We were young Mormon girls incurious about good grooming, resigned to greasy hair that stuck to our foreheads and dandruff from the dry salt air, itchy in our desert skin and modest in our dress. We were fascinated with our flaws—even highly concerned about our imperfections— but we wanted to believe that being good might make us beautiful.
I was the President of my Mia Maid class. We were nearly sixteen years old and all strivers, avoiding temptation through baking, babysitting, and sundry crafts— except for Mel. Mel avoided temptation, but she didn’t like preparing food, didn’t wish to be entrusted with small children, and preferred not to spend her time making quilt squares and collages. We tried not to be offended. It bothered us most that she loved rats. She kept hers in a multi-level cage in her room— she drew us a diagram once. She talked about letting the rats race down her arms, rolling up her sleeves to prove it. We squirmed when she described their tails. Mel had a large purple birthmark that began at her hairline and traveled down the right half of her face, dipping around her eye and tapering off under the apple of her cheek. She never seemed to care about it and we pretended not to notice.
Sister Greer, a mother-of-three who worked part-time at a beauty counter, taught us the Gospel every Sunday. She once invited us to her house for makeovers. I cleaned up for church. It was important to look neat and reverent in the house of the Lord, but I went to school barefaced and bleary-eyed. I knew I’d wear makeup someday. It was a part of my future I could hold off on, but I didn’t mind getting a preview.
Sister Greer set her dining table with hand mirrors, sponges, and product samples. She assigned Mel a seat next to her.
“It doesn’t take much,” she warned.
I pulled my hair into a scrunchie and dabbed my sponge in liquid foundation.
“Moisturize first.” Sister Greer pointed to a white sample. “We have dry skin.”
“Do you have keratosis pilaris too?” I wanted her to know I was aware of the raised red dots I had all over.
She nodded. “It’s common. Just moisturize and exfoliate!”
The lotion soothed my chapped cheeks. I noticed Mel turning over compacts, inspecting the labels.
“Is this brand cruelty-free?” she asked. “Companies test this stuff on rats. Bunnies, too. I signed a petition. It’s so wrong.”
“Let’s assume the best,” Sister Greer said.
“Don’t you think it’s sad?”
“It will be OK just this once,” I said, obligated as President to reinforce Sister Greer’s authority. I imagined a bunny wearing lipstick that matched its magenta eyes, not seeing any harm. Though I’m sure she felt tempted to disobey, Mel slapped on some foundation.
Applying makeup wasn’t easy. I needed Sister Greer’s guidance:
“A little goes a long way!”
“Blend out from the center.”
“Don’t forget your neck.”
She supplied dozens of eye shadows in nude and brown and taupe and gray and shell with names like vixen and truant and kitten. I disliked the insinuations of those names and had no desire to be sexy. Trying to be sexy was about impressing boys and I valiantly feigned disinterest in them since pairing off was prohibited. Sister Greer didn’t apologize for the suggestive names.
I tapped the powder onto my lids, then finished my look with pink lip-gloss. So much effort! But it made a real difference. I looked better than my Sunday best. I glowed with potential. I caught a glimpse of my future self: the shimmery, moisturized, even-toned me that would be capable of making eternal commitments, of strengthening my home and family, of building Zion, the kingdom of God on Earth. I didn’t know I’d feel so delighted, so pretty and powerful, but Sister Greer must have.
Makeup had helped the other Mia Maids too. Except Mel, who wasn’t smiling. Foundation couldn’t cover her birthmark. She looked too much like her usual self. I felt disappointed for her, even embarrassed, but then Sister Greer handed her a fancy jar from the department store beauty counter.
“Let’s get this right,” she said.
“No thanks,” Mel said. She slid the jar across the table to me. I slid it back to Sister Greer, who twisted off the lid and set the jar in her palm.
“I don’t think I want it,” Mel said, reluctant to turn her face toward our advisor.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to watch. I wanted to see what Mel could look like, who she might one day be.
Sister Greer attended to Mel’s birthmark as if applying pale putty was an act of pure devotion. With a delicate hand, she applied the precious balm, a thick skin-toned spackle, carefully blending the edges. Then she held a mirror up to Mel’s face.
“Much better,” she said.
Mel’s entire face was now a flat white. I could only detect traces of her birthmark: a hint of purple in Mel’s hairline, a touch of blue at her brow bone. Sister Greer showed us how easy it was to erase her sad distinction.
It was like a miracle. I saw an end to Mel keeping rats in her room and talking about how much she loved their long tails. I imagined the new Mel would become instantly more pleasant and coöperative, that this small change was all she’d needed to finally be one of us.
She didn’t smile. She didn’t blink rapidly as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. No grateful tears. She shook her head.
Sister Greer seemed thrilled with her work but needed some backup. I clapped. The others followed. Even a major flaw could be fixed!
Mel sighed. “It’s very strange.”
“It doesn’t take much!” I said.
Mel fidgeted with the compacts. Sister Greer leaned to whisper in her ear.
“Did you know you were beautiful, Melanie?”
Mel reached to the floor for her backpack, preparing to leave.
“It’ll be hard to wash off.” She turned over the jar and read the label again. “I’m pretty positive this brand isn’t cruelty-free. I wish I could free all the poor rats from those horrible cages.” She turned the mirror face down. She wiped off the lip-gloss with the back of her hand. But as she packed up, I made sure she put the special jar in her backpack.
We were all beautiful Mormon girls that night, and I couldn’t let go of that triumphant feeling, the sense that we were truly together on the path to perfection. It was something, to know we might be good and also someday beautiful— worthy of any future we wanted— even Mel. That night we thought of her as someone we’d want to include, someone we’d be kind to or even one day confide in, someone whose face might not prevent her from ever knowing real happiness.
Kate Finlinson is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published her work in Crazyhorse, Cincinnati Review, PANK, Joyland, and elsewhere.