Beauty

Under Her Eye

When the doctor called out the permanent dark circles under my eyes it reopened an old wound and posed a new question. Just how much should I still care?

Ohlamour Studio/Stocksy, Igor Ustynskyy/Getty Images

I’ve had bags under my eyes since I was a teen. Back then I used to stand in front of the mirror with makeup remover and a cotton ball, convinced there was still a kohl-colored shadow to be wiped away. There wasn’t. It was just my skin.

While many — and I mean, many — people have commented on them, usually in the vein of pointing out how tired I look, the best description I've received came from my sixth form English teacher. They were, she said, “like dark shadows.” Perhaps it was childish optimism, but until then I still believed that maybe I was the only one who could see them. I was wrong.

Back then I self-flagellated twice over for things I didn’t like about myself — once for the feeling itself, which no amount of drugstore “self-love” could quell, and again for the fact I didn’t like it, which seemed like a betrayal of sorts. Around the same time, I began investing in YSL’s Touche Èclat. Despite the Kate Moss ads and the breathless magazine write-ups, the click-click-click just turned my shadows from dark gray to metallic silver. An upgrade, maybe, but not worth the 27-pound price tag for a teenager with no job.

Next came Giorgio Armani’s Luminous Silk foundation, which I chose because they used it to create the deception of perfect, makeup-free skin on Downton Abbey. This effortless look was all that my 22-year-old self strove so effortfully for. The foundation works brilliantly and I still wear it today — though not literally today, because we’re in a global pandemic. Makeup is now something I only wear when I’m seeing somebody I work with or somebody I fancy. There is no in-between — and thankfully, no overlap — so my dark circles are back with a vengeance, no longer a crumb of soot wrapped in the wax of an expensive cream candle.

A silence unfolded then, as we both looked at what she had said, before I realized it was my line. “Oh, yes,” I said, “because I have quite bad shadows under my eyes, too.”

When I went to the doctor’s for an appointment about a recurring ear infection a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even thinking about my face, which is progress of sorts. After a look down my ears and a prod up my nose, the doctor told me I was very congested. “Is this, like, normal for you?” she asked, peering through her clear visor. “I think so,” I replied, wondering if I had been doing breathing wrong all this time.

The doctor told me she suspected I had allergies. This was partly due to the congestion and a eustachian tube dysfunction — not an infection after all — but there was something else, too. Something she didn’t want to say out loud.

Thus began a digression about her boyfriend who had allergies that he hadn’t identified either before they started dating. One of his symptoms, she said, pointing to the skin under her own eyes while looking an inch below mine, were his “dark shadows, like shiners.” A silence unfolded then, as we both looked at what she had said, before I realized it was my line. “Oh, yes,” I said, “because I have quite bad shadows under my eyes, too.” She beamed, or at least I think she did. I couldn’t see because of her mask.

On the walk home, vanity began whispering to me through my unblocked ear. Maybe these strange Latin tinctures were my way out of the shadows?

I came away with a long list of drugs to buy, most of which I planned on ignoring since British parenting and a lifetime of NHS care has bred a self-sabotaging suspicion of medicating anything non-essential. But on the walk home, vanity began whispering to me through my unblocked ear. Maybe these strange Latin tinctures were my way out of the shadows?

When I arrived at CVS, I had to press one of those little buttons where the salesperson opens a locked door for your medicine. I wanted to put them back when I saw the price, but I was too embarrassed. I blacked out on the exact total, but let’s call it $83, or rather $83.67 because, as I’ve learned, no sum in America is ever a round number. I paid it begrudgingly, shoving my pills into my handbag so I didn’t have to look at them. By the aforementioned British parenting codes, financial frivolity is perhaps the only thing worse than constitutional weakness.

Once home, I started popping my pills at the allotted time and was surprised to find myself, dare I say it, hopeful? It wasn’t my ear or my congestion that I cared about fixing — when I got home I googled “what does congestion feel like,” and truthfully, I’m still not sure — this was all about my eyes.

I don't need this particular flaw to go away to feel good about myself, but I reserve the right to try.

Some days in that first week I woke up convinced they were better, and what joy I felt! But the next day I’d wake disappointed, convinced they were returning to where they began. On one hand, I sort of don’t care either way. It is what it is, and at 32 I’m much better at accepting myself as I am than I ever have been. But the journey there hasn’t been linear, and the destination certainly isn't black-and-white.

A few years ago, I probably would have told you that accepting your flaws is an all-or-nothing enterprise, but being locked down for a year in a one-bedroom apartment thousands of miles from home has helped me realize that loving everything about yourself is a fool's errand. I think it was all the alone time that did it. I had no choice but to get on with it or things would have gotten very dark, very quickly. But all that time brought something else with it, too. Time for new projects, new hobbies, new books, new serums. I knew my shopping carts wouldn’t remake me anew, but it didn't matter. The trying brought a joy all of its own.

I don't need this particular flaw to go away to feel good about myself, but I reserve the right to try. It’s the warmth of dumb hopefulness that I like most, and no matter my age, that’s a high I’ll hold onto for as long as I can.