Painted Ladies


Arts & Culture

The painted lady larvae came in a small, clear plastic cup with a half inch of growth medium on the bottom. Tiny holes in the lid for air. The day they arrived, each was no longer nor thicker than an individual, mascara-plumped eyelash. There were six living larvae in the cup. You could find them if you looked, squirming across the medium or edging up the sides, but you had to look.

I never thought much about eyelashes until I started shopping for them. Now they’re the first thing I notice on a woman. My daughter is a dancer. She’s only nine, but her dance school requires she wear false lashes for all performances. I’ve always been afraid of glue-on lashes. The ripping off part scares me the most. I’m afraid the adhesive will take with it something that matters. Instead, I found a company that makes magnetic lashes. A thick coat of eyeliner, and they stay right on. They are endless, the things I discover so my girl can do what she loves.


We’d tried to grow painted lady butterflies at home before, but we traveled too much that summer. They are easy to care for during their larval stage, but once they build their chrysalides, you have to keep a careful watch. After they have hardened—but not so long after that you disturb the unseen process happening inside—you must transfer the chrysalides to the netted cage that will be the emerged butterfly’s home. You must set inside the cage a bowl of sugar water filled with little wads of sweet-water-soaked paper towels, also at just the right time, remembering to change the water and towel wads every other day. Stay near. You must be present at the moment when the butterflies emerge. We missed the good parts last time. We had to take the net cage to my parents’ house. The painted ladies emerged there, without fanfare, living most of their brief, final days while we were away.


The magnetic lashes were advertised in several lengths and degrees of thickness, each named after a city: Nashville, Dallas, Portland, Chicago. Portland was the least conspicuous, then Seattle. The Chicago lashes were more densely packed. The Los Angeles style was longer and crosshatched in a way that made you want to look at them closely. They resembled Madonna’s $10,000 mink lashes, but without diamonds at the base. We bought Seattle. When they arrived and we’d gotten them applied I asked, “What would Dallas have looked like on you!?” I couldn’t even begin to imagine Vegas on my child’s eyes.


I thought it would be a positive learning experience to watch something tiny and plain as those larvae grow into creatures as beautiful, as magical, as butterflies.


I used to think most people with great lashes just used really good mascara. That’s how naive I can be sometimes. Once I started shopping for false lashes, I couldn’t help noticing the lash bars all over town. There is an entire industry for eyelashes. I became obsessed. For about a month, most of what I talked about was the enhancement of lashes. If I saw a woman with lovely lashes, I would compliment her. “Thank you,” said a grocery store cashier. “I just got them done. It took forever! I had no idea it would take so long. I had to keep my eye open while a woman applied each individual lash. Can you imagine!?” I couldn’t imagine. I wanted to ask more, but her line was growing noticeably long.


I thought this summer, since we were home all the time, growing something beautiful and alive would be fun.


The revelation that so many people were enhancing their eyes was disruptive. It changed the way I saw the things I’d been seeing before. Eyeshadow I could understand. I’d long participated in the act of shadowing my eyes. I’d resisted eyeliner until I went to ladies’ night at the local mall with my Aunt Mary—when she was still alive and healthy—about six years ago. We went on a lark one Friday night, when I was new to Fort Collins and had pretty much nothing to do but hang out with her. Sephora was offering free makeovers, and when the aesthetician finished one side of my face with eyeliner and the other side without, just to prove her point, both Mary and I had to admit that the application of liquid liner should become part of my regular makeup routine. My eyes look better and brighter with liner, there’s no doubt about that. But I cry too much to wear mascara. Allergies and, you know, all this dust in the air. I mean, come on. There is so much to cry about. Aunt Mary is dead, for one thing. I can name many others. We’re on track, again, to suffer the hottest, most brutal summer on record. There are hardly any Gunnison sage grouse left. No more Indo-Chinese tigers. Someone is counting—now, as ever, someone has to keep counting—but it’s hard to keep track of all our unexpected human dead. All our dead. I’m just saying, I can’t imagine why someone would lie down with their eyes open and let a stranger glue individual artificial lashes alongside each God-given lash surrounding their eye. Is that where we’re putting our energy these days?

Once I started looking, though, I saw it everywhere, this lashwork. And, I thought, it almost always made people look beautiful.


At first, the painted lady larvae looked like little lashes. But, after about five days, they plumped up and started to look like what I expected from a caterpillar. Crenelated fuzzy worms on legs. Cute even. Mission driven. “Grow, little guys,” we said. “Grow!”

They were messy, though. Filling their cup with a sort of web-like silk and what the literature calls frass. They molted and left behind black balls that looked like caterpillar poop, or maybe tiny caterpillar heads, as they ate uneven holes into the growth medium, which was the color and texture, my daughter pointed out, of puke.


When the shutdowns started in Colorado and around the U.S. and people were wondering about haircuts—some people even protesting with semiautomatic assault rifles and stringing their governor’s effigy up in a noose, demanding haircuts, the hairdressers’ health be damned—I wanted to know about the people who needed their eyelash extensions filled in. Why wasn’t I hearing more about the nation’s eyelash situation? How many husbands and boyfriends and unwitting souls like me were just now discovering what it really meant to look into a woman’s eyes?


I woke up one morning and, overnight, most of the larvae had hung their chrysalides from the fabric that stretched across the top of the cup just for this. They were the dusty gray-green of old eucalyptus leaves, with a threading of gold along one seam. Why the gold, I’ve always wondered. The chrysalides were gorgeous, I am not the first to say, like living jewels.

Two weren’t at the top, though. Their little packages of pupae were lying in the growth medium on the floor of the cup. According to the literature, they could get wet, infected, or worse. This butterfly-growing activity quickly stopped being as fun, as easy as I had hoped.


I should back up a little. When I was obsessing over artificial lashes, one of my questions was whether or not their proliferation was a possible sign of the coming end of the world.

I would like to say that I’m not usually prone to such ideation, but I’m not here to tell you lies. My point where the lashes were concerned was that I had, in my hasty research, noticed that there have been several phases in history when lash extensions have been popular, when women were rewarded for enhancing themselves in this particular way. “I never wore them when I was young,” my friend Brenda told me. “They were very fashionable at my high school in 1967, then the hippie thing took precedence.” I took this as further confirmation that periods of the popularity of falsies coincide with moments just before our culture experiences some fundamental—some might say catastrophic—change.


We would have to watch the net cage all the time to catch the moment of emergence. For at least a day before I turned around to see a butterfly, a careful look at the chrysalis revealed the intensifying orange and black and white of those self-fabricating wings. There are so many things in our world that seem to disappear for a while. Only some of them come back again. How do they do it, turn in just a matter of days from caterpillar to nothing to something that will fly? Any moment now, I kept thinking. But some moments last longer than others.


Researchers suggest that false lashes first came into popularity in the entertainment industry when D. W. Griffith demanded that his female stars wear them for one of his films. Griffith’s rationale was roughly the same one my daughter’s dance school laid out. Eyes with false lashes look better under the bright production lights. Also, maybe Griffith was tapping into an ancient belief that thick lashes make a woman look more virginal and pure. Children often have thick lashes, and one standard of beauty is a woman who in body and actions resembles a child. But this is just conjecture, and certainly those Vegas lashes I mentioned earlier aren’t designed to make a girl look chaste.

The film that brought falsies to Hollywood wasn’t Griffith’s most famous. His most famous film was The Birth of a Nation, a movie that seeks to justify, to glorify the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The lily-white beauty whose purity is at the supposed center of the nation’s natal drama was played by the same star, Lillian Gish, who wore the fake lashes in Griffith’s subsequent film. She remains an icon of beauty for many, with her big beckoning eyes.


I woke up early this morning and got a bit of writing done. It was a good day, and I was feeling pretty happy. “Come look at your butterflies!” I yelled down to my daughter, when I went to check on the chrysalises in the net cage. Finally, one had emerged. It was hanging upside down, drying its wings. Opening and closing them like, yes, fluttering lashes. So beautiful, I thought, sighing. Happy, completely, for the first time in a while.

“What’s that?” she asked. Pointing to the bottom of the cage.

Did you know that the meconium inside a chrysalis resembles human blood? Red liquid made up of all a butterfly discards after assembling its body. Red splotches were all over the floor of the cage. “Why is there all that blood!?” she asked. Even if it wasn’t blood, it looked like blood. And that was not the worst of it.

My daughter’s eyes are beautiful, do I need to tell you that? She wasn’t crying, but she also wasn’t not crying. Do you know what I mean? Her eyes were filled with the sort of sadness we carry inside, almost spilling over our lids, when we’ve seen suffering of which we know we’re the source.

Her lashes were black and long and wet with what she will never unsee.

On the floor of the cage was a butterfly, the first to have emerged. It had been there too long for us to help it, if we ever could have helped it. Its drying wing had adhered to the fabric on the bottom of the cage. This is the part I don’t want to write. To release it from the cage, I would have to rip its wing. The butterfly was still alive, of course. But it couldn’t survive. The other emerged butterfly was flittering over it with its working wings, crawling on the just-built, floor-stuck body as if it were a rock. A breathing, dying rock.

I only wanted to give my girl something she could love. As if, for beauty, this world doesn’t suffer enough.


Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade, and the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships in both poetry and prose, and an American Book Award. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.