Tram Diary: a silent rebellion
Recent weeks have seen my curiosity piqued by the current and apparently growing trend for giant false eyelashes. There’s a tram regular, a young woman of around twenty, who sports a set roughly the size and heft of a butcher shop awning. She’s on there most mornings, quietly stroking away her iPhone like the rest of us, only in her case it’s with the startled oxen-like eyes of the goddess Athena. It’s really something and I often wonder if she thinks there’s nothing out of proportion and all that we, the viewing public see, is someone with a remarkable genetic gift and a flair for the ostentatious.
As a child, one of my non-familial “aunties” bought me a Venus flytrap in a little pot as a gift. I think she’d purchased it on a whim while visiting one of the more up market garden centres and then thought better of it when she realised it didn’t fit with her houseplant aesthetic. On quiet days, when it was too wet to play outside and there was nothing good on TV, I would occupy myself for a time by seeing what variety of objects I could delicately place in the upturned palms of the flytrap’s fanlike orifice before it would snap shut. Items were mostly selected from my school pencil case: solitary ink cartridges, loose pencil shavings, broken pieces of crayon, eraser shards, pen lids and so on, each offered up with the mildest of sacrificial excitement as the rain drummed gently against the window. Funnily enough, it is this image that most often pops into mind when I see eyelashes girl.
Judging by her navy smock and sensible trainers I assume she works at one of the many care homes dotted along the route. Most mornings there are usually a few people in similar uniforms riding the early tram, each tabard a slightly different shade of ungilded functionality. It’s not that I’m in anyway opposed or disapproving of supersized false eyelashes, more that it strikes me as interesting how these trends become established as the norm. The eyelashes themselves, especially when they are so deliberately out of proportion to the face supporting them, seem to be the very opposite of subtle and certainly not in any sense passable as a “natural” which I suppose is the point - it’s meant to add a little razzle dazzle, a little rebellion in an otherwise tiresome day.
I asked my friend Josie about it, who confirmed the trend is nothing new. She said this with the same weary tone she reserves for those moments when I ask her inane questions about things I should already know or she thinks I should know. In an unexpected turn she accused me of being insensitive. “What about those who feel insecure about their lashes?” she protested, “bet you didn’t consider that, did you!” as if this was a social justice campaign group I had carelessly overlooked in my rush to judgement. “You do know that there’s also eyelash extensions, implants, plumpers, fillers…you really are clueless, aren’t you.” I agreed that I was.
“Maybe it’s an anime thing?” I suggested rather pathetically, recalling the large cow-like peepers of certain Manga characters from my youth, but this too was met with Josie’s patent derision, perhaps justifiably. She went on to list the many societal pressures that motivate people, rightly or wrongly, to hand over sizeable amounts of cash to have a beautician carefully tend to their eyelashes. By chance I had recently watched a series of make-up tutorials I had stumbled across on one of those late-night insomniac YouTube plunges. I had learned that the key to truly attention grabbing lashes was all the additional work with eye makeup, the underpinning foundation as it were. My YouTube instructor went on to say, simultaneously working on her own face in a display of multitasking I thought particularly nifty given that I can’t hold a thought and brush my teeth at the same time, that the key to beautiful eyes was accentuating the surrounding area, presumably to draw the eye of your beloved ever deeper into your own. Once this initial groundwork is in place the bovine equivalent falsies are applied, followed by more pasting and buffing. It was exquisite work, it really was, and I was interested to learn that to successfully contour the eyes you should take what was described as a “whole-face approach,” much of it requiring more of an industrial backstage-at-the-theatre style of application than I had expected. The first of these foundational layers was applied with what looked to me like a large grease stick, similar to the ones used by marines needing a little camouflage face paint to complete their no-makeup midnight incursion look. Dark parallel lines are drawn and then expertly blended with a fistful of different brushes, a couple of which I’m sure I have in my paint box.
Reflecting on this these past couple of weeks I remembered how as a newly qualified secondary schoolteacher one of my daily duties was to hand out face wipes to those girls who arrived for morning registration wearing more than the regulation volume of slap. The parameters of these rules were always hotly debated but those who fell afoul of them, but as one teacher memorably put it, “if they turn up looking like a sex worker then it’s probably too much,” hence the wet wipes.
Amongst the student population there was a determined group of girls committed to waking-up early each day to spend an hour dutifully applying makeup they would be busy removing before the first bell had even sounded. As they stood there grumpily scraping away their morning’s work I would ask them the same inevitable question: why? Why bother with the effort, the cost, the pointless ritualism when the outcome is always the same? It felt like a game or rite of passage, with all of us somehow scripted to play our parts.
Seemingly absurd rituals aside, I saw it as an attempt, perhaps even a valiant although misguided one, to differentiate oneself from the herd and maybe have some fun at the same time. From the girls’ perspective there was always a slim chance that I would renege on my pastoral duties and let them slip through the net. If nothing else it was a valuable lesson in the value of subtlety and cosmetic nuance: tone it down a bit and I probably wouldn’t even notice. For the record I didn’t actually care and doubt many if any of my colleagues did, but it was all about treating everyone the same and enforcing arbitrary rules in a largely impotent attempt to maintain teacherly authority. By year 10 and beyond I couldn’t tell who was applying what and had to rely, and with some moral discomfort it must be said, on the whisperings of habitual classroom grass Harriet, who would arrive at the staffroom door to inform me that so-and-so was wearing mascara. My response was always display of reluctant faux concern following by inaction, that is unless the student in question had applied so much of said beauty product that they were now visibly swaying and swatting at imaginary wasps.
My suspicion has long been that they, perhaps in a similar manner to my fellow traveller on the tram, saw this as a rebellion against authority. As form tutor I would receive complaints about those girls in my group who had been sent out of class to remove makeup, the not so subtle inference being that her form tutor, i.e. me, must have dropped the ball and missed it first thing. Some of the girls were so committed to their beauty regime that they were somehow managing to reapply their makeup, albeit sloppily, in the breathless ninety seconds it took to walk between classes. At one point they established what amounted to a fairly impressive pop-up lunchtime beauty parlour in one of the portacabins outside. It was here, when a visibly scandalised Harriet implored me to walk over and investigate, that I learned about eyebrow threading and the classic smoky-eye look.
It didn’t seem right to challenge such blossoming entrepreneurial spirit and they weren’t hurting anyone, so I relented and agreed that they could use the space so long as they cleaned-up after themselves, including the removal of all makeup from their own faces and kept the enterprise on the down-low. Predictably enough they took my tepid permission as an emphatic endorsement which later that week saw me explaining to the Head why I had been so monumentally stupid to sanction such a thing. As far as she was concerned it was right up there with the time I let my class out early so that they could have a snowball fight which quickly escalated and got completely out of hand. The maths teacher who used the portacabin after lunch, a rather meanspirited woman with a fanatical Disney’s Little Mermaid obsession, had nearly passed out owing to vast amount of hairspray that had been released in such a confined space. Was I not aware of the school’s policy? The one upside is that I’ll never forget walking past the group in question, all of them lined up for lunchtime detention, each a glittering yet worried visage of cheap clownish makeup, candyfloss backcombed bouffant hair and dangly earrings. I hope that they still laugh about and remember that escapade fondly, they probably still have the earrings.
Maybe tram-lashes takes comfort in a similar kind of quiet rebellion. I imagine her supervisor saying, “we need to talk about your eyelashes,” only for our plucky champion to respond “my lashes are my business and there’s nothing in the staff handbook prohibiting them!”