Cleanse, tone, apply serum, moisturizer, rosehip oil—these were the five steps of my mother’s skincare routine. If you do this every day, you’ll look good as you age, she said.
One, then two wrinkles bloomed between her eyebrows, like deep furrows farmers plow in the soil, the year she turned forty-five. Do I look old? she asked. You are so beautiful, I said.
Acne, rosacea, blotchiness, puffiness, dilated pores—these were the five ways alcohol abuse surfaced on my mother’s skin. She started drinking and smoking as a teenager, when she was in boarding school. Once, she told me about the time her classmates assembled to watch an end-of-year school video. My mother noticed someone she didn’t recognize on the screen: a willowy girl with high cheekbones and curly brown hair. Who is that? she asked her friend. It’s you, silly, her friend said. How could you not know what you looked like? I asked. My parents didn’t let me look at myself in the mirror, she said. So what did you think when you saw yourself? I pressed. I thought I was beautiful.
Seven years have passed since I last saw my mother in person, since the summer she seared me, as if I were standing too close to the sun. Every so often we speak over Zoom. Our separation via screens, time zones, and oceans softens our dynamic, but still, her amber eyes scan my face for flaws: cold sores, sunspots, pimples, blemishes, scars. What’s that? she’ll ask, stabbing her finger toward the camera. I try to cover up whatever she sees and resent how she pays attention to the wrong things.
Alcoholism, anorexia, suicidality—these are the three afflictions I hide from my mother until the year I turn twenty-eight. I decide to reveal my pain points after she asks about the mountainous pimple on my cheek, the blister on my lower lip. Stop looking at my face, I say, before I disclose the truth. I had no idea you were suffering; you hide your problems so well, she says. You weren’t looking, I say. I wasn’t trying to hide.
One, just one furrow appears between my eyebrows the year I turn thirty. I hide it with my hair or my hands whenever my mother and I talk over Zoom: still, a green glass bottle of frankincense oil appears at my doorstep, an anti-aging extract, the sixth step.
Cleanse, tone, apply serum, moisturizer, rosehip, and frankincense oil—these are the six steps of my skincare routine. But still, a new pimple appears on my chin every month, bursting, scabbing, hardening into a small pink scar. A brown glass bottle of vitamin E oil appears at my doorstep: the seventh step, a disclaimer on the red label. Some damage is untreatable—no claims, representations, or warranties, whether express or implied, are made by our company as to the safety, reliability, durability, and performance of any of our products.
Publab Fellow 2023
Bianca Salgado is a photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal.