I’m vain. I wear a different outfit every day, a compulsion I have rationalized as either a form of self-expression or evidence of a playful spirit. I go to the gym with a devotion that I’ve rarely shown for anything else in my life. My current role model is not Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Dorothy Day, but an aerobics instructor ten years my senior (I’m forty-one) who has the cut muscles and trim form of a dancer in her prime.
I make little attempt to hide my superficial self-regard and go around telling friends that I’m a face-lift waiting to happen. (Breast job and tummy tuck, too, if you want to know the truth.) I’ve found I have two kinds of friends: those who have had cosmetic surgery and will therefore indulge my interest in it, and those who haven’t and gently dissuade me. There’s even one who told me that she wouldn’t nurse me or look after my kids during my recovery.
I live in a culture that’s only too eager to court my vanity. A year ago, I subscribed to a magazine for women over forty, expecting to see images of older women breaking through the youthful veneer of pop culture. Interspersed with not fully retouched photos of somewhat-lined models were pages of ads for youth-restoring products.
Each month, this publication offered an article about a different cosmetic procedure. Once, it catalogued them all and described the recuperation process for each, from retin-A to a full, muscle-removing, skin-stretching procedure that takes about ten months to recover from — and that’s without any complications. For microdermabrasion (a kind of facial sandblasting) the article advised, without a hint of satire, “Treat skin as wound.” Indeed, all the methods that medical science offers put my vanity up against my instincts for self-preservation: Chemical peels are burns. Botox is, as its name suggests, toxic. (Apparently there’s no need for newspeak in the cosmetic land of Big Sister.)
In some significant way, I’m surely the creation of such magazines. My vanity is too valuable a source of spending not to be reinforced. Asking whether or not to “have work done” has become as much a part of the aging process as wrinkles themselves. I’ve told my daughter that she may need a college scholarship because I’ll be using my savings to finance my face. Neither of us knew for sure whether I was joking.
I’m hoping that feminism will save me, as it has many times before. I’m looking forward to a “croning” at fifty — a ritual recognition of a woman’s passage into old age and wisdom. I have never seen a crone, real or imagined, with a smooth, tight face.
I began studying ballet with Miss Latour when I was six years old. From the start she would press her long stick against my ankle and say, “You, my darling, have the perfect form for ballet and will become famous one day.” I reveled in the attention. “Only this one may wear a tutu for the recital,” Miss Latour said to the others, waving her stick at me. “Her legs are strong and perfect. The rest of you will wear longer dresses.” I soared onstage and lorded it over the other girls.
Five months before my eleventh birthday, I became ill with polio. The doctors said I might never walk again, let alone dance. My left leg was bone thin in comparison to the right. My mother put hot towels on my leg and stretched it while I begged her to stop. I squeezed little rubber balls to rebuild my arms.
Slowly, I regained my strength and was even able to dance. Miss Latour reluctantly gave me private lessons until I was ready to rejoin the others. “You will have a solo part in the recital,” she said, “but, my child, you will have to wear a long dress to cover your legs.”
I was crushed, until I remembered how hard I had worked just to be able to dance again. The night of the recital, when the curtain lifted and the spotlight shone on my body — in the long dress — I felt no vanity, only pride.
Mary Jo Olsen
Port Townsend, Washington
I have never had a particularly good body, except for my breasts. I always looked great in sweaters — even after childbirth, even after I passed forty, then fifty. Maybe it was the hormones I was taking, but whatever the reason, my breasts held up far better than the rest of me.
Three years ago, my annual mammogram disclosed a white area. The biopsy confirmed that I had cancer in my right breast. I needed a lumpectomy.
It took all my courage to look down after the surgery. To my surprise, it didn’t seem too bad. My lover still found me attractive. And I still had my breast. It could have been worse.
After recuperating from thirty-three radiation treatments, I took a good look at my naked body in the mirror and saw that my right breast was noticeably smaller than the left. I’d had no idea this would happen. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t. The most attractive part of my body had been altered forever.
The next year’s mammogram revealed something suspicious on my left side. Again the biopsy confirmed breast cancer. Reeling from the news, I confessed to a confidante that I was afraid God was punishing me for my vanity. She replied, “God isn’t that petty!”
Thanks to more daily radiation treatments, my breasts are again the same size. I also have scars from surgery on each side. They serve as a daily reminder of how fortunate I am.
I think there’s a reason this happened to me twice. There was something I was supposed to learn the first time but didn’t. Finally, cancer has taught me to appreciate just plain being alive.
For the second semester, I instituted a new policy with my tenth-grade English students: they were required to write three pages a week in a journal. I instructed them to write without editing, simply to put words down on the page.
Sherry never spoke much in class, but her brown eyes betrayed a fierce intelligence. All semester long, she wrote three pages a week in her neat, rounded script. I marked her page count in my grade book every Monday, but I didn’t read her pages until the last week of classes. Her entries all focused on one issue: whether or not to get a nose job.
Now, from where I was sitting, Sherry needed no nose job. Sure, she had a nose that showed her Italian heritage, but it by no means detracted from her beauty. I’ll even admit to having had a bit of a crush on her: nothing I would ever have acted upon, just the sort of crush a teacher sometimes develops on a student.
From her journal entries, I knew Sherry wanted to be a marine biologist. Her role model was a cover girl her age who also aspired to be a marine biologist and had already obtained her license to scuba dive. In her quest to become more like her role model, Sherry faced a dilemma: that summer, she could either take scuba-diving lessons or get a nose job, but she could not do both. Not only did she not have the money for both, but recovery from the surgery precluded swimming.
Reading her journal, I thought, Maybe I should say something. Maybe I should take her aside and tell her I think she should forget the nose job. But what about my role as an impartial reader of her journal? And how could I tell Sherry I thought her nose was beautiful? I was her thirty-year-old teacher. She was a sixteen-year-old girl.
I said nothing. I handed back the journals. Sherry got an A. School let out for the summer.
When Sherry returned to school in September, she had not learned to scuba dive.
At the age of fifteen, I had starved myself to eighty pounds. As I lay in a hospital bed, all I could think about was my dream of being perfect.
I had decided to go on a diet after I didn’t get the lead in the high-school musical. I was convinced that the other girl got the part because she was skinny. Now I was in the hospital and couldn’t even be in the musical at all.
My parents came to visit me and sat on either side of my bed. My mother started to cry, and my father asked me why I was doing this to myself. I told him that I wanted to be beautiful so that I could be happy.
“There is so much more to life than vanity,” my father said. “Someday you will see just how beautiful you are, inside and out.”
Two years later, having recovered from anorexia, I got the lead in the school musical, but I still did not feel happy.
Upon graduation, I decided to pursue the Miss New York State crown. I had seen the current Miss New York State at a local event, and she’d seemed so perfect and happy. Perhaps if I obtained the same title, I would feel that way, too. Over my parents’ objections, I spent the next few years as a pageant contestant. Every year I came closer to winning. In my last year of eligibility, I stood on the stage and prayed to God to let me win. I almost collapsed when they called my name as the second runner-up.
After that I spent two weeks by myself, thinking about my life. I tried to remember who I had been before I’d decided that my happiness depended upon my looks. I remembered as a child being fascinated by my social-studies class, and that I’d once loved to read books about history. I decided to go to college to study history.
I am now a middle-school social-studies teacher and the assistant director for the school musical. Last week one of my students came to me and asked, “Miss Neil, how come you’re so happy all the time?”
Buffalo, New York
My eyes have always been my best feature. When I was a teenager, my glamorous Aunt Jenny, who had once been on a chorus line, taught me how to flirt. “Look down,” she said, “and when you look up, the boy will be struck by how beautiful your eyes are.” I followed her advice and enjoyed the results. Once, in the 1960s, I was at the Playboy Club on a date, and the attendant in the ladies’ room told me that I looked like Elizabeth Taylor. Almost forty years later, though I cannot recall who my date was, I can still remember that compliment.
Twenty-six years ago I had cancer in my jaw: an angiosarcoma that threatened to end my life if I didn’t have immediate surgery. My face was cut open from the inner corner of my right eye, down the side of my nose, and through the middle of my upper lip.
At the time, my priority was to live to raise my son, who was ten years old. I was his sole parent and could not die and leave him alone. Still, before the surgery, I wouldn’t give the doctors permission to remove my right eye if the cancer had spread that far up. A team of doctors, as well as my family and friends, urged me to give consent for my eye to be removed, but I refused. My fear of waking up from the surgery deformed was stronger than my desire to raise my son.
Luckily, they did not need to take the eye. I am fortunate, too, to have skin that heals well; the scar is visible only if one is looking for it.
Since then I’ve had two cancers in my other eye. The radiation treatments for the first caused all my lashes to fall out. I was thrilled when I saw the dark fuzz of their regrowth. Then I had a melanoma on the lower lid. The doctor had to remove my lower eyelid and reconstruct it with a skin graft from the upper. Prior to the surgery, I peppered my doctor with questions about how I would look afterward.
“Toby,” he said, “I am trying to save your life. Please stop obsessing about your appearance.”
My eye was sutured shut for six weeks while the graft healed. Thanks to my doctor’s skill, the shape of the eye is normal, but my lower lashes are gone, and there is a small bump of scar tissue underneath.
After so many cancers, I should be grateful just to be alive, but I am still upset when I look in the mirror and see that my smudged bottom eyeliner does not re-create the look of lashes on my lower eyelid. I cannot wear false eyelashes because the chemicals in the glue might cause a return of the cancer. I know the change in my appearance is far more visible to me than to others. It makes me sad that I cannot accept my inner beauty as enough.
Peekskill, New York
As a mural painter, I often work in the homes of the very rich, sometimes occupying a guest room, or even a spare wing, until the completion of a project.
I once stayed in a large mansion in Westchester County, New York. The couple who owned it had an exercise room with a mirrored wall. On the other walls they wanted me to paint a mural of athletes in various poses. The wife asked that I put her face on one of the athletes. She would often come into the room while I worked and strike poses and ask how she looked. She repeated my compliments to her husband to make him jealous.
The grounds around the house were stupendous. During my stay I made a point of rising before sunup to go for a walk and enjoy the tranquil gardens. On reentering the house, I would hear a loud thumping in the distance as my patrons exercised on treadmills while watching incredibly loud televisions.
Three days a week a cleaning crew would show up. Four women from Brazil would vacuum, scrub, and clean the entire house. They carried themselves with great dignity and humility. I somehow got the impression that they were sisters. The only time they dropped their serious demeanor was when they broke for lunch. Then they would talk and laugh, but always in subdued tones.
The day I finished the mural, some guests arrived, and everyone toasted the completed painting. I thanked the couple for their hospitality and complimented them on their beautiful house. Then I put away my last brush and made the long drive home.
The next day I did an easel painting of those four South American women. I call it The Cleaning Crew. My wife calls it “The Sisters” and says it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Glens Falls, New York
When I am diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of forty-two, I remember a solemn promise I made to myself twenty years ago, when I treated my first cancer patient: that if I ever got cancer, I would try to look as fit and well-groomed as possible.
As a young physical therapist, I saw the flagrant disregard for appearance that cancer patients often displayed. Their vacant, sunken eyes, their gaunt faces devoid of eyebrows and eyelashes, their wispy bald heads — all seemed to say, “I’m so sick, I don’t even care.” They made me feel uncomfortable, helpless, and afraid. My job was to help them regain strength and mobility during the harsh chemotherapy treatments, but for some, my goal was just to get them mobile enough to go home to die.
Before my own chemotherapy, I order a long brown wig that resembles my own hair, and I start wearing it as soon as the first handful of hair falls out. I follow makeup, skin-care, and nutrition tips for cancer patients and purposely wear colors that make me look and feel alive. Only my husband sees me on my worst days, right after a treatment, when I’ve been throwing up and am wearing a knit stocking cap to keep my head warm. Even a quick trip to the grocery store or a walk with my dog requires me to be decently dressed, with hair and makeup. I feel triumphant when I hear a friend say to his wife, “She looks pretty good. Are you sure she’s really sick?”
After my course of treatment, I return to work, still wearing my wig. The first cancer patient I treat is too ill to recover and just wants to spend her last days at home. It takes all my strength to help her sit up. As I do, I suddenly realize that I am not afraid of her deathly appearance, and I think she can tell.
Now, eight years later, I am healthy and active, though my face shows fatigue and worry at times. I don’t want friends to glimpse my tired or anxious expression and think, She looks awful. I wonder if she’s sick again. So I soothe my tired eyes with cucumber, do my hair, and bring some color to my face. With or without cancer, I am keeping my promise.
When my best friend from high school turned forty, she changed her name from Patricia to Tisha. She had just married a man named Tillsdale — her fourth husband — and liked the sound of “Tisha Tillsdale.”
“It sounds so cute,” she said to me on the phone. “Doesn’t it?”
I am not a fan of cute, but I knew how insecure my friend was, so I told her yes, it was terribly cute.
Tisha and I lived on different coasts and saw each other very little over the years. When our fiftieth high-school reunion came around, we hatched a plan to spend ten days together, ending up at her home on the West Coast. Right away, I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. In our correspondence, Tisha had made it clear that her politics were far to the right of mine. She worshiped George W. Bush — but was quick to point out that she never put him, nor anyone else, before her Lord, Jesus Christ.
I soon discovered that my friend was not only a Christian, but a Pentecostal who spoke in tongues and waved her arms in the air, a kind of hallelujah, as she drove eighty miles an hour down the freeway. Even with her Lord Jesus protecting us, her driving made me grip the seat and pray a frightened Please to whoever might be listening.
Despite our differences, there were moments when we connected. We laughed a lot, and there were things about Tisha that I admired: her generosity (my trip was mostly financed by her), her bravery (she had defeated leukemia, “thanks be to Jesus”), and her belief in herself (she wrote romance novels and didn’t let herself be discouraged by the growing mound of rejections).
The issue of vanity separated us more than politics or religion. She thought I took no pride in my appearance and gave me advice about what I should do with my shaggy gray hair, my sagging chin, my weight, my wardrobe.
“I got this jacket at the thrift store for twenty-five cents,” I told her proudly.
“I can tell,” she answered.
Another time, she wondered aloud if I had just plain let myself go. I told her I preferred to think that I had just let myself be me.
On our next-to-last day together, one of her cats got loose, and we walked five miles searching for it. We straggled home catless and, too tired to cook, decided to skip the evening meal. “Let’s just have a drink of wine,” Tisha suggested uncharacteristically. Before we had finished our first glass, the cat came back. Planting kisses on its furry forehead, Tisha said, “Let’s have another glass to celebrate.”
We proceeded to have a third glass. Then we opened another bottle. We giggled and talked about the times we’d planned to run away from our dysfunctional families, the boys we’d fallen in love with who hadn’t loved us back, and our first forays into sexuality. I was just warming up when Tisha got up to see if there was a third bottle. She lurched awkwardly and barked her shin on the edge of the coffee table. I knew she’d had enough.
I steered her to her bedroom and tucked her in. As I washed the wine glasses, I was haunted by the image of her little wrinkled chin wobbling as she murmured good night. At that moment, she had looked like a very old woman. I vowed never to tell her this, not even if she put down my wardrobe ten more times before I was gone.
I first realized that my older brother Jimmy was vain when he began spending what seemed like hours a day combing his hair in front of the mirror to make it part exactly down the middle. Around the same time, he started dancing along with disco-movie soundtracks, also in front of the mirror.
Jimmy was only twenty-two months older than I, and up to that point I’d thought we were close. The more time he spent in front of the mirror, though, the further he pushed me away. He played with me less often and pointed out unflattering things about my appearance, like the way my nose was not only big and bumpy, but crooked.
At school, Jimmy stopped acknowledging me in the hallway, where young women followed closely behind him, enveloped in his cloud of hair spray and cologne. If I tried to talk to him, he would just roll his eyes and gesture for me to speed up the story. He would start to laugh at my jokes, only to regain his composure and quickly dismiss me. It made me feel sad and helpless.
Jimmy became nicer to me after we both left home, although he would still check himself out in the mirror every chance he got. He bounced around a bit in college and finally settled in Boston, where he found work as a model. A few years ago he got the nose job he’d always dreamed of. He still projected the attitude that he was better-looking than everyone around him.
I felt like a helpless child again last winter, standing in a hotel room outside of Boston and staring at myself in a mirror — the same mirror in front of which Jimmy had hanged himself.
Mr. S. was admitted to the hospital for a left-leg arterial bypass. Years of severe diabetes and unrelenting smoking had ruined his arteries. Most of his right leg had been amputated the previous year, along with his left foot. His left arm was truncated at the forearm, and he was missing several fingers on his right hand — all victims of vascular problems. The bypass procedure, it was hoped, would save the remainder of his left leg.
Unfortunately, the tissue over the incision site lacked sufficient blood supply to heal, and Mr. S. remained in the hospital, undergoing repeated tissue grafts in an attempt to cover the bared, pulsating arteries in his groin. Meanwhile, his leg was showing little improvement. In short, we were paring Mr. S. away, bit by bit, in an attempt to save his life.
From the nurses, I learned that Mr. S. owned a chain of adult bookstores and had registered at the hospital under a false name to protect himself from the many people he had wronged. He seemed to have made enemies of all the nurses, probably due to his line of business, his heckling antagonism, and his eagerness to display his sizable penis to them at any opportunity. I may have been the only female in his life who would engage him in conversation.
Mr. S. was a wasted stub of a person. His skin was an unnatural copper color. His ribs showed clearly. Tubes sprouted from his disfigured body. His penis, though large, had not functioned in years. Nevertheless, he shaved every day, preserving his impeccable pencil-thin mustache. And I never saw him with a strand of his well-oiled hair out of place.
He showed me a long scar on his abdomen, from a stab wound. He pointed out with a nasty glee that the middle finger on his right hand remained, allowing him to make his favorite gesture. He had several children from multiple marriages and feared that his present wife, whom he had met on vacation in the South Pacific, was scheming to gain all his holdings while he was in the hospital. Some of his children lived nearby, but none had visited him in the hospital. He admitted, grudgingly, that this bothered him.
Mr. S. was vain, defiant, and tough as a rat. But I knew that when his vanity went, he would too.
The religious community I grew up in didn’t believe in personal adornment of any kind. I wore long dresses of plain colors — no snaps or zippers, only buttons — and had to keep my head covered at all times. But underneath my bonnet, my hair flowed all the way down my back. It had never been cut, dyed, or permed, and I was secretly very proud of it.
The members of my community were a minority in our rural town, so I had plenty of exposure to outsiders. I saw girls my age riding in cars (also forbidden), wearing sunglasses and pink shorts. I loved my family, but one day I wanted to have a life with some color in it. I knew I was as pretty as any of those girls and that most of them would kill for hair like mine.
When I was seventeen, I took the money I’d saved from my job in the greenhouse and went to a yard sale, where I bought a colorful, revealing dress and high-heeled shoes. Then I went to the convenience store and bought a hair clip and pantyhose. On the way home, I hid my purchases in the cornfield.
That was the last night I spent under my family’s roof. I snuck out, put on the dress, arranged my hair, and went two miles down the road to the local bar.
I am now forty years old. I have a large wardrobe in all colors, none of them drab. I have pierced ears and even drive a car. My hair is getting gray, but it’s still as long and as thick as it was when I was a girl. Though I’ve gotten rid of everything else from my past, I could never bring myself to cut or dye my hair.
Charlotte Hall, Maryland
After my mastectomy, bandages cover the scar where my breast used to be, but they cannot cover the flatness. I choke up with despair. I feel freakish, lopsided. I count the days until I can wear my new prosthesis, a well-shaped mound with a built-in nipple.
But the artificial breast is heavier than I expect. I look in the mirror and realize with horror that it sags below my left breast. Lopsided again. I hitch it up throughout the day and wear dark colors and baggy blouses to camouflage the area.
Eventually I grow more comfortable with my artificial breast. On a trip to Phoenix, I try a skin adhesive to hold it in place while swimming. I worry: What if the adhesive doesn’t work and my breast falls out? Will it sink or float? The breast stays put, though, and I start to relax.
Later in the day, the breast still glued on, I wear a T-shirt with no bra. My husband and I stop at a gas station to get directions. I’m three steps from the car when my breast slides to the bottom of my T-shirt. I slip it into my purse, not caring whether anyone notices that I have only one breast.
One day, getting dressed for my teaching job at the community college, I discover I’ve misplaced my artificial breast — something I’ve begun to do now and then. No big deal. I’ll wear a jacket. But the cool morning turns into a hot day. I’m scheduled to teach an afternoon class in a room that bakes in the sun, and I know I will not be able to stand even a minute or two in there with my jacket on. The thought of going in front of a class with obviously only one breast brings back all my freakish feelings. I end up canceling the class.
Soon thereafter, I become aware of a student whose arm ends about six inches below the shoulder. His cheerfulness and apparent acceptance of his missing limb make me rethink my own attitude.
As time goes on, I go more places without my artificial breast, and I worry about it less. I often think of my friend Rebecca, in my first support group, who never wore a prosthesis or a wig. “How is anyone going to know about breast cancer if we all cover it up?” she asked. I didn’t have her courage, but I agreed with her philosophy. Rebecca died three years later. Although I knew her only a short time, her words come to me often and give me strength.
El Cerrito, California
The night before school pictures are taken, my mother sets my hair on hard pink rollers. When I complain that I can’t sleep, she tells me matter-of-factly, “You have to suffer for beauty.”
The next morning’s photograph shows the suffering plainly enough: pale face, lips pulled back in a tense smile, exhausted eyes, and an unfamiliar, lumpy hairdo. Somehow the beauty my mother promises always eludes the photographer. Year after year, school photos confirm that I am not a beautiful child. I’ll always be squarish, freckled, and myopic, my hair short and cowlicked, like the hair of our pet guinea pig.
My sisters are lovely girls: lithe, slender, feminine. Both have clear, tanned skin, large eyes with sooty lashes, and shimmering hair, as dark and rich as mink. I watch them turning cartwheels amid flashing fireflies on the twilit summer lawn. Their hair sweeps around in perfect circles, like soft Japanese brushes drawn lightly across a sheet of rice paper. They revolve gracefully past the front stoop, where I sit, frozen to the concrete slab, a rapt troll. They are so beautiful my throat tightens and aches, but they are like strangers. I tell myself my sisters mean nothing to me. I don’t love them. I don’t trust them. They are just pretty, shallow girls, stupid and vain.
When my mom was growing up in the forties, she was what they called a real head-turner. Her striking beauty was foreign to her family. Nothing in her working-class, Midwestern upbringing prepared her to have such remarkable good looks.
By the time she was in high school, my mother’s beauty had outpaced her small-town life, and she followed it places her family would never have imagined. She got pregnant, dropped out of high school, hooked up with a guy who rode a Harley (my dad), and rode across the country with him and his biker buddies.
By twenty-three, my mom had two kids and two marriages. Her second marriage nearly failed because she liked taverns too much. She danced on tables and was the center of attention. Men bought her drinks, listened to her stories, and told her she was beautiful.
Throughout her life, her beauty both made her somebody and kept her from knowing herself. Again and again, it allowed her to run away: to quit jobs she didn’t like, to dismiss friends who didn’t agree with her, to convince herself that she was meant for better things. She spent years gazing at her reflection in every mirror, windowpane, and pair of eyes she met.
At the age of seventy-two, she’s outlived her beauty. Her life has narrowed to her bedroom, where she phones friends, watches the home-shopping channel, and orders clothes and makeup that she hopes will once again make her look “cute.” Sometimes she writes stories that she shares only with my sister and me. Her heroines are fierce, independent firecrackers who fight their own battles — and there’s not a beauty among them.
Rocky Hill, Connecticut
Growing up in Israel, I didn’t experience terrible pressure to look a certain way. Sure, I had my share of adolescent anxiety and experimented with fashion trends, but I never spent hours gazing into a mirror, lamenting my physical shortcomings.
At the age of twenty-one, I headed off to India, where I became intrigued by the mystical side of life. I learned all I could about religion and spirituality. As I delved deeper into myself, I felt a peace that showed in my walk, my speech, and my music. I truly believed that I was on my way to enlightenment.
Everything seemed somehow filled with “signs” or “messages from the Universe” that were directed right at me. I felt connected to every person, animal, and plant I came across. I had transcended any materialism and vanity that had previously resided in me. Or so I thought.
The truth is, I was vain. I spent all my time earnestly looking for clues to guide me through the next step in my spiritual evolution. I was so preoccupied with my own “spiritual growth” that I saw the world as a reflection of myself. In believing that I had transcended vanity, I’d actually fallen deeper into it.
When I check my voice mail from the car, I sometimes listen to the outgoing message all the way through, just to hear my wife’s voice. She died four months ago, and I still can’t bring myself to tape over the recording of her voice.
I also have incoming messages that I have saved. One of these is from a woman. I don’t know if I’m falling for her or just hungry for a little contact, some conversation, the kind of hug that you can’t get in church, a tender kiss — none of which would be bad right now.
For twenty-three years, I got all these things from one person. I have no idea whether I’m ready to exchange them with someone else. But I know I want them again, someday. In other words, I’m starting to view myself as “eligible.”
I’ve come to care whether my hair settles in the right place. I shave every day, just in case, by some act of God (or whoever is in charge of such things), that kiss materializes. I’m realizing my wardrobe needs work. I stand in front of the mirror after a shower. And I just went out and bought a late-model silver Volvo, though our old minivan is much more practical.
I worry about what message I’m sending to my adolescent sons. I know they smell vanity. More than anything, they’re afraid they might lose me, too.
Ogden Dunes, Indiana
I don’t wear lipstick, eye shadow, eyeliner, foundation, or nail polish. I don’t color my hair. I want to look good, but I don’t want anybody to think I went to any trouble.
Yet in the privacy of my home, I pull out gray hairs, bleach my teeth, and dye my eyelashes. I spend a fortune on anti-wrinkle creams and rarely go to bed or wake up without applying them.
It takes a lot of work to make others think my beauty comes effortlessly.
Mother is in her nineties now, stooped and shriveled, only remotely recognizable as the commanding, vibrant matriarch we all once knew. At one time, avoiding her criticism was like walking through a minefield. She spoke in superlatives and rained torrential wrath on any who disputed her claims.
Now I sort through her five closets, searching for clothing that will fit her frail body. Indulgences long past hang tightly pressed together, as if comforting one another, some with tags still attached. The massive chest housing her jewels collects dust, glass beads and gold chains tangled carelessly inside.
“Do you think I have any wrinkles?” she asks.
I assure her that she looks fine.
“I bought some cream anyway,” she says. “You never can tell when you’re going to need it.”
In my teens, I gave up a daughter for adoption, and I was reunited with her more than twenty-five years later. I also met her adoptive parents. Now my daughter’s adoptive father sat across from me in a restaurant, telling me what she’d been like as a teenager. It felt as if I had gone my entire life without a drop of water, and here he was, offering me a drink.
“We had to cover the toaster with a kitchen towel,” he said.
I laughed. Can’t you just picture it? A teenage girl, sitting at the breakfast table, checking herself out in the chrome toaster, searching for blemishes or making sure her mascara is on right. My teenage girl. How sweet.
He went on: she couldn’t walk past a department-store window without looking at herself; couldn’t pass through a parking lot without getting waylaid by her own reflection in a car’s shiny black paint or peeking to catch a glimpse of herself in rearview mirrors.
Was this a problem? Was she still this way in her twenties? I would have to watch and see the next time we were together.
Sure enough, when she got in my car she pulled down the visor, not to shield her eyes from the sun, but to use the mirror. I drove and she talked. When we laughed, the same sound came out of both of us. Amazing. Miraculous. My daughter. Still, she repeatedly glanced not only in the visor but in the side mirror as well.
Was it my fault? I was only fourteen when I found out I was pregnant. Her father was the most gorgeous male creature I had ever seen. In my unbalanced teenage mind, I remember thinking, At least she’ll be pretty. I knelt in front of the altar in church and prayed to God that she’d be pretty enough and smart enough to get through life without me.
Nine years after our reunion, I’m still wondering if it’s my fault. My daughter is a topless dancer. “I get paid to walk around in my underwear,” she says. Her adoptive mother finds this cute. I find it sleazy. I asked her one day if she didn’t aspire to make some contribution to the world. She said, “I save marriages in my line of work. Those men stay with their wives because I provide them with the fantasies they need.”
She has a big dressing room and a big mirror (much bigger than a toaster) with bright lights around it. When she walks out on the runway, a spotlight shines on her. It must feel warm. All those years we were apart, I worried that she was cold. Now I purchase expensive flannel pajamas and send them to her in the mail. Some have flaps in the back and even feet. She looks adorable in them. But apparently they’re not the kind of warmth she is looking for. Every night she’s back in front of those lights.
She is thirty-seven years old, and I worry about what she’s going to do when her looks are gone. I worry so much it makes me itch. At bedtime, I take off my long blond ponytail and scratch the hairline scars behind my ears, where the cosmetic surgeon applied his knife.
My mother was a beautiful woman, with gorgeous legs and perfect bone structure. People stared at her. Sometimes she would let me watch her put makeup on. We never hugged, and she never told me she loved me, but I sure loved her. I had no brothers or sisters and was not allowed to have friends over. My parents were my world.
My mother had a way of staring at me that made me cringe. If I did something wrong, she would hit me with whatever was on hand. She cracked my head open a couple of times, and afterward would disinfect the wound with flea dip for dogs.
She also had the crazy idea that I should wash my hair only once a week. My hair was very fine and hung past my shoulders. Washing it once a week was a disaster, so I would wash it very early in the morning, before the school bus came. One day my mother found soap suds in the drain. She was furious. Her punishment was that I could not wash my hair for several weeks. My blond hair became matted and dark. Everyone at school said I was dirty and made fun of me. As the weeks dragged on, my hair became stuck to my head and neck. My father said nothing. My mother only gave me her usual stare.
Whenever I got my school pictures back, she always had something critical to say about them. Sometimes she would put huge swatches of tape across my shoulder blades to teach me to keep my shoulders back. She made me walk the length of our mobile home with books balanced on my head to teach me good posture. I later learned that she had once been a model.
New York, New York
Growing up, I was fat. It wasn’t until the eleventh grade that I started to diet. My approach was simple: I stopped eating and just drank milk. I don’t remember how long it took, but I eventually lost the weight.
To show off my new figure, I bought a dress with horizontal stripes, an elastic waist, and a two-inch leather belt. I loved the attention it drew from men on the street.
One day I wore the dress with very high heels. I was practically dancing down the street, laughing inside at the men’s reactions, when suddenly there was my mother, blocking my path. I knew she had seen me revel in the whistles and cries.
My mother didn’t say anything. She just looked at me with utter disdain. It wasn’t like her not to hammer home her disapproval in a long, loud tirade, but this time she never said a word. She just stepped around me and kept going.
I went home, took off that dress, and threw it away.
New York, New York
My grandmother Lily had Choctaw features: dark olive skin, an aquiline nose, black eyes, and billowy black hair. When she was growing up on the Louisiana bayou, her seven older brothers called her “China Doll.” Everyone said she was a strikingly beautiful child. I picture Lily standing under Louisiana live oaks hung with Spanish moss, wearing a white organdy dress.
At the age of fifteen, Lily caught the eye of a carpenter who was passing through. Flattered by his attention, she married him and moved to Port Arthur, Texas, where they had two sons and two daughters, my father among them. They barely scraped by on her husband’s cabinetmaker’s wages. My father says he and his siblings cut out cardboard to fit inside the soles of their shoes when they couldn’t afford new ones. Lily, though, always dressed well.
Lily spent her days at the home of her friend Pearl, the town prostitute. While her sons were off helping their father in the cabinet shop, Lily would turn tricks for Port Arthur sailors. She would post her daughters on the front porch to watch out for their daddy. Lily pocketed the money she made to buy herself perfume, brooches, and permanent waves — fitting accoutrements for a china doll.
In less than two months I will shave my head. Actually, my teacher will shave it when she ordains me as a Zen priest. The head-shaving is a symbol of renunciation — only to me it’s not just a symbol. My hair has been with me for sixty-two years, and I consider it one of my more attractive features. My vanity is protesting: “Stop! Are you sure you want to be baldheaded, wear long black robes, and go without jewelry for the rest of your life? What about your femininity? Your love of beauty?”
My hair is curly and brown, with only a few traces of gray. As I prepare to renounce it, I recall that I didn’t always like it. When I was growing up, my hair was unruly and hard to comb. I envied my sister Helen, who had long, straight hair. Though I wound my hair on huge rollers at night to take the kinks out of it, it never looked as straight as my sister’s.
When I was in my thirties, friends asked me to adopt their poodle Bones. Bones had tight brown curls all over his small, wiry body. I thought he was gorgeous. I began to ask myself what was wrong with my own hair. I got a “poodle cut” and started to take pride in my natural curls. When I was tucked in at night with some hot tea, a good book, and Bones lying close to me, I was in a state of bliss.
Perhaps my attachment to my hair is not so much an expression of vanity as it is an acceptance of myself.
Carmel Valley, California
As a young gay man, I was overawed by the magnificence of the hard-bodied men I saw in bars and clubs. Lean and muscular, they strode through the crowd with a self-confidence that I could barely imagine, while I skulked in the shadows, overlooked and disregarded. I was afraid of them, ashamed of my clumsiness, my ugliness. When near them, I became a stuttering fool, blushing and incoherent. In my small world they were the celebrities, both despised and desired.
After one too many nights of invisibility, I decided to become one of these muscled peacocks. I worked out four or five times a week. I learned how to vary muscle groups for maximum effect, how much to rest between workouts, how to optimize fat-burning. I ate a low-fat, high-carb, high-protein diet and added all the latest supplements. I was obsessed with the size and proportion of my body, with how much I could bench-press and the girth of my upper arms.
It worked. I became one of the hard-bodied gay men who strut about in tight-fitting T-shirts. I emerged from my weedy, spotty chrysalis a beautiful butterfly, admired and desired. And I loved it. I loved every smiling stare, coy nod, and suggestive innuendo. I lived for the attention, the power of unreciprocated desire.
As I grew older, though, all the attention began to interfere with my relationships. And the deaths of friends from AIDS were powerful reminders that the most robust physical body can be reduced to a pale yellow ghost. Letting go of that self-image wasn’t easy. I still work out and watch what I eat. But at last the obsession with my body has faded.
San Francisco, California