a homemade golden dress, which was a little dirty and frayed around the edges. I curtsied elegantly to Mattie and apologized that the Beast couldn’t come with me—he had some business to attend to back at the castle—but he wanted to wish Mattie a happy birthday, too. Mattie smiled even wider and ran to her mother, who was seated on the couch. 

After Doug had done his balloon routine, it was my turn to entertain. My favorite trick was the dove-in-the-box routine. It was a fairly simple affair: pushing one finger into a little hole underneath the box raises a lever that makes an inner box stay put so the drawer appears empty to the viewer; release the lever, and a live dove appears when the child opens the drawer. I asked Mattie and several other girls to open the drawer, making sure my finger was on the lever. When that got old, I told Mattie to wish her favorite wish really hard and then say a magic word. Mattie opened the box and gasped in amazement and pleasure when she saw the dove. 

It was easy to please this beautiful, tattered princess. Her eyes were wide with wonder, not begummed with fake eyelashes and beset by the double vision of self-consciousness; her lips were open in a clear expression of joy, not a miserable Marilyn Monroe grimace. There in front of me at the birthday party was the Beauty, and if that was the case, who was I?

Closing Curtain Call

Karloff eventually helped found a union, the Screen Actor’s Guild, to protest the inhumane conditions for actors. He wasn’t the only green-faced villain who had suffered: the green copper-based face paint the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) wore in the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz was so toxic that the actress had to subsist on a liquid diet during filming to ensure she would not accidentally ingest any of the paint. She was, however, severely burned while trying to exit Munchkinland in a red-smoking fireball, and removing the toxic green paint from her burned hand with alcohol was extremely painful. (Additionally, the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, was rushed to the hospital for lung failure after four weeks of inhaling the silver aluminum dust sprinkled over his makeup; after that, the dust was mixed with white clown paint to make a paste, but Jack Haley, who took over the role, developed a terrible eye infection from the makeup.)

Jack Pierce, after working as the makeup artist for all the subsequent Frankenstein movies, four Wolf Man movies, and three Mummy movies, was eventually fired in the 1940s because he refused to adopt more merciful foam latex makeup techniques. Marie assures me that professional artists these days never use products they’re not willing to use on themselves.

As I watch Frankenstein again, after researching the man behind the monster, I stare at the sunken jaw, the jutting chin, the high square forehead with fringe bangs, the gashes on the forehead and the neck. His dead fingertips are blackened; his straight teeth are framed with thin dead lips. There hang the heavy lids, the bags under the eyes—but there’s something very much conscious and alive under the mask.

As the sun illuminates the monster for the first time, I stare at his upraised hands—the long grasping fingers, looking for something, reaching for something. I want him to find it.

About the Author

Jamie Zvirzdin Bio Image
Jamie Zvirzdin

Jamie Zvirzdin teaches in the Master of Arts in Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is the editor of the anthology Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women.

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