My niece Josie is obsessed with makeup. She has been for at least two years now.
I won’t deny I was dismayed to see the clear glosses she’d been wearing begin to take on deeper tints of color, to note the thick, mascara-coated curl of her lashes, the eyes accented with shimmering shadow.
Her makeup has never been heavy, but that she was allowed to wear it at all surprised me, as she took one more step away from the childhood I wanted her to savor a little longer, ventured with bold confidence into territory I worried was fraught with peer pressure and precocious posturing.
Josie could easily spend hours watching makeup application videos on YouTube, loves wandering around stores like ULTA Beauty and as a sixth-grader could teach me more about creating the illusion of longer lashes and layering shades of eye shadow than I’ll ever want to know.
For her 12th birthday last month, she startled me with her request to go to New York City to visit makeup guru Michelle Phan’s cosmetics store. The YouTube sensation was given her own L’Oreal makeup line last year after the followers of her online tutorials — Josie included — exceeded the four million mark.
My mom and I were less than thrilled with the idea but with her parents supporting it, we all agreed we’d make a day of it, with a stop at the store a small part of what would be her birthday celebration in the city.
Between Josie’s actual birthday in February and our trip last weekend — as it turned out, em by Michelle Phan hadn’t officially opened yet so she settled for doing her nails at Sephora — I found myself rethinking my reaction to her enthusiasm for painting her face.
In some ways, it’s literally what she’s doing, having transferred one of her earliest interests in art, which she still loves, to a live canvas. I know she doesn’t wear makeup to attract attention or because she’s unhappy with her appearance, and my brother has done a great job of reinforcing her natural prettiness and reminding her of the qualities inherent to true beauty.
For Josie, what began as a form of play and fun experimentation has quickly become a passion. She now dreams of one day being a makeup artist. And while I inwardly balked when she first proclaimed that intention, I will not be the one to trample on her dreams. They are a bright and vital hope, a joy I want her to tend without limits or the encroachment of others’ expectations. I want her to believe what makes her happy is a viable path to pursue, that the possibilities are infinite when we leap from what we love.
It’s not a message I grew up with, though as I gathered my thoughts to speak to the students at Eastern University Academy Charter School in Philadelphia last month, I realized that’s the course I followed anyway. When I was invited to be a guest at the students’ weekly assembly, I knew little about the school. I was stunned when I learned the Academy bills itself as a “passion-based” early college high school, where a large part of the curriculum is devoted to students nurturing their interests and exploring their gifts. They’re, in fact, required to come up with a “passion project” that reflects their commitment to doing what they love.
We didn’t have these kinds of alternatives when I was in middle and high school, weren’t encouraged to think creatively about achieving our dreams or how we could better serve the world doing the things that lit us up. Instead, many of us felt the burden of societal or parental expectation, weighed practicality against joy, financial gain over personal fulfillment.
Yet I had felt a sure but subtle push toward writing ever since I was about 9 and a teacher in St. Lucia read a story I’d penned, about my family’s dog Tina chasing an orange, aloud to the class. I’d always loved the scratch of words on paper, the way thoughts could shape themselves into sentences that rippled with an elastic energy and imagery. But the moment Mrs. Johnson read my words, smiling as she did so, to the entire class, I realized I could do more than assemble them proficiently; I could move and influence others with what I wrote.
Writing wasn’t something that made only me happy; others got joy from it, too. And so I decided to let myself be led by what I loved. A career in journalism wasn’t necessarily the goal. I knew only I wanted to write, and if newspapers could provide me with that outlet — and pay me, too! — then that was where I had to be. Even if my dad hoped I would go into law or international relations or some other profession that, in his eyes, afforded more prestige. Even if my salary would never compare to that of my friends in accounting, marketing and finance. Even without anyone in my family encouraging me with: “Yes, you should be a writer.”
It was that story I shared with the kids at EUACS, about finding something I could get lost in at an early age, something I chose to cultivate as a craft and a passion that steered me to where I am today. Writing has always made me happy, and just as I reminded them to never underestimate the power of joy in planning for their future, I want Josie to be guided by ecstatic impulse and natural affinity, too.
She may change her mind about being a makeup artist, discover something else to which she’ll devote her boundless energy. But for now, if this is what inspires and enlivens her, she needs to know it’s within her reach — that we’re not here to chase success though fortune is just one of the rewards of discovering of what we’re meant to do in the world and then faithfully heeding that call.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times