Carmen Maria Machado first grabbed our attention with her essays and short stories on women’s minds, bodies, sexuality and mental health. Her highly anticipated first book, Her Body and Other Parties, came out to rave reviews and is a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Carmen, who lives with her wife in Philadelphia, is a fragrance enthusiast with a penchant for bold fashion. Here, she shares her love of offbeat scents, literary tattoos and horror movies…
When did you first become interested in beauty?
Growing up in the suburbs of Allentown, Pennsylvania, I found beauty very interesting and mysterious, but it never felt meant for me. I always did it wrong — too patchy, too heavy. I never liked how it looked. My grandmother would sit at her vanity, which was littered with vials and jars, and put herself together. It felt very ritualistic, noble and dignified — even a little witchy. I was completely hypnotized as a kid. She whetted my appetite for gorgeous bottles and beauty artifacts.
Well, I’m obsessed with perfume and have a growing collection of beautiful bottles. I love how each fragrance smells a certain way in the bottle, but different notes get thrown off on your skin. It’s petrichor, then jasmine, then smoke, then musk, then the memory of musk, then nothing. It’s like its own little universe, coming to life and living and dying in miniature right on your body. I love complicated, dark, strange scents with notes of booze, wood, water and smoke. My current pleasures include Imaginary Authors’ A City on Fire and Zoologist’s Bat. I discover new independent perfumes through The Dry Down, an amazing newsletter all about fragrance.
When did you start wearing makeup?
It wasn’t until I was a little older — out of college, really — that I started thinking that beauty, skincare and fashion were things that I could fully participate in. But now I’ve become comfortable experimenting with different looks. I no longer feel accountable to anyone but myself, and that’s exciting and freeing.
On vacation in Ireland.
How did you get there?
I used to feel uncomfortable in my body, which I hated for such a long time. Now I’m trying to make it up to her, because she is the vehicle that ferries my weird mind through this world, and that’s pretty amazing. Discovering fat fashion blogs in college helped. Before, I dressed plainly and never wore makeup, and nothing ever fit quite right. I guess I didn’t think I deserved to look nice. But the blogs made me realize I had fashion choices! That I could actually create an outfit that I wanted to wear, instead of just settling for something in or near my size. It was really liberating, and made me want to experiment with makeup, as well. Now I’m obsessed with clothes, and I’ve become good at dressing my body. Most of the fat fashion blogs I read back then are no longer active, so nowadays I go to Instagram. I love Gabi Gregg, Beth Ditto, India-Haylee Alex Barton, Jessamyn Stanley, Denise Bidot, Naomi Watanabe and Lizzo, I also hop on The Curvy Fashionista pretty often.
Where are your favorite places to shop?
I love Universal Standard, Beth Ditto’s line, Modcloth and Pinup Girl Clothing.
Do you wear makeup regularly now?
I’m lucky that my skin is fairly even-toned, and I have a lot of natural color in my cheeks and lips. When I was a kid, my female relatives would swipe a finger over my lips because they were convinced I was wearing lipstick, even though I never was. So, day-to-day, I don’t wear much makeup, except a bit of concealer if I have a zit. Sometimes I’ll throw on a lipstick that can fade naturally throughout the day, like Clinique Black Honey.
What about special occasions?
When I’m in makeup mood, I’ll put on some gold eyeshadow, but I avoid mascara because it smears and flecks my glasses. My favorite lipstick, hands-down, is the Sephora Collection Cream Lip Stain in Always Red. It goes on easily, smells lovely, and stays on for hours through eating and whatever you’re doing. The color is absolutely stunning — a classic red that’s super flattering.
Do you have any drugstore finds?
CVS has been carrying a Frida Kahlo makeup line in those little bins near the front. The packaging is utterly gorgeous. I pop into every CVS I see to track down the colors I don’t have.
What’s the most drastic thing you’ve ever done with your look?
Getting tattoos. On my left arm, it says “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.” On my right, it says “She didn’t look back, but stepped off the edge of the known world.” The former is a quote by Clementine Paddleford, who was this badass food writer from the 1950s; the latter is the final line of Kelly Link’s short story “Flying Lessons.” They’re reminders of how to conduct myself when I stand still, and when I move.
Can you tell us about your job?
I’m a writer and teacher. Right now, I’m the artist in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. My book, Her Body and Other Parties, is a collection of short stories that uses pop culture, science fiction, fantasy and horror to meditate on women’s bodies, sexuality and mental health.
Yeah, I teach a horror writing class and love horror movies — like Alien, The Descent and The Others. Watching or reading horror is not that different from, say, sex, or running. Your adrenaline goes up, you’re flooded with endorphins, your blood flow increases. When writing horror, you try to harvest your own fears and vulnerabilities. It can be very freeing as an artist.
Horror seems like one of those things people either love or hate. Is your wife into it?
The movies stress her out too much. But she does like me to recount the plots, beat by beat, after I watch.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve written?
Probably “The Husband Stitch,” a retelling of the urban legend about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, followed closely by “Especially Heinous,” a reimagining of Law & Order: SVU. My favorite essay I’ve written is the “The Trash Heap Has Spoken.”
In that essay, you wrote: “Every day, I look for myself in other women’s bodies.” What did you mean by this?
I think people are hungry for visions of themselves in the world. If you are, for example, a fit white dude or a conventionally beautiful, thin woman, those images are very easy to find. But for me, they’re not, so I’m always looking at folks when I’m out and about. I’m an incurable people-watcher.
Tell us about your skincare routine.
I take long showers and use that time to meditate on whatever I’m working on. We even have a waterproof pad of paper in the shower so I can jot down notes. I use Lush Angels on Bare Skin and afterwards I moisturize with Celestial. I used to work at a Lush Store, so I’ve been converted to their products. If I’m breaking out, I’ll use a metal blackhead remover and a little tea tree oil. If I’ve got stray face/chin hairs, I pluck them with a tweezer or use Nad’s Facial Wax Strips. About once a week, I use Cure Natural Aqua Gel to exfoliate.
What about at night?
I’ll use a cleansing towelette — right now I’m loving the Burt’s Bees with White Tea Extract. Then I’ll rub Gold Bond Rough & Bumpy on my elbows and feet. I’ve been trying to go screen-free before bedtime, so often I’ll listen to a podcast until I’m tired — like Sawbones, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Racist Sandwich or Dear Prudence.
How do you care for your hair?
The Cuban side of my family has very curly hair; both my siblings have luxurious locks. But I’m halfway in between — my hair is heavy and easily pulls itself out of curl, but then I get ridiculous frizzy ringlets around the edges if there’s the slightest bit of humidity. I have yet to figure out a shampoo that gives my hair the kind of curl-encouragement and volume it needs. (Do any readers have suggestions?) If it’s a non-shower day, I’ll spritz ColorProof HumidityRx Anti-Frizz Weatherproof Spray to keep the frizzies away.
How do you style it?
I put it up in a bun or topknot every day. My wife jokes that I’m like a Victorian lady — only she gets to see my hair down, and even then only at bedtime.
You recently got married. Tell us about your amazing pink dress!
I got my Maggie Sottero at Curvaceous Couture, which is the only dedicated plus-sized wedding dress store in the U.S. (When I was younger, I discovered that bridal shops usually only carry sample sizes, and most of them were far too small for me. I had to just hold the dresses up and imagine what they’d look like on. I didn’t want to do that for my own wedding dress. Novel concept, right?) Anyway, I spent a while trying on dresses, but nothing was clicking. One of my friends yelled, “MIX IT UP,” so the woman helping us picked up this huge, fluffy, pink thing. I immediately knew that it was my dress. It was so romantic and dramatic and ridiculous, and I looked beautiful. I kept strutting back and forth in front of the mirror like a peacock until I had to take it off because they had another appointment.
What vibe were you going for with your wedding makeup?
Since my dress was so intense, I wanted my makeup to be understated — soft pink lips and cheeks and a little gold eyeshadow. The result was equal parts romantic, glam and elegant.
Do you have any beauty inspirations?
Yes! I love Frida Kahlo for her bright colors, body hair and surrealism. Beth Ditto for wearing high fashion on a fat body. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby for those feathered and polka-dot floor-length robes. Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her pink, diamonds, houndstooth, leopard print and every curve showing. Also, Ms. Frizzle. I have been known to wear themed clothes when teaching. I wear constellation pants and a star blazer for sci-fi writing, and a haunted house skirt and ouija pin for horror writing. Beauty is about your pleasure and satisfaction, and no one else’s.
Thank you so much, Carmen!
P.S. More women’s beauty uniforms, including a eight grade teacher and a restaurant owner.
(Photos courtesy of Carmen Maria Machado. Wedding and engagement photos by Samantha Jay. Portrait by Tom Storm.)