When I was in high school, I never wanted my dates to come to my house. Not only was I already an insecure teenager dealing with all of the things that teenage girls deal with, I was trying to avoid the inevitable - the introduction to my mother.
Mama was beautiful. I don't mean attractive, pretty, cute or nice looking, I mean beautiful. The few photos I still have of her only dimly represent her beauty, which was legendary in her hometown. People would actually stare - I learned what the term "turn heads" meant at a very young age. ( But I digress..) back to my dates... When my mother would whirl in with her infectious dimpled smile and honey sweet southern accent, I was suddenly made irrelevant. Like a poor photocopy of a photocopy - I suddenly found myself in competition with someone who was 32 years older than me. It wasn't just her physical beauty, she was a master of charm - Southern charm, which is charm on steroids. The boys were entranced - she knew how to talk to them, how to make them feel special, how to make them feel like they mattered more than anything in the world at that moment. Her voice even went up an octave when a male came in the room. They bought it every time - hook, line and sinker. To this day, I don't know how she did that - I am hopeless.
"I don't know where you got your legs. They must be from your daddy's side of the family." "Don't you think you need a little lipstick honey?" "What have you done to your hair?" Terms of endearment. Beauty had served my mother well, maybe that's why she wanted me and my sisters to have it too. Or maybe we reflected her somehow, so she needed us to be beautiful so that we represented her well. Whatever the reason, the expectation was there and we knew it. So during the awkward acne, braces, bad hair years, we knew we'd disappointed her. We all found success in so many areas of our lives, but nothing made our mother beam more than those times we "looked pretty."
The tragedy of beauty is that it trumps everything. A woman can be intelligent, successful, creative, or innovative but if she is also stunningly beautiful, beauty wins...every time.
"A lucky thing Eva Peron was. She died at 32. I'm already 45." -Vivian Leigh
That quote by Vivian Leigh has always made me so sad! I remember thinking that when my mom died, "at least she was still beautiful and didn't have to get really old and see that fade."
I started thinking about beauty and what it does to a person. If it is your identity, do you lose yourself with it when it starts to fade? How does one maintain enough of a self to avoid becoming defined by nothing more than a physical manifestation of a lucky gene pool? We can learn a lot about the pitfalls of beauty from the legendary stars who were the beauty standards of their generations.
Here are some observations about beauty that I think makes looking somewhat average very attractive.
1. You will lose it. The only way to avoid that is to die young.
Of course, those of us who know better, know that isn't really true. I know some really beautiful 80 year old women! But by the world's standards, Women like Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard and Jayne Mansfield will be forever young and beautiful.
When I think of the beautiful wrinkles that might have come from the many experiences all of these women could have had, I know they would trade that immortal beauty for a few more years of life, stretch marks, wrinkles and all.
Carole Lombard died at 33
2. People might not take you seriously or you might not take yourself seriously enough and develop other parts of your character.
Actress Hedy Lamarr is remembered for her sultry beauty but her most significant contribution was her co-invention, together with composer George Antheil, of an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, which was vital to national defense during WWII and paved the way for today's wireless communications.
After getting her start on Charlie's Angels, Farrah Fawcett left the series after one season. No one took her seriously as an actress and she was better known for her swimsuit poster and fringed hair. But Fawcett went on to acting success and was nominated for an Emmy & Golden Globe for her work as Francine Hughes in The Burning Bed, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbra Hutton Story.
3. You are expected to be beautiful ALL of the time and you have a shelf life.
If you are known for your beauty, people make a much bigger deal out of your flaws. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most beautiful actresses of all time. That fact must have made the struggles she had with her weight and the natural aging process much more difficult for her.
Even beautiful women who age well are often rejected when that beauty changes and doesn't meet the standard for the cultural obsession with youth. Isabella Rossellini was the face of Lancome for 14 years until she was famously dropped days after her 40th birthday for being 'too old.'
'They sent me so many flowers on my 40th birthday, it was a morgue,' she said in 2002, according to Vogue. 'I knew I was dead. They said, "Be grateful Isabella. You're lucky you lasted so long in the business."'
4. It's exhausting if you try to make it last. Or you can accept every phase of your life as it comes and look at every decade as a new challenge and adventure.
I recently saw an online article about actresses who had "aged gracefully." It made me want to throw something. It included photos of well known stars over 50 - 90% of whom had obviously had surgery to so gracefully age. (Cher)? Is that what we mean now by aging gracefully? People can do whatever they want to do in terms of surgery, and you can say they look young, or pretty, but don't say they are aging gracefully!
I would like to think that being healthy, fit, and positive about life would define aging gracefully instead of using a standard that is focused on trying to preserve a time in someone's life that is obviously passed. Betty White was and is beautiful but wasn't known for her appearance. She was a comedic actress who never relied on looks for happiness,
"Dreading aging is really a waste of a lovely life." Betty White
"There IS a Fountain of Youth. It is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age," Sophia Loren
"Character contributes to beauty. It fortifies a woman as her youth fades. A mode of conduct, a standard of courage, discipline, fortitude, and integrity can do a great deal to make a woman beautiful." Jacqueline Bisset
5. There will always be someone more beautiful. My husband once told me that Grace Kelly was the only woman more beautiful than me. He is a smart guy - #1 he is a good liar. #2 he put me in the same sentence as Grace Kelly. #3 Grace Kelly is no longer with us so there was no real threat.
If you are told you are beautiful and then you discover that there are people much more beautiful than you, what are you then?
"I'll tell you one of the reasons I'm ready to leave. When I first came to Hollywood five years ago, my makeup call was at eight in the morning. On this movie it's been put back to seven-thirty. Every day I see Joan Crawford, who's been in makeup since five, and Loretta Young, who's been there since four in the morning. I'll be god-damned if I'm going to stay in a business where I have to get up earlier and earlier and it takes longer and longer for me to get in front of a camera." Grace Kelly
"I would like to be remembered as someone who accomplished useful deeds, and who was a kind and loving person. I would like to leave the memory of a human being with a correct attitude and who did her best to help others." Grace Kelly
It's ironic that two of the women who set the gold standard for ideal beauty seemed to care less about it than many others. Both Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn seemed comfortable enough with themselves to age with dignity. Their iconic beauty couldn't be destroyed by time or changing style.
“Make-up can only make you look pretty on the outside but it doesn't help if you're ugly on the inside. Unless you eat the make-up.” Audrey Hepburn
"I'm not beautiful. My mother once called me an ugly duckling. But, listed separately, I have a few good features." Audrey Hepburn
In a 2013 Vanity fair article, Audrey Hepburn's son Dotti spoke about Audrey's view on aging;
“She was always a little bit surprised by the efforts women made to look young,” Dotti recalls. “She was actually very happy about growing older because it meant more time for herself, more time for her family, and separation from the frenzy of youth and beauty that is Hollywood." (source)
I'm sad that my mother cared so much about physical beauty - she missed a lot of genuinely beautiful things in life because of that. But I'm hopeful that my own daughters will know that beauty comes from a place much deeper and has very little to do with bone structure or the elasticity of your skin. It comes from being comfortable with yourself at every stage and most importantly, from looking at others more than yourself. When you see beauty in another person, you will discover the most beautiful thing of all.