In 1973, as a freshman at George Mason, I wrote an essay for an English comp class that comes up as a topic of conversation every now and then. In it I ranted about how unfair it was that women “had” to wear makeup and girdles and pointed-toe shoes throughout their lives to keep up a certain level of attractiveness; whereas, men could allow themselves to get fat, go bald, and never feel the need to apply a speck of face powder (remember that?) to their aging skin, all the while accumulating power and wealth.
I argued that a line of cosmetics should be developed for men and that they should feel just as compelled as women to “keep up their appearances.” After all, why should women be required to work so hard to stay beautiful, while living with fat, balding, possibly disgusting, spouses? My professor seemed highly amused by the paper and read it to the class. It got some laughs and I remember being surprised, because I was serious.
At that time in my life, I was spending an hour or more each morning applying thick, black, clumpy mascara to my delicate eyelashes to make them appear longer, darker, fuller; and using all the other cosmetics that Seventeen magazine told me were necessary for a beautiful face . . . foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, gloss, blush . . . all that on a pretty-enough 18-year-old face.
I also used an eyelash curler prior to applying mascara. That’s a scary contraption. They are still on the market and haven’t changed much over the years. To use, you have to bring the curler close enough to your eye so that your eyelashes can be caught in its “mouth,” and then squeeze it closed so that two rubber-covered bars clamp down and basically bend your eyelashes upwards. You have to be careful not to get your eyelids caught in the thing, or it could really hurt. Who thinks of these things? Not only that, who thinks them up and then convinces lots of women in the world that they are necessary?
Are men ever that concerned about the hairs on the ends of their eyelids?
Each morning, I also plugged in a set of hot rollers, waited five minutes until the dot on the top of each turned red, and then wrapped clumps of my hair around those heavy, spiked, hard plastic curlers, so that Voila! my hair would be lovely for about two hours. I would then hurriedly put on an outfit that I had composed the night before and then finish off my “look” by cramming my young feet into a pair of too-small, too-high, or too-pointed shoes. I envied men who had only to wet their hair and comb it back, put on a uniform suit without much thought, and slip into shoes that fit.
Thoughts about beauty and gender inequity came to mind a few years later, when I happened to see Tip O’Neil emerging from an arrival gate at National Airport (now Reagan National) one evening. It was the early eighties; he was Speaker of the House and I recognized him from seeing him on the news. He was walking with an entourage of colleagues, exuding power. You couldn’t help but notice him in the center of this important group of men. I took all this in and thought: my, he is HUGE . . . a really big fat man . . . and what a large, bulbous nose he had on that mug of a face — yet he has position and power.
I don’t recall the media making an issue of his weight, unlike poor Liz Taylor, whose ups and downs we were made well aware of. If Tip were a large woman with a big nose, his political career would have been quite a different story, wouldn’t it? Or no story at all. Twenty-some years later, the first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, illustrates my point. You have to admit she looks like a cute Barbie doll . . . petite, well-dressed, with impeccable hair and make-up. Just the type of woman we want to look at when Congress is in session.
I say three cheers for former Attorney General Janet Reno; I’d like to see more like her.
A few years ago I was up past midnight reading, with the TV turned on in the background. At one point, I glanced up at a program that featured Priscilla Presley and other celebrities. These women were sitting around chatting with each other and exclaiming about a wonderful product they had discovered — miraculous hair extensions that turned limp hair with no body, into gorgeous, fluffy, sexy and majestic manes. One after another, the infomercial showed “before” shots of the actresses with lifeless, bland hair and then incredibly beautiful “after” clips. Not only did their hair look beautiful, after applying these wonderful, easy as 1-2-3 hair extensions, the women found they were more confident and energetic, more prosperous and successful.
As I watched one story after another, I realized that this too, was my problem: thin hair.
No wonder I was feeling low and unloved, with my career stalling and an angry adolescent at home — I had thin hair. It was getting late, so I quickly wrote down the 800 number so that I could order the extensions first thing in the morning. And if I ordered quickly, I would get a free brush or extra extensions or something! It was going to be a new day!
The next morning I got up, took a shower and started getting dressed; I seemed to have forgotten about the miracle extensions I needed to order. When my eye caught the scrap of paper with the 800 number laying on the coffee table, I slowly remembered how I had gone to bed thinking that thicker hair was surely going to change my life . . . and yet . . . this morning . . . I began to have second thoughts. And the more I thought about, the more I realized that I must have been out of my mind.
Yes, actually I was. Did I really think that I was going to be able to glue or tape locks of hair all over my head, fluff it out, and then feel better about myself? Yeah, right. You know where those hair extensions would end up very quickly — in the Halloween box out in the garage.
That’s almost as crazy as the rising plastic surgery trends due to “makeover” reality shows.
Think about this: we think the practice of Chinese foot binding was bizarre — what could be more barbaric than having someone slice open your chest, insert round “perky” gel bags into your mammary glands, and then sew it back up? Perhaps having someone slice the backs of your thighs open and suck out the fat in them with a vacuum cleaner.
I realize now that the thesis of the college paper I wrote when I was younger, was incorrect. We do not need to have men wear make-up or toupees, or squeeze themselves into tight corsets or the latest body stockings the way that women do. We do not need for men to adopt the insecurity and self-hatred that drives women to slice and dice their bodies, attempting to freeze-capture fleeting youth and beauty.
My grandmother is in her nineties. I love the way her age and her life’s history are written on her face and body. She was a very beautiful young woman in the 1920s and 30s, without makeup. And now she’s 95. Her cheeks sag and there are lines around her mouth. She laughs and will show you how, if you pinch the skin on the back of her hand and lift it up - it will stay there for quite awhile because the elasticity is gone. Her white hair still curls the way mine does naturally without hot rollers and the blue eyes that I also inherited shine in a way that lights up her face.
She is slowing down a little, finally, but is still healthy. When you sit down to have a conversation with her, she is totally present. I called her recently and she said she had been sitting on her front porch, watching a squirrel carry a heavy ear of corn partly up a tree, drop it, and try again — over and over. She is easily amused.
As often as possible, I remind myself to aspire only to the health, beauty and contentment of my grandmother.
Originally published on Black-Eyed Pea Cake Tasters.