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Thursday, November 08, 2007

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Fine Lines

I got my hair cut yesterday, which is something I do about 2.5 times a year, and always at the last minute. Eddie, who has put up with this for over ten years, was able to work me into the late afternoon, and I spent my lunch hour looking at pictures of hairstyles on the internet, pretending I might get something more drastic than a trim.

By the time I break down and decide to do something about my hair, I am always so sick of it that I feel like I could just chop it all off. But I never do. I haven't had really short hair since I was nineteen, the year Linda Evangelista cut hers and became a supermodel. I had the same cut. Alas, not the same cheekbones.

In my early twenties I sported a chin-length bob, which I guess I thought made me look chic and mature. It made my face look incredibly, perfectly round, and if you saw a picture of it, you would probably want to pinch my widdle cheeks. I grew it out so I could wear my hair up for my first wedding, and it's never been shorter than shoulder-length since. When I sat down in Eddie's chair yesterday, the ends fell over my chest.

Throughout history, most cultures have decreed that long, unbound hair is the privilege of an unmarried maiden. Once a woman is married or has children, she has been expected to veil or pin or cut it. In contemporary North America we call it the "mom cut". We say it's more practical once the baby's here, but at an unconscious level even secular culture still subscribes to fear of unbridled womanhood. Can't have all that mature feminine sexuality just hanging all out around the children, can we?

My great aunt Nell wore her waist-length hair in a girlish braid down her back her whole life. It was lovingly regarded by most everyone in the family as eccentric. Nell's hair ranks in family lore near 'Staish-in-the-Bed, my great-great aunt Anastasia, who took to her bed one afternoon as a girl of sixteen, and never walked again (it was rumored she'd fallen in love with the village priest and was cursed).

I'm sure Nell's sister, my grandmother Mary, disapproved. She was a beautiful woman herself, and by no means immune to vanity, but was always very appropriate, whether kneading bread in the privacy of her own kitchen with a pair of clean underwear on her head to keep her own hair back, or entertaining ladies for tea from her Royal Albert "Old Country Roses" china. Many of my ideas about aging gracefully come from observing her.

My ideas about aging joyfully all come from this fabulous woman:

Her name was Ferne, and she was my mother's mother. Even in her eighties, she rode bareback, and went dancing, and had gentlemen friends, and if she'd ever had any use for long hair (which I doubt she did even as a young girl), you can bet she'd have worn it to her ankles if she damn well felt like it.

It's a marvelous legacy; the line that runs through the middle of those two great, and opposite ladies, guiding me toward the second half of my own life. Sometimes it seems to runs straight down the center; other times, it zigs and zags.

I will turn 38 on the 23rd of this month. Grey hairs are growing as fast as I can pluck them. There are fine lines around my eyes and deeper ones on my neck. In the past year, an extra ten pounds have settled in all over, and I honestly don't know that I am unhappy enough about it to resist the next slice of warm apple pie that comes my way. I'm not a girl anymore.

"You'll tell me, won't you, if I can't pull off the length anymore?" I asked Eddie in the mirror, as he ran his hands through my hair. He smiled. "You can. And I will."

I was relieved. I love some of those shorter, piece-y styles. On other women. But long hair feels like me.

I've heard older woman say that they look in the mirror sometimes, and they don't feel like themselves anymore. The reflection no longer reflects the person they feel like inside. One of these friends recently confided to me that she intends to have plastic surgery. Although we are close, there was a note of hesitation in telling me. I think she was afraid I would judge.

When I was younger, I would have. There are all kinds of objections to excising age this way, as if it were malignant. As a woman this side of forty, I still feel betrayed when I discover that someone who is older and beautiful has had "work" done. Because until I've learned the truth, I think perhaps it's possible for me. Look at her, I think. Fifty, and still so sexy. Well, why not? Maybe I could be too. Who's afraid of fifty? Not me. And then I find out they've "cheated," and I despair a little.

My friend is as smart and as strong and as deep as anyone I know. I can't judge her decision. If ridding myself of ten pounds or neck wrinkles were as easy as plucking grey hairs, what would the difference be? If I can have my hair cut or colored so that I feel my best, why not my face or my breasts? I use a face cream that removes old skin cells. Could I use a laser to remove more? A scalpel? Where is the line? I thought I knew it when I was thirty. Now I'm less sure.

It's hard for a woman to talk openly and honestly about beauty and body image. I keep trying, and I'm certain each time, people walk away in disgust. We're supposed to pretend it doesn't matter. But if you landed here on earth from Mars, and even took a short look around, you'd suppose it's all that does matter. It's especially tricky to speak to these issues as a woman to whom genetics or environment has been kind. Who wants to be the skinny girl complaining about her weight, or the pretty girl moaning about her nose? Not me. At the blogher conference in Chicago last summer, there was a closed session on body image that I was passionately interested in, but I got the distinct feeling that a participant without obvious body challenges would be met with hostility. I would have liked to have pointed out that we are all swimming in the same polluted water, whatever our shape or size, but I didn't think I would be taken seriously.

Sheryl, at Paper Napkin wrote a wonderful piece recently on explaining to her daughters what a crap shoot beauty is, how the standards change through the ages, and how it's just dumb luck whether or not you are born with whatever features happen to be valued at any given time. I absolutely loved how she framed it, and if I could add anything to it, it would be that there really are no winners in that game. Even the most beautiful girl will wrinkle. All the lasers in the world can only buy time, not stop it. Even the size four woman is bombarded constantly with the same message: thinner is better. Look at all the "perfect" girls in Hollywood, falling apart. Because even Lindsay Lohan can't live up to Lindsay Lohan.

Physical beauty is a lot like material wealth. Some people inherit it, some people work hard for it. It can be used for good or bad, and it isn't inherently either. It can be won or lost, and if you don't possess the inner kind, there is never enough of the outer.

And at the end of the day, not a single one of us gets to keep it.



Blogger The Casual said...

What a great post! I really enjoyed reading this...


~The Casual Perfectionist

2:19 PM  
Blogger Misbehaving said...

I believe that inner-beauty can be seen on the face and in the mannerisms of those who possess it. The same thing holds true for inner-ugly.

When you feel good about yourself the reflection in the mirror is much kinder.

Thanks for the reminder.

2:59 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...


I LOVED this post. I wish you would submit it somewhere. I think it's brilliant and introspective and important. I wholeheartedly agree with you and ask the same questions. Where does one draw the line? It is horrible feeling not to recognize yourself but it is equally as paralyzing to resist change. Resist age. Long for another face. Or body.

It doesn't matter your size or hair or beauty, we're all dealing with insecurities and if plastic surgery can help a woman overcome them? I don't think that's so terrible. Everything, I believe, in moderation. I had plastic surgery at 18. And even though it was a breast reduction I had the surgery for cosmetic reasons. I have not and will not judge a woman for having ANYTHING done because I know, for me, that made me a healthier person. More secure and confident.

I think aged faces are beautiful and therefor can't see myself ever getting work done there, BUT, I hate my arms. The kind of hate that has caused me to wear long sleeves since High School. I would have lipo tomorrow on my arms if I could and will do so one day. For the same reason I got my reduction. Does that make me shallow? I don't think so. Am I cheating? Cheating who? We get surgeries to make it easier for us to walk? So how about surgery to help us look in the mirror? Wear tank-tops without having an anxiety attack (and yes, I have had a tank-top anxiety attack.)

I'm sure people would argue with me about this and with good reason. We take one another's looks o seriously. "Ew, she' ugly" or "Ew, she's beautiful." Judged on the outside so why wouldn't the whole wide world feel insecure?

Perhaps what's most infuriating to me is that the women who "hate women who get work done" are the same women who make smide remarks about beauty. "Ew! Look at her cellulite! Her bags! Her breasts!"

I have had body issues for as long as I can imagine and I've never been overweight. Does that make my issues moot?

All of my friends in High School were the "beautiful girls" and every single one of them was puking in the bathroom after lunch. One's weight has nothing to do with one's body image. Period.

I think the key to aging gracefully is focusing on the moment. Being terrified of getting older will only hold one back, and looking fondly on yesterday will only build resentment and jealousy and bitternes-- bad for the complexion, I would think.

It's an interesting discussion for sure, but at the end of the day you have to do what makes you feel most comfortable in your skin. And if that means keeping your favorite hairstyle or getting a minor nip-tuck? If that is what makes one less bitter and more gracious? Then, Respect!

A bitter woman is the ugliest kind. Right after a jealous one.

4:43 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

I have a thousand typos. Apologies. Should have re-read what I wrote! Ha!

4:45 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

I think the typos are somehow fitting :) I love your passion.


4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is so NOT what your post is about, is maybe even antithetical to your message, but in that photo you do NOT look like a woman about to turn 38. You look much younger, long hair or short. You and your writing are beautiful!

6:33 PM  
Blogger paper napkin said...

Thanks for the shout out :o)

I have no problem with plastic surgery, though I don't think I'll have any myself. Beauty is such a complicated issue-- I just wish that the media would recognize more than one kind. The kind based in REALITY.

When I was younger I considered starting a magazine with a wider spectrum of beauty.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

petunia face, I don't think it's antithetical at all. I like putting on lipstick, and being told I'm pretty, and all those frills. I am with Papernapkin. I wish the spectrum was about a thousand times broader & the "standard" was somehow related to reality.

the face of a beautiful young woman (or man) can take my breath away. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. When it's worshipped & envied to the exclusion of almost anything else, then we have a problem.

misbehaving, i love what you said about inner beauty shining out. I think a lot of it also has to do with the inner eye of the beholder.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Who She She said...

I used to know a man who, during his long life, had relationships with many fascinating, intelligent women who were not conventionally beautiful. He said he didn't really understand men (or women) who went for the "easy beauty". The most beautiful things about a person were confidence and humor. I have to agree. Even physically unattractive people become attractive if they have a spark.

This was a wonderful post. My 4 year old daughter is beautiful, and sometimes I wish she wasn't. But she also has a spark which we're going to work so hard to preserve.

What a culture we live in, eh?

9:24 AM  
Blogger blackbird said...

Great post.
You look beautiful - inside and out.

12:49 PM  
Blogger AliBlahBlah said...

What a great post, particularly the part about people without obvious body challenges being met with hostility. I'm freaking out because my 2yr old likes putting on lipstick, and she didn't get that from me - what the hell am I going to do in 5 or even 10 years time? Yikes!

I loved the picture of your Mom's Mom, and what's up with the raging floodwaters behind her?!

9:35 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

My mother? You would LOVE her.

10:12 PM  
Blogger plumbing said...

Love it my thoughts all along are that my wrinkles and droops have been earned with age and they map out my wonderful life Aunt Jacky

8:22 AM  
Blogger Mallory said...


9:44 AM  

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