the art of becoming beautiful
There is a Santa Monica neighborhood that is amazing on Hallowe’en night.
It comes complete with a haunted mansion on the corner. The owner hands out little stuffed animals to kids before sending them through a shrieking flickering maze where hands reach for you in the dark.
(And I, the oh-so-jaded adult, emerged from the gate, and assumed I was free and clear, when one of the characters jumped out from behind me and yelled “Boo!”.
Basic, yet effective.)
It’s become such a popular trick-or-treating destination that police block off the streets for safety purposes. By the end of the night, the people pouring from door to door have numbered in the thousands.
(And parking becomes hella difficult.)
“Think how much this night must suck,” said my manny, “if you live here and you’re totally not into Halloween.”
My manny is a ripped, playful, twentysomething Crossfit addict who shaved off his purple mohawk when he interviewed for the job. I hired him on the condition that he grow it back.
“Isn’t that Ben Affleck?” he asked, as the kids bounced around and compared their growing bounty. I was watching a chainsaw-wielding maniac lumber down the middle of the street. (I myself was decked out as Cleopatra, although the top of my headpiece had snapped off against the roof of my car when I got in without remembering to remove it. My asp no longer possessed a head. This was sad, but I forged on regardless.)
For a moment I thought he meant someone had dressed up as Ben Affleck, but no. He was talking about the man himself. Ben and Jennifer, dressed in normal gear, were taking their kids from door to door like any other nuclear family. That was wealthy and famous and supernaturally attractive. That people – obeying the unspoken LA protocol of How To Deal With Famous Folk – were discreetly stealing glances at while giving them their space and pretending not to care.
Ben was tall and stylish and smoking hot. I made brazen, wanton eye contact — or at least imagined I did — as we passed each other. It pretty much made my night. Because I can be shallow like that.
Afterward, I went for a drive with one of my best friends. The next shift had started: the young kids packed off to bath and bed (“Mom, can I have another piece of candy? Can I? Then when can I? In the morning?”) while the young adults took over the sidewalks and checked out the freaky front-lawn landscapes.
I saw four young women walking together, all dressed the same.
Oversized white men’s buttondowns, shirttails flapping around bare thighs. I shivered with a kind of sympathetic cold (it was not a balmy night).
They caught the gaze of my friend — how could they not? — who then glanced at me sidelong and make a sheepish crack about being “a dirty old man”.
“I remember being that age, doing stuff like that,” I said. “Playing the identity game. Trying on sexual power – this idea of sexual power — to see how it fits.”
The girls did not look like they felt powerful at all; their walk was hurried and self-conscious. They clustered together, as if depending on the pack to protect them.
Certain men, bless their hopelessly heterosexual hearts, often don’t seem to get – at least in my experience – that when women dress in a sensual or provocative manner, it’s not necessarily for them. We put ourselves on display for all kinds of reasons. It’s a mash-up of fashion, self-expression, edgy/cool, fantasies of identity, self-invention, self-reinvention, an aesthetic you might be experimenting with (I went through a period of black tops and dresses that were austere except for plunging V-necks. I liked the contrast and drama. I wasn’t showing off my cleavage – always less than impressive – but my collarbone.) You dress to make yourself feel good, or confident, or powerful. Sometimes you dress for other women (“I love your boots,” a woman said to me in an elevator, back in the day when I would subject myself to stiletto heels, “those are Gucci, right?” “Yes,” I trilled, in a moment of instant bonding, while her man and my man stared blankly at each other.) You dress for fun. (And sexy can be great fun.)
You dress to be seen a certain way.
You dress to be seen.
I don’t believe those four girls wore that costume with the intention of turning on a middle-aged man, not even one as handsome as my friend (I can imagine them wrinkling their noses and saying, “Oh, gross.”) They wanted to be daring, they wanted to rebel — they wanted to be visible — and this is the way that girls learn to do it. When I was their age, we had options: we could be prep, or punk, or post-punk, or grunge, or goth, or riot grrl, or sporty, or indifferent. But the culture has swept up those identities and channeled them all in the same narrow direction: being hot.
If those teenage girls are stepping into visibility, there are women fighting not to fade out of it. When I first moved to LA, and Beverly Hills became – for a while – one of my stomping grounds, I would see them sitting in a dermatologist’s office or shopping at Barney’s or crossing the street to Whole Foods. They’d have young clothes (often, at least back then, the kind that had JUICY stamped along some body part), young hair, young women walking beside them who were presumably their daughters. They had tight faces, plump lips, thin bodies. But they didn’t look young; they looked odd. They looked brittle and overly manicured. And if teenage girls don’t want to be leered at by men the same age as their fathers, I doubt these women want to be regarded by women like me, thinking: Note to self, don’t ever, ever become that.
I have moved in and out and back into visibility myself. I went through postpartum periods where I was neither ‘hot’ nor adorably (and then freakishly) pregnant. It was like I’d stepped off some bright stage into a dimly lit hallway where strangers were no longer friendly. They wouldn’t smile at me or banter with me or make small, helpful gestures for seemingly no reason. When a stylist came to our house to deal with my then-husband’s wardrobe malfunctions, he breezed past without acknowledging me in any way. (Later, he apologized profusely and explained, “I thought you were the nanny.”)
One morning I woke up and went for a haircut. I was fit again, and started paying more attention to what I was wearing.
The world got warmer and brighter and friendlier.
It was a subtle shift, and yet on some level it wasn’t subtle at all.
Throughout history, women have been dismissed as frivolous and vain. This isn’t about being either. From childhood on, both males and females learn to do whatever we need to do to get the attention we need to survive. We fashion ourselves accordingly. And then, should that attention ever go away, it’s only natural to do the same things we’ve always done, rely on what we’ve always relied on, in order to make it come back.
The problem, I think, is that girls aren’t always taught the difference between attention and recognition.
It’s different for men. We stared at Ben Affleck that night, yes, but it had more to do with his achievement as an actor and director – the thrill of saying, Hey, is that Ben Affleck? – than the fact that he was working some drop-dead gorgeous menswear and looked, as I may have already mentioned, smoking hot.
I remember an interview wherein he discussed his own experience with invisibility: as a broke, unemployed actor. Still tall, still handsome, but he felt “like a leper” for all the attention that he didn’t get.
Attention isn’t really earned. It’s invoked, it’s manipulated, it can be heady and make you feel powerful but it isn’t something you accomplish; you get it or you don’t. You learn to see yourself from the outside-in: through the eyes of whomever you are relying on to provide it; through the culture that rewards or punishes you for being a certain way.
So when a culture values women primarily for youth and sexuality, women learn to see themselves accordingly. The problem is that when you see yourself outside-in, you’re always looking to external sources for validation. Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you don’t. Since you never know for certain, you’re insecure, on your toes, trying to please.
Recognition happens – at least for some – when you do something exceptionally well, when you do what others can’t, when you solve a problem or create something from nothing or perform a difficult skill or educate or enlighten or improve the lives of others or even just make them laugh (repeatedly).
Recognition happens when you see yourself from the inside-out: as someone who can make an impact on the world, instead of navigating the impact the world has on you.
I’ve noticed that women who pursue recognition rather than attention have a different relationship with aging. They’re not dropping tens of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery. When they have to choose between looking older – or looking odd – they’ll go with older. When age and experience mean that you are becoming more masterful at whatever it is that you do, chances are that you’re not becoming invisible. If anything, your retirement from the beauty race allows you to be seen in new ways. The intrinsic satisfaction that you get from your work – the sense of self-esteem – probably means that you stopped relying on your looks (if you ever did) a long time ago.
“It’s one of the best things that can happen to you,” M. explained to me. M. is highly accomplished, highly intelligent, and, at 68, has a charming and sensual presence that fascinates me. “It might not feel that way at the time. But when you no longer have to deal with being seen as T + A, you start interfacing with the world on this whole other level. You realize just how much – “ she waved her hands around “—static that the other stuff created around you.”
She added, “When I walk into a room, I just assume that people notice. I know that people are paying attention. Because I am quite the package.”
I like that.
I am quite the package.
This is what I wish for those four shivering girls in their white buttondown shirts: that they enjoy their years of youthful beauty and take them for all they are worth. May they learn that being looked at is not the same as being looked up to; and there’s a difference between someone listening to you because they want to have sex with you later, and someone listening to you because they think you have something to say. May they realize that you can come to the table on the arm of someone else, or earn your place through your own lifelong pursuit of excellence (and it’s never too late to start pursuing). The latter position puts ground beneath you. The former, not so much.
As they lose in skin elasticity, may they gain in skill and wisdom and style.
There’s a French term – jolie-laide – which I love. It means beautiful-ugly, and refers to a woman who is not conventionally beautiful but becomes beautiful through the mesmerizing way she presents herself.
I am quite the package.
That’s what I wish for those girls: that they embark on the glorious, lifelong journey of beauty from the inside-out.