Vanity

When I was younger, I never thought much about my appearance. I just figured I looked OK and got on with my life. I didn’t even wear lipstick until I was in my thirties, and I’ve never worn foundation. For a short time I flirted with powder, but it didn’t stick (ha ha). I liked eye shadow and mascara.

I knew I wasn’t tall, slender and statuesque but I didn’t really care, though sometimes people said to me, “You have such a pretty face!” followed by something along the lines of “It’s too bad about your figure” or “You could lose some weight.” From time to time I was a size four, a size six, a size eight, a size ten, a size twelve — partly depending on me, partly depending on the brand of clothing and the decade (sizes have changed; the current size 2 is the 1960s size 12).

I evaluated my beauty based on what I could do, mostly my ability to hike, climb hills and run on trails for long distances. When I saw photos of myself (much less common back in the day of camera and film) I was always fine with whatever it was. I could say, “That’s a bad haircut” or “Was I THAT heavy?” and really not care.

But now…

I cannot run trails. I don’t even hike well — I do OK for me, but… People think that because it’s difficult for me to hike that I don’t want to, but really standing around is more difficult on my arthritic knees than is walking. I don’t mind my awkwardness, but I’ve seen others feel compassion for me when they see me go sideways down the stairs (one leg is shorter than the other) or a steep hillside. I’ve gone from being the fastest one, the one in front, to the little lady lagging behind that everyone has to wait for.

My sense of my beauty has been radically upset. I’ve lately realized that there are things I don’t want to do because of my appearance. People compliment me on my white, white hair, but combining it with a lopsided, busty, chubby woman with a turkey wattle is — who IS that person? Added to that is the fact that I CARE and I’m ashamed of caring about something so superficial, so irrelevant, of being a person with abilities many people in this world wish they had and have never had. The knowledge of my vanity makes me feel ashamed.

I didn’t imagine that I — a person with little (I thought) personal vanity — would really, really hate going out in public in certain ways because of the way I look. I know it’s partly why I was relieved when I realized that my book signing at the bookstore in Denver was completely impractical financially. “Good,” I thought. “I don’t have to worry about what to wear because there is no way in hell I can look good.”

Looking good means looking like myself and I do not look like myself.

Recently a friend asked me, “How old are you? Seventy? Seventy two?”

“I used always to look younger than my age, but stuff started happening to me in 2005 that really aged me quickly. I’m 65.”

“Oh.” She was embarrassed, and I couldn’t say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s OK” because it isn’t OK at all. There is absolutely nothing OK about it.

It led me to think about our concept of beauty. I’m familiar with the whole women’s beauty magazine thuggery and all that. That isn’t what’s affecting me.

Yesterday I rode the Airdyne along the route of the Tour de France. It’s my favorite of the videos I got to ‘ride’ the ‘bike’ with. It’s beautiful and it’s mostly uphill. It is not an illusion of a bike ride; it’s a video, but it’s still a pleasant video and with music pouring into my head from my iPod it’s an activity that approaches fun, but it does not approach a sport. As I rode yesterday I thought about what it means — to me — to be beautiful. To me it means to look like someone who could hike/run 12 miles on a mountain trail on a beautiful day. It’s me + motion through nature, it’s the sense that always gave me of being part of that. Beauty is not completely superficial after all and it turns out I am not exempt from vanity. 😦

So, young’uns, whatever it is that makes you feel like you, that makes you feel beautiful, cherish it. It could happen that someday you — like me — will have to confront the loss or diminution of that part of your identity and you — like me — might be surprised how much it matters to you. And even I, right now, writing all this, know that — in my case — it could get, will get, worse and it’s my job to carpe the diem that is in front of me right now. ❤

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10 thoughts on “Vanity

  1. I got through the bilateral mastectomy and still look more or less human, but all that heart stuff did me in. I aged 10 years in a couple of months. Garry keeps telling me I look great, but I don’t and I know I don’t. HE looks great and much younger than me.

    I used to feel bad about caring, but I think we all care, whether we admit it or not.

    When Alfred Eisenstadt was in his 90s, we used to hang out with him some so his usual carer could take a break and get out for a few hours. He always wore turtlenecks. He was embarrassed about his neck. He was in his mid 90s … but his neck really bothered him.

    I think I look horrible, but I try to pretend I don’t. Nothing is going to make me look good at this point. If I’m still alive and breathing, probably that’s about as good as I’m going to do. And this is not just women. My husband, who looks fantastic, is embarrassed about his lack of hair. We are all dismayed about something. Why? Who knows. Does it really matter why?

    • I believe that — in my case, anyway — is the sense of feeling disassociated from one’s self as one knows one’s self. My changed appearance is a symptom for me. If I looked like this and still ran trails, I don’t think it would be such a big deal. It’s just that, in some way, the changed appearance is inescapable evidence.

      My dad’s mom was a beautiful woman all her life, but she thought she had a stringy neck and it bothered her incredibly. I sewed a long beautiful evening gown for her and I thought I had that covered, but not quite. She wore it proudly, but I had the sense that she was embarrassed.

      I think we all just want to be ourselves. I didn’t really look like myself to myself until I was in my 40s. Strange. The featured photo is something I think of as me and my friend Francesco when we were real. He’s 55 now and can no longer climb and has worse knee problems than I do. I don’t know how he feels about these things.

  2. I never thought that one day I would change, from the butterfly unto the caterpillar, I was sure it should be the other way around. The grey hair didn’t bother me. In my teenage years I even had more than one lipstick colour and followed fashion. Today I search to find a lipstick which I only really wear for a big occasion and I wear only what is comfortable. I hide my funny walk behind a cane, but people still tend to remark I am looking good for my age, so please define age. It’s when you need more time for your movements that used to be quick and efficient. It creeps up on you and suddenly your reversed metamorphosis is completed. This butterfly doesn’t fly any more, it creeps.

    • I realized yesterday that in my case another part of this is that I don’t know anyone who knew me “before.” If I meet someone now all they know is what they see and they reach their own conclusions; in their minds, I’ve always been THIS person. 😦 I have two lipsticks. One that I would wear is broken and the other that I bought for fun and won’t wear is fine. I think I need to start over on that one.

  3. I think it’s a shame that only younger women are valued for their beauty. Everyone grows older, but we have to hide it with cosmetics and creams. We need to celebrate the beauty of all ages.

    • Yeah — it’s a strange thing, beauty. I can understand why young nubile breedable women are highly valued by men. I think it’s animal instinct. But until women are ALSO equally valued as people who achieve things it’s not going to be better. I could repair a lot of the external symptoms with plastic surgery and compressing underwear but it wouldn’t make me able to run trails. And sooner or later the plastic surgery would wear off and I’d have to do laundry…. :p

  4. I read this post and the comments with great interest, Martha, and identified with every though expressed by everyone because at some point I’ve entertained them all. This sentence of yours captured where I am right now, “Looking good means looking like myself and I do not look like myself.” Amen. I know I never will never look like myself again. I hate it when we hike and I inch down inclines with two walking sticks while my husband strides along as he always has far more than I hate that my hair is thinning and the vertical lines on my face make me look like my grandmother. My sisters and I agree that Mom never told us we were pretty. She said we were smart and hard working and fun to be around etc., but beauty never entered into it. We think she did us a favor. We grew up seeing ourselves as capable and enjoyable rather than beautiful. Now I’ve lost my capability in so many ways.

    • I didn’t grow up thinking I was pretty, either. Beauty for me was something else completely. Now I look like someone who cannot do the things I like to do and I AM that person. I also realized that I don’t know anyone who has known me for years and years so no one sees the person I was. To most of the people I know, I dropped into this earth an arthritic woman in her 60s. After I wrote this post, I had better understanding of it, and I wrote a letter/email to the one and only person who has known me since I was “real.” He wrote back about mountains and eagles, nearly invisible passes between mountains, and I felt so much better. I think he knew what I needed to “hear”/read. 🙂 Somewhere inside we are still us.

  5. When I was young I thought I was ugly. That’s the feed back I was getting. I learned later that not being popular is what made other kids say you were ugly and undesirable. Nothing to do with actual appearance. The same person with better socialization would have been good looking.

    Wasn’t until I moved to LA that I discovered I was handsome, sexy and desirable. Same person, different environment. Now I turn a jaundiced eye towards aesthetic judgments of those types.

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