Embracing (or at least, air kissing) The Inevitable


There comes a day when we look in the mirror, see the turkey neck, and admit to ourselves that the Pretty Train has left the station. It pulled out unnoticed while we were busy fumbling with our baggage.

I’ll admit to being a vain and shallow creature at times; I started this blog to give voice to that part of my personality. But I come by it honestly, having been raised in an appearance-obssessed family where it was drilled into us girls that our fortunes in life hinged mostly on our appearance (attracting a good husband), that thin = pretty, and that being fat was an indicator of a flawed character (weak/undisciplined/greedy).

But I never was one of the pretty girls. My mother thought long hair looked “stringy” so mine was always cut in a pixie or dutch girl (how I longed for braids!). Until the last few years, my weight was an up-and-down drama, and although I would proclaim myself “plain” (or even “ugly” when the mean reds got hold of me), I entertained the fantasy that beauty would be mine if I could only lose enough weight. Reality didn’t make much of a dent. When I could manage to starve myself down to thinness, my face looked long and haggard. My hair was still thin and stringy. My body rather than being willowy, was still short with linebacker shoulders. It was easier being fat because then I could keep the fantasy alive.

And the fantasy is that being pretty will make everything else in my life fall into place. Work and relationships will be easy, money will never be a problem, and my life will be one long walk on the red carpet in a vintage Dior dress with flashbulbs flashing. (Geneen Roth describes this brilliantly in her books.) It doesn’t matter a) that the rational part of my mind knows this is pure and utter bullshit and b) that I’ve been busy all this time having a pretty great life. The fantasy is a powerful one that we’re hammered with daily from friends, family, and especially the media.

So when I’m not obsessing about my weight, or what to wear, or finding exactly the right lip gloss, I’m freaking out about my hair. Right now my hair is what you see over to the right. For many years, it was very short and red, and I’ve been itching to go back to that. (After having grown my hair out a few times in my adult life, I’ve decided that Mom was right about this one.) But when I started adding blonde highlights, people started complimenting me and telling me I looked younger, and it’s a drug, I tell ya! Because our culture has a kneejerk “blonde = attractive” Pavlovian-dog-drool response, I’ve also found myself receiving better treatment from sales clerks and male work associates, which seems to increase with the number of highlights my kooky stylist adds. It’s been well documented that people who are perceived as attractive are also judged as being more intelligent, more successful, better adjusted, and having better smelling B.O. That little, fleeting sense of conventional attractiveness, it’s not an easy thing to give up when I’ve assigned so much meaning and significance to it, and experienced so little of it.

And yet, I find I’m still not comfortable with cookie cutter attractiveness (like the “after” in an Oprah makeover) or in my case, trying to achieve a conventional type of beauty. The people who I tend to admire are the ones who swim upstream, who have their own style, the ones who don’t give a rat’s ass about trying to look young or beautiful, but use their physical being to express who they are. Now that’s something to aspire to, and something that time cannot steal.

Edited to add: I don’t mean to imply that older women or fat women can’t be attractive. When I talk about “pretty,” I’m referring to the current media standards of beauty.

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6 Comments

  1. June 8, 2007 / 6:01 pm

    Now see, I think you are beautiful. I don’t know what was wrong with your mother, because your hair is lovely.

  2. June 8, 2007 / 6:12 pm

    Thanks, you’re very kind. My hair is still what I consider “short”. It’s when it gets to about shoulder length that it looks unkempt.

    I hesitated publishing this post because I didn’t want it to come across as a fishing expedition.
    🙂 I actually feel fine about my looks most of the time these days, but wanted to explore some thoughts around the fantasy of Omnipotent Beauty™ (which in our minds equates with Young and Thin), which kind of relates back to that online discussion from a few years back.

  3. April 9, 2010 / 3:16 pm

    I just came today on your page.. and I have been reading quite a number of the posts in the blog archive and will keep on ..
    being a woman of a certain age myself.. and mother of a “apparel worried teen ager” daughter..

    I believe that we start to look best at our forties.. when we exactly start to know who we are and what we don’t like and what we have to say to the world..

    I just wanted to write my first comment at this specific post because.. your saying “The people who I tend to admire are the ones who swim upstream, who have their own style, the ones who don’t give a rat’s ass about trying to look young or beautiful, but use their physical being to express who they are. “..
    I love this phrase.. the shortest and best way to express how I feel about people
    thanks for being..
    and also for leading me to other woman bloggers of a certain age..

    have a great weekend..

    atalet..

  4. April 12, 2010 / 12:47 am

    pinar – thanks so much for your comment. I think so many of us do come into our own in our mid-life. We have a stronger sense of ourselves and I think that reflects in how we choose to dress and present ourselves.

    Thanks again; I hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts on future posts.

  5. Ali
    July 9, 2011 / 10:12 am

    Can I thank you, sincerely, for this post? It is an issue I have just begun dealing with at 45. For I am noticing that I’m not on “the young side” anymore and it is a shock.

    I’m surprised, disheartened and lethally mortified at how much this bothers me.

    The first two lines of your post gripped me because that’s what I’m in the process of realizing.

    I think I will have to bookmark this and re-read it whenever I’m feeling that panicky fear of whatever being “older” is.

    Thank you so much. Your blog is really helping me. 🙂

  6. May 13, 2012 / 8:54 pm

    I just read this and had a similar experience with my parents. I was the only daughter and the idea that beauty, grace, elegance, and manners were the most valued qualities a woman could possess. My parents did not think of college as anything more than a “finishing” school. I can commiserate.

    I was very unhappy with my appearance as I transitioned from girlhood to womanhood. My battle with weight was one of keeping it on, rather than taking it off. It seemed all the boys liked the Bridget Bardot, Raquel Welch, and Ursula Andres figures. I was on the Twiggy side. In fact, that is who I looked like with my Pixie hair-cut and board shape. I was miserable. It seems we are all unhappy with our figures and appearances at some point in our life. It took me awhile to come to terms with that inner voice–the one that was internalized at the dinner table.

    Now, I make decisions on what I need to do to keep that “internalized” voice quiet while allowing myself to age gracefully. It is a balancing act. It is good to know there are others who faced the same “expectations” and well meant criticisms from their parents. I believe my parents did the best they could considering they were raised before the “60’s” shift when women were seen as more than mothers and spouses and/or arm candy. They did not understand the long term “angst” their critical guidance and frustrating expectations would hold for women in our generation straddling two very different worlds.

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