Charlotte wrote recently to see if I would post about body challenges that are nearly impossible to disguise. She asked if I could write about the difficulties of being marked by some obvious physical attribute that must be dealt with daily and potentially dressed “around.” And while I’m willing to weigh in on challenges that I can imagine yet do not struggle with myself, there are some subjects I feel are best left to those with personal experience.
Since Charlotte mentioned her own battle with spider veins as an example, I asked her to write a guest post about her experiences and the various work-arounds she’s tried. Spider veins are incredibly common, hard to disguise, and consistently referred to as “unsightly.” I’m sure that many of you will be able to relate to Charlotte’s story, and sympathize with her ongoing effort to deal with a physical attribute that is genetic, incurable, and almost universally disdained.
I lie on the couch beside my mother in the evenings as she watches TV and pretend the ink-blue veins that cover her ankles are roads. Tracing one vein with my fingertip, I travel the road’s narrow contours until the blue line comes to an abrupt end. I turn around, go back, and find another passage. If I can travel all the way around my mother’s ankle without jumping over a ravine – the unblemished skin between one spray of veins and another – then I win the game. I almost always win.
Older, I discover that I’ve inherited my mother’s great cheekbones, her reddish hair. . .and her spider veins. When the unsightly creepers first appear on my legs, I’m pregnant and in my middle twenties. I tell myself it could be worse: Instead of the spider veins, I could have inherited my dad’s bulbous nose. At least with spider veins, most of the time I can hide them.
As soon as the weather turns cool, I rejoice. Living in Pennsylvania, I have seven reliable months when I don’t have to think about my spider veins. Leggings might be too revealing for some women, but not for me. They hide a highway system mapped out over the course of my long legs. Heavy traffic congested beneath my ankle-bone disappears under boots. The routes marked blue and red and purple tunnel surreptitiously, camouflaged beneath opaque tights.
Come summer, there’s nowhere to hide. Women in short dresses and sandals, women in shorts, women in swimwear. . .all baring their legs, showing off their pedicures, looking cool and unencumbered. I page bitterly through the j.jill catalog, wondering why Capri pants had to come back into fashion. I watch women on the street and wonder which sadistic fashion mogul put a contract out on sheer nude stockings. I remind myself that sheer nude stockings were, at best, a poor disguise. I pull on an ankle-length skirt and a pair of sandals, but a quick glance in the mirror shows inches of purple skin visible between my hemline and the ground. I kick off the sandals and put my shoes back on.
Into my thirties, I wear ankle socks – cute with Mary Janes, playful with pumps – but at a certain point, anklets turn from winsome accessory to glaring reminder of the elderly ladies of my youth. I remember the great-aunts padding out to the porch in ankle socks and slippers and floral house-dresses, their upper arms flapping. In the mirror, my poor legs look sad and gray above the cuffs of my white socks. I slip off the anklets and into a pair of jeans, despairing of ever wearing leg-baring summer clothes again.
Researching treatments and disguises on-line, I mostly encounter “spider veins” coupled with words like “unsightly” and “embarrassing.” No one calls them “thought-provoking,” “beautiful,” or “unique.” They are neither sought-after nor swooned over. I read articles about scleropathy – injecting the veins with a saline solution that dries them up, turns them brown, makes them go away. Yes, it’s temporary – the dried veins eventually fade, but new ones come to replace them – and since it’s a “purely cosmetic” procedure, insurance doesn’t cover it. At approximately $400 per treatment, and with the initial eradication often requiring several treatments, we’re looking at a cost substantially higher than a pair of opaque tights. Laser surgery is less painful, more expensive, and again, a temporary solution not covered by insurance. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of vein-zapping acknowledge that if you’re on your feet a lot, spider veins will come back. Among the people who will almost certainly need periodic repeated treatments are teachers, nurses, mothers, runners, salespeople, and those who lead sedentary lives. In other words, if you’re active, or if you’re inactive, the solution is only temporary. I scratch my head: Who are they leaving out here?
One website offers compression socks “that won’t make the veins go away or prevent them from getting worse but may improve the quality of life of the wearer.” I look at the socks, an edgy addition to any fashionista’s wardrobe. Thick and elastic, the socks come in several attractive flesh-tones possibly developed by the flesh-tone experts who brought us the Band-Aid. I ponder exactly how my quality of life will be improved by donning a pair of compression socks. Rubbing the legs with cypress oil or horse chestnut extract is also a suggested remedy.
My son insists that no one pays the least bit of attention to my legs. My husband tells me that I have many fine physical attributes that blind him to the existence of my veiny ankles. My best friend wonders aloud if only heterosexual women obsess about bodily imperfections because they feel so judged by men. At a conference, a woman compliments me on my “elegant” ankle-length skirt, then points at my ankles and asks, “Do you wear long skirts because you’re self-conscious about those little veins?” She speaks conspiratorially – a fair-skinned blond, she, too, has a few spider veins – but her words make me wonder whom I’m kidding. Haven’t I just been checking out other women’s ankles while pretending to listen to the various talks and panel discussions? Yep – worse than mine, even. Nope – flawless. Make-up. Socks. Long pants. Nope – though she could use a pumice stone on those heels. Nope – look at those gorgeous ankles, not a mark on them! Yep – though not quite as bad as mine. Ah-hah – boots in summer, a dead giveaway. Obviously, spider veins matter to me. A lot. Realizing this stings like another vein popping.
For the first time I try leg make-up. In the store, I examine the deep beige can and wonder if “Light Glow” is the shade that will give me “Perfect Legs in an instant!” I search the shelves again, hoping to come across a nice “Skim Milk” shade that might prove a closer match to my bluish legs. I don’t want this to look fake. I’m A-OK with being pale – I just want (as the can promises) my “freckles, veins, and imperfections” to bite the dust. At home, I carefully follow the directions – shaving, exfoliating, moisturizing – and then squirt out a handful of leg mousse. It glides on sheer and orangey. I wonder if this is like painting a table, where “several thin coats are preferred to one thick coat.” When I’m finished, my legs are Barbie-tanned, but my veins are as visible as ever. Now, my ankles just look sort of dirty. My skin has a peculiar greasy feeling. I wonder if it’s the “soft, smooth, and sexy” sensation promised on the container.
Like many failed experiments, my initial encounter with leg make-up inspires me to further experimentation. Though all the websites promise that “regular” foundation is not appropriate to use as leg make-up, I delve into my cache of discarded foundations and concealers – the ones I purchased with so much faith but that, in the end, turned out too thick, too yellow, too beige, too make-uppy to wear on my face. Beginning with a liquid concealer that had made me look like an albino raccoon, I slather it over the webs of purple veins. My legs become startlingly pale, but. . .wow. I can hardly see those veins. I blend in a squirt of an expensive foundation that made my face look jaundiced, and find that my legs are starting to look pretty good. I grab a container of cheap mineral powder foundation that I bought on vacation after forgetting the good stuff at home, mix a little with some cornstarch baby powder, and with a Kabuki brush, dust it over my legs to set the foundation.
I look at my legs in the mirror. While it’s definitely strange not to see purple shadows ringing my ankles, this looks promising. I go outside. In the daylight my legs still look pretty good. Maybe not air-brushed. Maybe not perfect. But I can definitely pass as someone with legs that look. . .well, normal. I see legs like these all the time, just plain ordinary legs, the kind without roadmaps and intersections and congested areas. I put on a knee-length skirt and sandals, and with some trepidation, go to the grocery store. I figure it’s a relatively safe place to test-drive my experiment – better than, say, a classroom full of college students.
The veins are not invisible, of course. They’re just less screamingly present. When I get home, I prop my smooth “Natural Ivory”-colored legs on a chair, and wait for my husband to gasp at the transformation. He doesn’t. I go to a dinner party with my made-up legs and no one pays them any mind. And that feels great. Maybe by the end of the summer, going bare-legged in public will feel so natural, I’ll forget to apply the make-up.
Do you have a dressing challenge that centers on a physical attribute that cannot be “downplayed”? How do you work around it? Or do you? Have you ever tried products or clothing designed to offset a physical challenge or trait, and found that it only made matters worse?
Images courtesy makemeheal.com.