Back to Beauty U: An occasional series where I’ll be rolling out some never-blogged-before Beauty U moments.
It took me a few weeks to figure out about Picture Day, even though we were surrounded by evidence of it every night at Beauty U. The walls of the school’s break room and back hallways are lined with the class photos of previous years, these poster-sized grids of student headshots set against swirly blue backgrounds like spreads from a yearbook.
Maybe it was all the big hair. Maybe it was all of the feather boas and motorcycle jackets. But we just assumed that these class photos were relics from the 1980s, strange artifacts of Beauty U’s history, displayed perhaps as cautionary tales for future students against blue eyeshadow and too much cleavage.
Then Meg and I looked closer one day, and noticed that one group photo had the words, “Class of 2008.”
Picture Day is stressful enough at any normal school. You have to hold your head at weird angles and not blink and maybe also wear one of those odd wraps that are supposed to look like graduation gowns.
Beauty U’s Picture Day turned out to be something else entirely.
“It’s like Glamour Shots!” Stephanie said, with dubious excitement, when we saw the photographer wheeling in a garment rack full of feather boas, sparkly fabric wraps, and motorcycle jackets.
Glamour Shots, in case you haven’t been to a mall lately, is a chain of portrait studios that specialize in “makeover photography.” They used to be all about sequins and smoke machines. These days, the shoots are styled more like a Victoria’s Secret catalog. They specialize in high school senior portraits and Valentine’s Day gifts. And they cost a fortune, but you’re paying for this whole experience — two hours of having your hair and makeup done, and being coached to pose like a swimsuit model.
The Beauty U photographer placed less emphasis on the experience. He had to shoot the fifty-odd night students in the space of about two hours. He’d also been there all day shooting the day students. “I heard he made a girl cry,” Leslie, one of the senior students, told me. She’d endured Picture Day the last time around and was not about to go again. But for the rest of us, it was mandatory.
“If you refuse to have your picture taken, I have to send you home and that means you’ll have to make up the hours,” Miss Susan explained at attendance. We wanted to know if we could at least wear our own clothes? Absolutely not. “But it ends up being more fun than you think,” she promised. “We want all of yous [sic] in the picture. That’s why we make this rule. We want yous to represent the school.”
So after attendance, we lined up outside the nail salon classroom where the photographer had set up shop. Black tube tops were passed back with instructions for us to change into them, after first removing our bras or pushing the straps down inside. The tube tops were wrap style, in an effort to be one-size-fits-all, if such a claim could be made about a tube top.
“I am not taking my bra off,” said Meg. “I mean, I’m just not.” I was wearing a purple tank top underneath my black uniform t-shirt and grabbed Miss Jenny to see if I could just wear that, and keep my bra on. “Absolutely,” she said. “I wouldn’t put that ridiculous wrap thing on either.” Meg and I agreed to pass the tank top off to one another between our shoots.
Markesha stepped out of the bathroom where people were ducking in to change. She was still wearing her own XXL t-shirt, and holding the wrap top in one hand. “I can’t wear this,” she said. She sounded close to tears. “It doesn’t even cover my belly.”
Just then Mr. G sailed past. “Ooh, girls, how’s my hair? Am I ready for my close-up?” he asked in a high-pitched voice. “Ooh, I’m going to look so sexy!” He patted his bald head and batted his eyelashes at us.
We all observed that with a moment of silence. Then it was my turn to head into the makeshift photo studio.
The photographer didn’t introduce himself or make eye contact. “You’re not wearing the wrap,” he said.
“Nope,” I said, sitting on his little stool in front of the blue swirly backdrop. I was already sweating under the bright lights.
He grunted, then grabbed my shoulders with both hands and pushed down the straps of both my tank top and my bra until they were around my elbows. Suddenly, a lot more of my breasts were visible.
Then he reached for the silver chain around my neck. “I’m just putting the clasp in back!” he barked, when I recoiled. Because I’m weird and hate strangers touching my neck. Or my bra straps. “Thanks, I’ll do it,” I said.
He grunted again and turned to his rack of wraps and jackets. In rapid succession, he grabbed a feather boa, a fake fur stole, a metallic purple wrap and a motorcycle jacket, shoved them on me, twisted my head and torso into the pose he wanted, and snapped away.
“You’re not smiling,” he said after the boa.
“I’m not enjoying this,” I answered. The boa had smelled faintly of cigarettes. The fur stole was more like a wet basement.
“None of you girls seem to like this, I can’t figure out why,” he answered, yanking the motorcycle jacket further down my shoulder.
I couldn’t figure out how to explain it to him, so I just hunched to make the jacket creep back up.
“Nobody ever likes the shoot part, but they love the pictures,” he said. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know how to make you look great.”
I have to be honest. This was the moment when I nearly cried. Or got up and walked out of Beauty U, maybe forever. Even writing this months later, it’s a little hard. This guy — the same guy who was dressing me up like a hooker, grabbing my bra straps without ever making eye contact — thought he knew how to make me look great? As in, better than when I walked in the door in my own clothes, undergarments in all of their usual places?
Instead, I kept my face frozen in this weird half-smile until he told me I was free to go. Then I ran to the bathroom, switched shirts with Meg, and went back to watch while she went through the same ordeal. Most of the women in the hallway had gotten quiet by then, like we’d all realized there was nothing we could do to stop this humiliation — all we could do was be witnesses for each other.
“You really looked pretty in that one,” we told each other. Or: “The green boa wasn’t so bad, it matches your eyes!”
Behind me, Markesha stood in the wrap top, her stomach naked from just above her belly button down to the top of her sweat pants. She couldn’t quite look at anyone.
A month later, the photographer came back to Beauty U armed with our photos. He was friendlier this time, in sales pitch mode. “They really came out great,” he said, passing me a pile of proofs. “They always do. You guys could use these for your portfolios. They’re an investment in your career.”
On top was a list of his “portrait packages” all offered at “Student Value” prices, which ranged from the $49.90 “Economy Package” (pick one pose and get an 8 x10,” a 5 x 7,” and four 2 x 3″ prints) to the $159.90 “Ultimate Package” (all four poses in 8 x10, 5 x 7, and four copies each in 2 x 3, plus the pose of your choice blown up to 10 x 13″ and a whopping 16 x 20″).
My eyes were almost closed in the feather boa picture and I looked pained in the metallic wrap shot. I picked the fake fur stole shot for the class photo, because from a distance, it looked the most like one of those plain black wraps you see in high school senior pictures.
And I purchased the motorcycle jacket shot above for $49.90 plus tax, to share with all of you.
I thought I was the only Beauty U student who bothered to buy any prints. “I would sooner set my hair on fire,” Meg said. “If I wanted Glamour Shots, I’d go to the mall and get them done properly,” Stephanie agreed. Even the teachers were unimpressed with their pictures, and they’d been allowed to wear their own clothes.
But later that night, as we’re punching out on the time clock, I saw Markesha with the same flat plastic bag as me.
“I can’t believe you bought all four poses!” her friend said. “Your husband’s gonna love it.”
And Markesha just smiled.