Yesterday I was watching a bio of Drew Barrymore on ‘E’; when they got to the part when she was chosen to be The Gap Girl, she exuded a near hysterical level of excitement. She couldn’t imagine, she said, any woman not wanting to do that, to try on and model clothes all day. “I mean,” she said, “we all do it anyway, in front of our mirror.” At that I experienced a sudden click of consciousness: never in my life have I tried on clothes and preened before the mirror. This is not my idea of fun. In fact, I loathe dressing rooms and go temporarily blind in mirrored hallways. When I get dressed I put on the outfit, look in the mirror to be sure I don’t look hideous, and leave. If I do look hideous, I know I’m in for a grueling hour—trying to fix a bad-looking outfit is, for me, the equivalent of trying to parallel park: the more you fuck around, the harder it gets.
But back to Drew. Bios on ‘E’ tend to go on forever, and since Drew Barrymore started acting at the age of four, hers was a marathon. We got to see her at many stages of her life with many kinds of looks for each one of them. She’s the kind of person whose face is eminently changeable: merely switch the lipstick color and the part in her hair and she turns into a whole new woman. What with professionals changing her hairstyle and color, clothing and jewelry, she must have a thousand faces. But they all have one thing in common: every one of them is beautiful.
Maybe I’ve just been watching too much television lately, but I’ve become obsessed with the subject of beauty. As in beautiful women. As in never having been beautiful myself. Oh, sure, I’ve been pretty, I’ve been sexy, and on occasion I’ve even managed to look like a babe—but never in my life have I been beautiful in the way of, say, Drew Barrymore. Angelina Jolie. Or to go back in time, Natalie Wood. Marilyn Monroe. I’m talking about the kind of beautiful that cannot be disputed, that is so inarguably evident that almost no one thinks of her as so-so or “not as pretty as (fill in the blank).” Yes, beauty is relative: to me Barbra Streisand is beautiful. Gloria Steinem at 70 is beautiful. Ruth Gordon as Maude was beautiful. But that’s not the kind of beautiful I’m talking about.
I’ve known a few women who were that kind of beautiful; I was close to one for a time, and wrote a short story about her (The Eye of the Beholder). At that time in my life I was feeling emotionally secure: my writing was becoming of paramount importance to me, and I didn’t dwell on the superficial. Because of this, I was able to love Michelle—whose inner beauty matched her face—and, more importantly, could study the role that looks played in her life as opposed to mine as if I were a sociologist, without suffering. I accepted my place in the universe; in fact, I was glad I was secure enough to even be friends with Michelle—most of the other women in our office were ghastly in their behavior towards her.
I was in my early 30s then. Now that I’m twice that age, I doubt I could be so sanguine around Michelle. These days, when I look back at the role that looks played in my life, particularly, of course, concerning men, I’m deeply bitter. Again, maybe I’m watching too much television: on Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives—even on Judging Amy, for godsakes!—men are always chasing after these beautiful women, sending them flowers, buying them jewelry. I can’t help but notice that, throughout my life there’s been a definite shortage of flowers and jewelry. I feel deprived.
Blecch! Just listen to me! I’m making myself sick. I feel like a spoiled American brat, whining about being deprived of jewelry when there are kids walking around Sierra Leone with missing limbs, chopped off in some macabre quest to deliver diamonds to women in wealthier countries. In fact, I wouldn’t wear diamonds even if men threw them at my feet. Still, I’m an American woman: I grew up surrounded by all this looksist crap. I’ve got baggage—and I’m going to dump it, obnoxious or not.
Probably the biggest baggage of all has to do with my sister. Oh, yes, I seem to have failed to mention her. Hm. Well, I have an older sister who, while not that kind of beautiful, specializes, even at the age of 64, in looking sexually available: she wears short tight skirts, high fuck-me heels, wild bleached blonde hair and three inches of eye makeup. Linda was adored and doted on for the three-and-a-half years she spent alone with my parents, before I came along. Zillions of photos attest to the story of a precious, cherished little girl who was the apple of Daddy’s eye, who knew it, and learned how to primp and pose. To this day she decorates her walls not with pictures of her grandchildren, but with pictures of herself at various stages of life, wearing fancy gowns or bikinis or tight denim, her head flung back in an inviting gesture. She lives on a diet, always hungry; I can’t bear to diet, and, consequently, I’ve never once worn a bikini.
The funny thing is, my sister is far less sexually or emotionally available than I am, yet I had/have the scrubbed purity and Ivory Snow wholesomeness of the-girl-next-door. She confessed to me that she dresses as she does in an effort to “stand out” from the crowd. She dislikes actresses she deems “bland,” like Gwyneth Paltrow or Cate Blanchett. She prefers the looks of Pamela Anderson.
I haven’t figured out which or what size suitcase my sister fills in all my looksist baggage. She’s played a huge part in my life in general, but I’ve never been conscious of feeling jealous of her looks. The truth is, I haven’t figured out a lot about this, and I wonder if I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. Do I have to? Does it matter? Doris Lessing, my guru, says you have to “work through what you’re landed with” before you can begin to “grow on your own account.” I believe her. Looks aren’t the only issue I have to work out, but it’s become clear that it’s a big one.
I’m insanely curious to know about other women’s experiences, feelings and insights in this area. The male perspective would also be useful. In that spirit, I’m inviting—actually begging—my readers to talk about it in the comment boxes. If you have trouble focusing, I’ve come up with a few questions to give you a jump-start: you can answer any of them, or just use them as a way to think about these things. Or not. Just talk. GO!
Questions Regarding Looks (Note: I’ve framed the questions in the present as well as the past because it’s been my experience as an older woman that none of it applies anymore—I’ve become invisible to men.)
Do/did men frequently come on to you at the beach, in bars or restaurants, at parties, or any other public or semi-public places?
Do/Did dates/boyfriends/lovers/fiancées/husbands woo you with flowers, jewelry or other gifts?
Did/do you enjoy male attention? Expect it? Get annoyed by it?
Do/did you wear a bikini?
Do/did you try on clothes, makeup, and different hairdos purely for fun, preening in front of the mirror?
When you pass/ed a mirror do you automatically look in it, or do/did you avoid mirrors?
Have you ever asked a man out? Were you ever turned down?
Did/do people always/usually/sometimes/never respond favorably to you on job interviews or other kinds of first meetings?
Are/were you always able to have sex when you want/ed to?
Do/did you have women friends you thought were more beautiful than you? Did you feel jealous of them? Were/are you ever in the opposite position—the beautiful one who women envy? How does/ did it make you feel?
Thank you in advance. I can’t wait to read your comments.