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.

Nov 20, 2013
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19 comments · Add Yours

This is, by far, the single best piece I have read on to topic of woman & beauty and should shared to world over. Thank you J. Your art is your words. I appreciate and learn from you. Thank you.
I am quite the package as well, by the way, I figured that out about 2 years ago.

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Made a few types: typed to fast in my excitement to comment :

I mean to say : and
This is, by far, the single best piece I have read on to topic of woman & beauty and should be shared the world over.

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fffffuuuck yeessss!!!

I love the “seeking recognition versus seeking attention”

Last weekend I was in NYC, I bought a dress for a party – simple, grey, long sleeves, mid calf length, slit in the side, form fitting. Wearing it out was a totally sensual experience. I chose to go completely commando (yup, DDs, no bra, risky)…and you nailed it. I did it for me. I was sending my body a message that I love her and I trust her and I wanted her to feel really good about being who she is.

You are amazing. More of this, please.

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I kinda wish I had a slut* phase in college. I had convinced myself that I was hideous, an only pretty girls were allowed to dress like that. So all through my teens and 20’s when I was the ‘hottest’ I’d ever be, I spent hiding myself in men’s large band tshirts and jnco jeans. Never really reveling in my physicality. Youth is wasted on the young?

*I say this term with love and irreverence. Please no one send me nasty emails because of it ;)

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internal vs external validation recognition vs attention this is some powerful shit. I am greying (and have been since i was 16) and some of my friends think i should be ashamed of myself in a i am letting the side down kind of way. but fuck it i am 48 and greying and when i own it instead of cringing about it people notice and say how brave i am and how it inspires them to set themselves free of the dye/fear cycle

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Underbelly of this, for those of us who can’t pull off Gucci boots, either because we have none or we’re male, is that the challenge is to raise our daughters to recognize that recognition does not necessarily come from being hot, which is a challenge indeed to impart to a 9 year old, for instance. Still, I think that this is a remarkably good piece, Justine. I wonder though, without being glib about it, if it’s different for men. The irony is that there was still a make-up (or makeover) going on for the male in your life at the time, a point you don’t really reflect on as ironic. Is it really different for men? The attire may be, but of the purpose I doubt… just wondering, not being critical.

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Absolutely LOVED this. Thank you for writing with such honesty and transparency. Postpartum me was not the me I’d expected. I have never been one to obsess over looks. I’ve always felt just fine in sweats or stilettos. After baby, my body came back quickly with little effort. I have breastfeeding and healthy eating to thank for that. But the way I saw myself in the mirror was so tired, so sparkless. I needed that boost of getting up, getting dressed, doing my hair and getting out of the damn house to get my mojo back. Looks aren’t everything, but taking care of yourself and respecting your physical as much as your mental and emotional well being is!

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@G I will say: Yes, it’s different. Men get judged on their looks, sure — although more their height than any other physical characteristic. Even when they’re evaluated physically, it’s more in terms of what they can do with their bodies — compare the earnings of a top male athlete and a top male model. Even Ben Affleck didn’t come into view until he was successful. The pressure is on men to achieve status and success, to dominate; I’m not saying that men don’t pay their own price in this culture, but this article is not about men. I’ll also stress that in the “makeover” my ex-husband underwent — his emphasis wasn’t on being or looking “hot”. He wanted clothes that fit, especially jeans (jeans shopping for him was tough) and he wanted to look appropriate for work, which at the time involved some new suits and cold-weather coats for his trips to the very different work culture of DC. (California engineering culture is jeans and t-shirts, which is how he dresses then and now.) He is a big man and his body type could make him difficult to shop for. Obviously he wanted to look good — in the press — but looking good was not his role. (It was mine.)

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@G Also, the most confident and accomplished women in this culture usually grow up self-identified with their fathers, who don’t treat them like girls — or princesses — but hold the same expectations for them as they would for a son.

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@Shana LaFore So true! I was feeling burned out and down last year and went to a yoga/hiking spa in San Diego (I am lucky enough to be able to do that). It involved eating right, a ton of exercise, and deep-tissue massages every day, and lots of sleep (because you were zonked). I was amazed at how much better I felt at the end — just loved and cared-for and stronger in my sense of self. I work out a lot, yoga, because I crave it. But I’m a lot better at the self-neglect than the self-care. Still working on that….

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I have a 13 year old daughter, and “recognition v. Attention” is exactly the distinction I hope she grows up understanding. What a fantastic piece.

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It is true. The older you get, the less “attention” you get for your outside appearance. The less of this attention you get, the more you focus on yourself and what kind of person you want to be. Aging is freeing in many ways. I used to be so scared of getting older. Now that I am, I am not the same person and actually welcome it.

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@Melissa

I was the same way. I hid from the world, because I thought I was ugly and unacceptable. The leering at my body did nothing for me, from the men and boys when I was out (especially from those old enough to be my father), but I hid my body because of that. I feel like I missed out on being young, and being able to enjoy dressing up, all because I didn’t want to attract the wrong attention (and possibly end up in a dangerous situation). I also wanted to be seen and loved, not seen on the surface, and used. I thought that I wasn’t pretty enough to be loved – it didn’t matter how great I was as a person, my prettier younger sister had the guys swooning over her. I worried that anyone I brought home would look at her, and want to be with her rather than me.

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I’m one of the lucky ones. When I was 22 an older woman I knew invited me to lunch. She was stunning, and wore amazing clothes that were entirely foreign to me at that time. What she said that day changed my life. She stared hard at me and grabbed my hands from across the table, holding them gently. She captured my attention and said:

“You are beautiful. You will always be beautiful. People will look at you sideways because you are beautiful. People will make assumptions based on how you look. People do. But you are also smart, so you will need to learn where these two things intersect. You have more to show the world than your physical beauty–though you should share that as well. I want you to promise me that you will not be afraid of getting older. Beauty can be seen and felt at any age. I am older, I am happy, and I am beautiful. Promise me that you will remember this talk, and that you will remember it often as you make your journey. You are beautiful.”

I remember. What an amazing gift.

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Excellent piece. As a woman of a “certain age” I know exactly what you mean. I too have found these years to be a magnificent time of life. I’ve come into my own and am the total package.
Love the way you think!

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One of my favorite posts to date. Will spread amongst my circles of women – young and old – and men.

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So this isn’t a criticism at all because I love this piece and everything you wrote.

But it’s interesting to me that you mentioned Ben Affleck and your friend noticed him first, not his also once upon a time and still producing/acting actress wife Jennifer Garner (You did mention her, just chose to highlight and noticed Ben more).

I wonder if in part that’s because this is something she has already figured out herself and this kind of beauty within a woman is also unassuming. There’s a confidence that comes with this type of wisdom and inner confidence that you can still then be drop dead gorgeous and fade into the background because you aren’t out there demanding everyone pay attention to you, because you don’t need it to know your worth.

Again, not a criticism just something a thought that popped into my head as I read this. :)

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I’ve thought about that. And the honest answer is, I just had a completely heterosexual fangirl reaction to Ben. He attracted my attention the way those girls in the white shirts attracted my friend’s. Also, Jennifer is a much more familiar sight to me — she used to work out at my gym — a striking, surprisingly small woman in amazing shape, running on the treadmill while chatting with her trainer. I remember being in the dressing room once, overhearing her on the phone as she figured out how to deliver her child to a birthday party while avoiding the photographers she knew would be waiting out front. Not your average problems.

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Love!

(That is all <3.)

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