Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Beauty

The concept and core implementation of beauty was one of the few things that my mother was particularly 'motherly' about. She took a great deal of pride in her physical appearance. Some of my best childhood moments with her were spent watching her apply make-up in the morning, or take it off in the evening. I found these moments to be the ones in which she was the most gentle with herself, and, by extension, with me. She schooled me in the power of moisturizer and mascara, instilling in me a sense of virtue in not just being female, but feminine. In fact, the most loving moments that we had were when she brushed my long hair. When she did this, she would always remind me of how lucky I was to be born pretty. According to her, my hair would always be my particular source of power.

Over the years, I always wondered if my mother's prophecy about my hair was self-fulfilling or solid fact. As a young girl, I was chased around the school yard by boys who wanted nothing more than to capture me and pull my long braids. When I came home crying and muddy, my mother assured me that this was a good thing. I was popular. Boys liked me. She was pleased.

As a teenager, my only form of real rebellion against my mother was to experiment with weight gain and being as nerdy as humanly possible, but I never had the nerve to cut my hair. My mother cried and lamented the weight gain. She regularly remarked that it didn't matter how smart I was, the only thing that would get me ahead in the world was my appearance. She insisted that I start wearing contact lenses. She encouraged my interest in dance. The glasses came off, of course. I was genetically incapable of being heavy. The hair stayed long. The phone started ringing. I was carefree in my friendships with both girls and boys, but always had a little date to the dance. Again, my mother was happy.

Through college and graduate school, the hair stayed long. My first long-term boyfriend loved my hair. He also loved the rest of me, too. According to him, I was the full-package--smart, sexy, sporty, but always feminine. At one point, it occurred to me that I was the walking incarnation of the dream that my mother had for me. It was a lovely dream, but somehow, I felt the need to be sure that it was really the dream for me.

About two years ago, I lost several pounds and cut my hair to my chin. At 5 feet and 5 inches tall, I went from resembling something out of a Brazilian magazine, full of curvy, dark-haired girls with mounds of hair and sex appeal, to a far less curvy, short haired little thing. When my mother saw me, she cried. Literally. But, far less predictably, I noticed how I began to move through the world much differently. Men no longer look at me the same way. Older men were far less smarmy. At the same time, I began to attract a younger set of smarter and more gentle men, the ones who probably wouldn't have approached me before. And women, well, women actually seemed to be more friendly. Obviously, save for my appearance, nothing about me had changed. Yet, not having two feet of dark, chest nut hair calling home to my head somehow radically de-sexualized me. That summer, I traveled throughout the Middle East without the usual amount of hassle I received when I traveled alone. There, I found that my short hair radically disarmed both men and women. Women were the worst with the strange double-takes, and men generally treated me like a little boy. Upon my return to the Washington, DC scene, a friend of mine candidly remarked that I was way too skinny and my hair was too short. (Love him.)

"If guys want cute, they will get a puppy," this friend has been known to say. I always laugh when I hear this, thinking that he and my mother should really get together. But all joking aside, he does have a point. This, of course, coincides with my mother who still says, "Darling, I made you to be far more sexy than you are cute. You're not a puppy, dear. You're never going to be one of those cute girls who looks good in plaid prints and Gap clothing. You're not a wall-flower, no matter how much you try."

Personally, I hold nothing against plaid prints or short hair. I also have a profound appreciation for people who experiment with their appearance in radical ways, more so than I have ever done. My greatest amount of radical experimentation was a discreet nose ring back in the day, which was fun until it wasn't anymore. And the temporary weight gain issue was an interesting exercise in adolescent angst, but it did not succeed in de-sexualizing me (personally) like cutting 14 inches of hair. Two years later, my hair is now teetering on the edge of reclaiming its own zip code once again. This time, however, I think it is safe to say that my journey back to being at home in the skin I am in has been more worthwhile, far less obvious, and farther still from being taken for granted as a "given" simply because my mother said so.

I have stepped into that inevitable moment in every woman's life when I have considered myself in the mirror and finally decided that it is entirely possible to think that who I am can be emanated from me and reflected back in such a way that liking the quirky woman who longs to be a wall flower but can't blend into the pattern is actually as refreshing as embracing the fact that a pattern simply won't suffice. In the end, I am thankful that my mother taught me about moisturizer at an early age. I am also thankful for her vanity, though it is not my own. My power really isn't in my hair, or beauty, or any other part of me that is simply physical. My power is in how all of this other stuff is applied.

I am happy.


SeanG said...

We’ve never met but from your writing I'd confidently say you're a beautiful person.

Laura said...

My mother had a weight hangup, not a beauty hangup, still does. The first thing she does when she sees me after awhile is literally to size me up. My sister once asked her if she would still love us if we got fat -- she paused and said she wasn't sure. To her, it is a personal failing and symbol of laziness. It also scares her to death when she puts on weight. Lots of self-loathing there that I can't figure out. And while this issue hasn't manifested itself in me to the same degree, I know that her imprint is always there. The person who taught me to be a woman taught me there were limits to what was acceptable -- not in morals, but in appearance. I hope I never pass on that lesson. I'd like my kids to say, "I am happy."

Namaste said...

Thanks, Sean. You're new. Where do you come from?

Laura, so funny you say that. My mother once said that she has no idea how I came to have so much self-esteem. Very tongue in cheek, but so true. We forget what we pass on to our daughters. The good thing is that she gave me other things too, besides a hang-up on appearance. lol. Thank the goddess. :)

Guy From the Bus said...

...happiness makes you even more incredibly beautiful than you already are, my dear.

Mujer Morena said...

Oh my. I almost wept tears of joy while reading your story, because I've gone through an identical experience. Throughout my life I had waist length hair. It was my mother's pride and joy. It wasn't until I saw a local neighborhood play about women's connection to hair did I finally realize what had been bothering me for so long: my hair was my identity. I went extreme and shaved it all off. Needless to say, my mother had a heart attack. For the last few years I've enjoyed the freedom of short hair. Amazingly it's weeded out certain people and misconceptions about who I am, and I am just fine with that.

Congrats to you, Namaste. I wish more women would realize their power is not in their hair.

Alan Ward said...

Any biblical connexions to this post? ;-)

From a masculine point of view, long hair can be very beautiful. But on the other hand, a woman who has long hair may feel the need to spend much time pampering it - and thus has less time for us males. Not good.

On the other hand, short hair was definately a woman's statement to the world back in the twenties.

Baldness can also be quite an issue for many men.

So you have raised a real issue - and I like the way you solve it.

SeanG said...

I've been following your blog since I moved to DC a few years back but am (was) a first time commentor.