Sunday, December 16, 2012


When I was much younger, I spent a fair amount of time observing people at Book Expo America, the annual gathering of people in the book business. Publishers took center stage at this event and women were prominent among them. What intrigued me was that the pretty women were almost all on their way up--or hoped they were; the women who had real clout had moved far beyond the issue of how they looked. The ultimate sign of power seemed to be how much physical weight a woman carried while still wielding clout. Their words and actions were significant enough that they needed no other attractions. They fascinated me.

At about the same time, I read a resonant sentence written by Nora Ephron that said something along the lines of now that she was in middle-age, she noticed her pretty friends complained about losing their looks while she on the contrary was finding hers. I interpreted that as an encouraging message: that bone structure and eyes and enthusiasm and engagement with life would outlive more conventional forms of good looks. The truth was sadder than that; both Nora and I still were preoccupied with how we looked, far beyond being neat, clean, and well-groomed. I was pulled in by any department store cosmetic counter that caught my eye,and Ms. Ephron?

In an essay about beauty and cosmetic treatments in the current issue of Marie Claire, a woman who was a "family friend," divulges that "Ephron had often shown up at a dinner or party looking younger than the last time I'd seen her." At this stage of her life, Nora Ephron's every word was assured its publication, she had written, directed, and produced a number of wildly popular movies, she was a force to be reckoned with on both coasts of her native land. If any woman (other than Hillary Clinton) had the power and privilege to age naturally, Nora was that woman. The author of the essay salutes "her refusal to let her appearance slip and fall short of her youthful curiosity." Me? I tend to agree more with Isabelle Rosellini, quoted in the same essay as saying, "Is this the new feet binding? Is this a new way to tell women, You are ugly deep down, you should be this and this, and give a lot of other standards that are impossible to reach because the main problem is misogyny?"

The irony is not lost on me that I came across this provocative bit of examination in a fashion and beauty magazine that I bought to cheer myself up on a grey winter afternoon.

Perhaps it's easier to age for women who have never been pretty to begin with; we have had to develop other ways of being attractive, features that don't require Botox or a surgeon's knife to maintain. In fact, attempting to hang on to youthful charms is not just a waste of time and money--it's a source of incredible dissatisfaction. As every woman knows, those youthful charms were based upon being new, shiny, and relatively untouched; it's the irresistible attraction of a field of freshly fallen snow that holds no footprints.

Experience. Humor. Intelligence. Love. Talent. Generosity. Enjoyment. If I had a daughter, this is what I would teach her to carry into age. Clothes? Makeup? Of course--but for fun, for amusement, not because, as the essay in Marie Claire concluded, because those things will make us "the generation that simply will not be put out to pasture." Power doesn't come from an unwrinkled face--just ask Georgia O'Keefe.


Dr. Will said...

The obsession with appearance is such a Thai preoccupation. I've never seen so many skin whitening and thinning clinics in the malls with packed waiting rooms. Here, of course, dark skin is considering low class, while skinny models are held up as paragons of beauty. Older women go the Chinese matriarch route which is, to my eyes, rather artificial and hideous. Why can't we just accept our appearances?

janet brown said...

Men do. Women are trained not to--big business in fostering insecurities!