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Beauty Lessons: What I Wish My Daughter Knew by Debra Monroe

I interviewed Debra Monroe last year when her book, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, came out, and was struck by her honesty, her directness and, most of all, her love for her daughter. I am so honored that she offered us this eloquent piece which explores female beauty and how our — and other people’s — reactions to what we see in the mirror changes with age. This is a really powerful article to share and discuss with your own teenage daughters, your mothers, your sisters, your friends. I guarantee you’ll relate to so much of what she says and will be nodding your head in recognition of moments in your own life. We hope you’ll share your thoughts with us.

Photo Courtesy of Susan Reiss

My aunt was a beauty queen in a sparsely populated state in the early 1960s, when beauty pageants weren’t yet stigmatized as shallow. In a rural setting, they seemed like part of the harvest festival. Judges gave prizes for best pickles, finest cow, biggest watermelon. A prize for prettiest girl seemed natural. My aunt had a cloud of dark hair, high cheekbones. I’d watch as she practiced her “talent” on the porch at nightfall, twirling batons with canisters at each end that she lit with a kitchen match, her spangled costume shimmering. A few years later, she was an airline stewardess — a glamorous job, and sexist too, though no one said so yet. Applicants were assessed like pageant contestants: height, weight, figure. I was perhaps five years old when I sat on the floor and watched my aunt open her cosmetic case and apply eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara from a flat box with a little brush, or, for special occasions, false eyelashes. She had a lovely personality, too, and later became a hospice nurse.  Even as a child, I knew that anyone so nice to look at was more likely to coast through some of life’s rough spots.  In the world we inhabited, she had one of the rare forms of power allotted to women that didn’t raise eyebrows or hackles. I saw her at a family reunion when I was an adult, and she was still pretty. I said so, and she smiled and said, “It’s not the meaning of life, but it was fun.”  Beauty, she meant. “If you keep your weight down and stay healthy, it lasts into your fifties.”

“Then?” I asked.

“Then you’re quietly attractive to men your own age but otherwise invisible.”

Other women have confirmed this. “You get new status as a neuter,” an older colleague told me.  A friend said, “One day you’re walking down the street, and it’s like a science fiction movie — the world is familiar, but something essential and almost imperceptible has vanished, something you never knew existed because you’d had it from the dawn of adult life, and you only notice it used to exist because it’s gone.”  She meant that, if you were reasonably attractive, strangers smiled and made eye contact, and you assumed the world was an eye-contact kind of place. Unless you were extremely beautiful, or vain, or opportunistic, you didn’t know you were being perceived as one of the sights to behold — like good architecture or an esplanade of trees during a peak moment in the cycle of bloom.

When I had this conversation with my aunt, I had two reactions.  First, by her calculations, I had two decades before I’d have to acclimate myself to invisibility.  Second, neither of us had been young in an era when we felt pressure to camouflage femininity though, given when we came of age, she was pre-feminist and I was post-feminist.  For her, beauty was one of a few means to more options. For me, it was something I didn’t deemphasize. I could be the Rodgers and Hammerstein girl, attracting the gaze of someone with eyes that smolder, yet have a career that gave me the last say-so about my own life.

This wasn’t as true for women who came of age in the decade between my aunt and me.  I once met a famous person fifteen years older than me. She barely registered the details of our colleague-to-colleague introduction: my name, credentials, why I’d been selected to be on a panel discussion with her. Rather, she gave me the once-over and said, “My God, look at those pants.”  They weren’t sexy, just fashionable, russet-and-black paisley with narrow legs that were “in” that year, and I wore them with black ankle boots with three-inch stack heels, and a thigh-length black tunic. “Lipstick,” she blurted. In the middle of our panel discussion, she found herself agreeing with me, and finally started treating me like a peer. I got to know her, and we later joked about the first moments of our acquaintance.  She said, “You’re a girly girl. How was I to know there was a brain to go with that?” I countered, “That is so 1970s. How retrogressive to think you have to dress like a man to be assumed smart.”  But I couldn’t fault her because I’d been a schoolgirl when the warning to downplay femininity was part of any ambitious woman’s training: the Dress for Success advice about adapting men’s clothes to women—the low-heeled pumps, a suit with padded shoulders, a blouse with a tie-like bow.

Now that I am “quietly attractive to men my own age but otherwise invisible” and the almost imperceptible warm reaction I didn’t understand as age-exclusive has been replaced by something else — respect for my presumed leverage, perhaps — I reconsider the attention we women take for granted when we’re young. I’m not talking about a Grace Kelly level of beauty — or even my aunt’s, recognized with a ceremony and a crown — but the beauty of the average female who emerges from girlhood into adolescence, learning to flatter her best features, someone who is attractive because of youth and effort. When we had it in spades — advantages, slight favors — we didn’t know it. We could see the reception of ourselves only the way we’d so far seen it. We also might not have registered the approving glances because someone else is always more beautiful, getting even more approving glances. And in the information age, images of ideal women proliferate, and it takes wisdom to know that the better part of being attractive – confidence – isn’t achieved with beauty tips.

And the attention wasn’t just fun; it was confusing. Now we understand the primal urges that fuel it but when we were young we didn’t. A school janitor gave me too many compliments when I was in eighth grade, and I felt I must be grotesque to attract the gaze of an adult who seemed creepy yet irrelevant. Boys my own age acted friendly, then inexplicably angry. I didn’t realize then that sexual desire sometimes causes people to project extreme emotion onto its object. And whether you’re male or female, it’s startling to have incited interest before you’ve felt it yourself.

When I was barely an adult, there were catcalls from car windows or scaffoldings on high, not exactly gratifying because group attention arrives with a hint of menace. I liked the implied compliment — instincts I’d had about how to make the most of my looks were good instincts, apparently — but I was intimidated. I rode my bicycle to campus, and I’d have to go an indirect, lengthier route not to pass through the bar district, where there’d be daytime drinkers standing in doorways, assessing coeds. I didn’t think anyone would come after me on my bicycle, but I didn’t like it that my precise schedule had turned public.  I lived in a studio apartment in a chopped-up old house. Every time I locked myself out, I’d crawl back in through a window with a broken lock. One summer night, I was lying in bed, and I woke from a dream in which I heard my name being called.  When I woke all the way up, I realized my name was being called by gaggle of college boys across the street who were sitting on their porch, drunk. I’d never spoken to any of them, but the fact they knew my name meant they’d been on my front stoop and had read my mailbox, which I hadn’t thought to label with my last name and first initial only.

Around the same time, one of my professors coached me about how to move forward in the profession — almost every professor was male then — and mentioned that my lack of confidence would be an asset because, I was “bright” and, he added, “pretty.”  If I had confidence too, he said, it would be too much. I went on to earn a PhD, and, yes, the occasional store clerk might have waited on me more avidly, or a traffic cop perhaps gave me a warning instead of a citation. But I was broke and busy and didn’t spend much time shopping or in front of mirrors. I worried more about how my résumé looked.

So attracting the first gaze was flattering but scary, not fun. But it began to be. When, by my younger self’s standard, I was over the hill at thirty-five years old, and rushing for a plane while wearing a summer dress, people gawked at me.  Before I’d left home, I’d looked in the mirror at the way my lipstick matched my dress; my handbag mismatched my dress in an edgy, stylish way, I felt. What had happened since?  My dress was torn?  My lipstick, so carefully applied, had smeared? But people were making eye contact and smiling, I noted. Most were men. This was good attention, I realized, and I didn’t feel intimidated because I trusted my ability to keep myself safe. Or I was safe in an airport.  Now that I’m almost twenty years older than I was that day, I’m convinced women in their thirties look their best, the beginning of aging a natural cosmetic, deepening creases in our eyelids, turning skin taut enough to accentuate good bones. A signature sense of style emerges. Most importantly — and this enhancement lasts for the rest of our lives—we’ve accumulated experience, and so we’ve thought shrewdly, perceptively.  Our facial expressions have turned interesting and complex.

I became a mother when I was thirty-nine; I adopted a baby. I instantly loved my daughter who, even as an infant, looked wise and beautiful. We’re an interracial mother and daughter, and, when she was little, we lived in a place where interracial families were rare, so we attracted attention for that fact alone. I’m certain I would have enjoyed dressing her and doing her hair, dressing myself and doing my hair, because I’m a “girly girl,” as my friend said. Yet my daughter was almost always the only black child in every setting, and the ideals of African-American beauty and the ideals of Caucasian beauty are different, and I wanted my daughter to grow up feeling confident as her own lovely self.  So I spent time choosing clothes that accentuated her skin tone, braiding and unbraiding her lush hair. I was also going out into the world as her representative, so I wanted to be well-dressed and articulate, to help smooth her way, to model for her the poise and assurance to smooth her own way later. Attractiveness doesn’t equal success, of course, which is achieved bit by bit: with education, a sense of fair play, a work ethic, passion for your vocation.  But first impressions are a step forward, and knowing that strangers studied us and that our presence often incited controversy, I felt a more urgent impulse to groom both of us. That said, we clearly enjoyed ourselves. Even when she was a child, we loved shopping, rushing home with our bags, laying out purchases on our beds, holding them up, saying, “I love the new shoes.” “That dress is a great color for you.”

A few years later, I fell in love and got married — a June bride literally, not symbolically. I had my first hot flash days before the wedding.  Still, I wasn’t thinking about my age.  Later, as I looked at photos, I thought how wonderful my daughter looked, and my stepson too. My husband looked dear, familiar. I looked like a hostess, not a great beauty.

My friend once told me that the end of the gaze, and the loss of power the gaze confers, goes undetected at first. One day you realize it’s been gone for a while, and you wonder when it disappeared. It disappeared while I was a newlywed, having moved to a city, concentrating on my new husband and stepson, and on my daughter’s sense of self in this new context.  Until the neighborhood got used to us, we got plenty of gazes of a different sort, because the fact that we’re an interracial family continues to make us a magnet for some strangers’ lingering glances.  However, I remember the last appreciative male gaze aimed at me and me alone. I was in my car at a stop sign, waiting for a man to walk across the street. I was spoken for, deeply in love, not at all on the make. But, as he passed in front of my car, he looked good — my type, or what used to be.  I was a reverse Irwin Shaw character, enjoying the enjoyment: appreciating men in their summer attire.  I assumed I was unseen behind the windshield, appreciating male beauty as one of the sights to behold, but he was looking back. We both smiled, embarrassed. It was the last time.

Yet the shift of the gaze from myself to my daughter is, for me, an exhilarating and chaotic surge of pride, protectiveness, and patience.  As I watch her — forbidden to wear makeup except on special occasions — experience the age-old young girl’s confusion about why the gaze sometimes turns her way, I understand it’s a new confusion for her.  She wants advice, but not too much. She wants to figure out what she can by herself.  One day at a mall I was looking at anti-frizz hair serum — even dyed gray hair is wiry hair — and my daughter was nearby, admiring polka-dot toe socks, and a boy who was several years older approached her. She’s tall for her age, and she may have seemed to him old enough to have driven to the mall to shop alone since we were a few feet apart and in public situations no one ever thinks we’re together because we don’t look like mother and daughter. This boy, with his demeanor that seemed like an unintentional parody of the male overture, said, “What’s up, girl?” If he hadn’t looked so ill at ease, I might have been alarmed. I walked over and said to my daughter, “Time for us to go home, honey. You have math homework.” As we left, she asked, “What did that guy want?”  This was no time for the what-do-guys-want conversation.  I said, “He was trying to flirt, and he’s way too old for you.”  She looked flattered and scared.  Both of these emotions — pride and fear — are necessary.

She’s the age I was when that school janitor kept flagging me down to strike up odd conversation. All friendliness isn’t mere friendliness, I want to tell my daughter.  Sometimes it’s the irrational, evolutionary, sexual urge. But I don’t say exactly that.  Between my pointed, careful advice and the school health class lecture, the irrational, evolutionary, sexual urge seems like catechism to her: overdiscussed, theoretical. She looks polite yet bored. I keep finding moments to say, for instance, “It’s not okay that the man who runs the skating rink hugs girls. If he hugs you, skate away and stay close to friends. Let him know you’re not alone.” My daughter and I have been close, so she doesn’t yet find my warnings endless, paranoid.  She looked at me, as though registering a common-sense solution, and said: “Good idea.”  Meanwhile, she’s finding her own style, which has nothing to do with allure –a colorful hoodie, layers of tank tops, jeans, high-top shoes. Her pleasure is in self-definition, a girly version of tomboy I’d never have cultivated. What advice would I give her if words alone would keep her safe and happy?  Be safe. Fear is a healthy instinct. Be happy. Pride is a healthy instinct too. I want to clue her in, as my aunt did me, that it’s good to enjoy yourself. Don’t obsess about someone else’s seeming perfection, your own imagined imperfection. But beauty is just a sideline, I’d emphasize. Focus on building your future. Use your brains and determination.

That’s what we talk about most: school, grades, good ideas for a career. As for female beauty, my daughter will learn for herself exactly what it is and isn’t worth. So I hold my tongue. What imperfections does she imagine she has? She’s wearing a high-fashion, short hairdo these days, and she worries her ears are too small. “Small?” I say, incredulous. “Do you want big ears?” She wants normal ears, she says. I drop it, because she’ll have to understand this on her own — how beautiful she is, as is. She’ll discover this in her thirties. In her forties, she’ll feel sure enough she won’t think about her looks much. Sometime in her fifties, when the bloom of youth has passed away and she’s quietly attractive to men her own age, she’ll have experiences and satisfactions that make beauty beside the point. I hope she’ll feel how I feel now. I don’t have much inclination to miss my former physical self because watching my smart, savvy daughter come of age is tangible proof that my work, so far, is turning out fine.

Instead of a young woman’s beauty — which was transitory after all, not to mention ornamental, all form, little function — I have a face that is a map of a life in which I dreamed a few dreams and worked hard to make some of them come true.  I have a job I have consistently loved, a home I helped create, and most of all, a daughter, and now a stepson too, who are pleasures to behold.