Perhaps it’s just me, but does anyone else notice ever more women applying make-up on trains, subways and buses? And does anyone else find this rude?
Why rude? We all know that urban dwellers must get used to the anonymity of crowds or else go a little batty. That means learning to ignore whole classes of behavior (people talking to their shoes, for example) and behavior in ways one would never think to behave in other circumstances. We observe an implicit contract in crowds whereby I’m not rude in failing to say hello to the people I pass each day walking between Dupont Circle and Rhode Island Avenue, and they aren’t rude not to say hello to me. It’s quite enough that we’ve reached a stage in social evolution where we no longer assume all strangers to be threats—real progress, the anthropologists tell us, as human affairs go.
But the acquired ability to mutually ignore one another in crowded settings only works because it’s non-discriminatory: We could care less about each other equally. When a woman dons make-up in a subway car, however, she says, in effect: “I care what some others think about my looks, and so take some trouble to make myself attractive, but you’re not among those I care about. Indeed, I care so little that I think nothing of making you an involuntary witness to a preparation designed for the benefit of others.” That’s discriminatory, therefore rude.
Of course, the proliferation of public make-up artists pales besides the most egregious current form of public rudeness: cell phone chatter breaking out in confined spaces. But this isn’t arguable: There is broad, though obviously not yet universal, agreement about not inflicting half a cell phone conversation on innocent bystanders (or bysitters, if you’re fortunate enough to get a seat) who are trying to read, work a sudoku puzzle or decide what to do about lunch. The cell phone crisis probably explains why, when I’ve expressed consternation over female make-up artists acting out in public, some have brusquely dismissed my complaint.
“What do you care?” says my reality-check of a wife, who never applies make-up in public (and rarely does so in private, for that matter). “You don’t know them, they don’t know you, and what difference does it make compared to that horrible man on the bus yakking all the time on his cell phone about his damned show dogs?” (There is such a horrible man, it’s true.)
But, I tell her, one form of rudeness does not excuse another. I’m not just picking on women either. If I saw a man intently styling his hair on a subway car, I’d think the same thing. If I saw a fellow pull out tools to give himself a manicure on the bus, I’d move as far from him as possible. If I saw a dude click on an electric razor to trim his mustache on an airplane, I’d probably lock myself in the little excuse for a toilet they have in economy class and stay there until we landed.
None of this ever happens, however. I’ve never seen a guy do any of these things. We men may surreptitiously inspect a nostril now and again while we’re out and about, or maybe scratch something. But the closest we, here in Washington at least, ever come to putting on make-up in public is a rapid sun-screen slather on our nose and neck around the swimming pool, or maybe while watching the Washington Nationals baseball club from the bleachers during a day game.
As with any form of rudeness, women applying make-up in public spaces comes in different degrees of offense. There are three such degrees.
By far the most common violation concerns lipstick. In a standard third-degree offense, a woman will open her purse, pull out a shiny cylindrical harquebus and a small compact, flip open the mirror on the compact and set to painting. This operation is mostly unexceptional, except at the end when the woman will usually sit back a bit from the mirror, lift her head ever so slightly, mash her lips together and then seem to pucker up and gently kiss the air in front of her. All the while she is peering into the little mirror as if saying to herself, urging hope to vanquish uncertainty, “Oh, you gorgeous dame, you.”
I suppose this maneuver is supposed to even out the lipstick at the top of the lips and at the corners of the mouth. But it looks slightly balmy, as any mildly lascivious self-regarding pantomime is bound to do.
As a rule, a lipstick artist can finish her work in only two or three minutes. Get caught up in some book and you miss the whole thing. But if you don’t miss it, this is rude—though it can also be mildly entertaining, depending on the woman, if your taste runs to John Waters films.
Beyond mere lipstick is the application of powder and sometimes rouge. The compact comes out again, but so does a flat round pad about the size of a silver dollar pancake that the woman uses to apply some powdery substance to, as best I can tell, every skin surface she can locate from the neck up. The act itself resembles auto-massage, and the expression on the transgressor’s face—especially as the application of the substance in question requires the soft closing of the eyes as the pad approaches them—is unmistakably sensual. With lipstick application thrown in, a second-degree powder violation can exceed four or even five minutes in duration. So this is very rude.
The first-degree offense is the full make-up monty. Beyond lipstick and powder it entails eye shadow, eye-liner, mascara applied on the eyelashes with a kooky-looking little brush and—yes, I once actually saw this on Amtrak (more of which below)—eyebrow plucking! On the train I have also seen women painting their fingernails; the odor is enough to melt the icing off your breakfast Danish.
The full make-up monty can take up to and sometimes beyond fifteen minutes on a serious commute, during which time a determined make-up woman manages to pretend that no one else is anywhere near her. It is, of course, very, very rude.
Aside from its duration, the rudeness of public make-up offenses varies with propinquity to the transgressor. If I’m sitting right next to a make-up artist on a train or bus, that feels much ruder than if the offender is three seats away on the other side of the aisle. But what happened last month on a train from Washington to New York was by far the most egregious episode I have ever encountered: a full make-up monty at 19 inches and closing.
I boarded the 10:10 headed for Penn Station, and was alone until a young woman—no wedding ring, probably on the not-yet side of thirty years—sat down next to me at the BWI airport stop. Then, somewhere north of Baltimore, she began her make-up session, a rare full monty lacking only the pungency of fingernail polish. Her order of battle was impressive, as was her gear. She hauled out a black leather make-up kit larger than a construction worker’s lunchbox, inside of which was a colorfully diverse collection of frankly I-don’t-know-what. The inside top of the kit contained an inset mirror, so both her hands were free to work.
And work she did, whipping out one specialized tool after another. She was serious yet graceful as her art unfurled, all the way into and out of Philadelphia. And then—the coup d’grace—she plucked her eyebrows. Not a lot of them, mind you, but any is altogether too many at close quarters on Amtrak.
I didn’t say a word. I wanted to, but then I might have been rude. (What would John Waters have done?) By the time she finished we were nearly in New Jersey. She left the train at Newark.
The point? Just this: If you are a woman who paints and puckers in public spaces, please consider that putting on make-up is all of a part with dressing, and so ought to remain a private matter from start to finish. You wouldn’t think of putting on your blouse or your stockings in a subway car or a bus, would you? So why your lipstick or mascara?
There was a time when the only women who painted themselves in public did it on street corners and in bars. It was considered a naughtily sexy thing to do, which was in fact closely related to its most common actual purpose. But at least it had a purpose. The purpose of public making-up now seems to be no purpose at all, except perhaps to save time in mostly absentminded fits of multi-tasking. We all sympathize: It’s always been hard to be a working woman, it’s not gotten any easier and time is the most precious gift of all. Still…..
The postmodern variety of generic rudeness started, I suspect, with the abomination of call-waiting, which encouraged one human exchange to be blithely interrupted by the mere prospect of another. But that’s another story. For now, just a plaint to all you make-up offenders out there: Please don’t paint and powder in public. Consider that this is a case, perhaps, where beauty is in the eye of the non-beholder.