What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?
Particularly in my 20s, I was struggling with my own personal issues and trying to come to terms with my sexual identity. I always felt “out of step,” even as a child, with my contemporaries. I had an extraordinarily difficult childhood. I’m sure that influenced me a lot.
My mom left when I was very young. I felt like I didn’t belong. In early high school, I can remember seeing a lot of other girls who were my contemporaries become quite absorbed with their appearance and with boys. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I kind of thought they were faking. At first I thought they probably felt like I did and that they were going to a lot of trouble in making it up.
I was struggling so much in my 20s. I had so many emotional problems dealing with abandonment by my mother and the possibility that something was wrong with me sexually. The traditional feminine concepts of beauty seemed silly to me. They seemed both silly and also made me feel inadequate. On one hand, I could dismiss them as a bunch of phony crap and on the other hand, I thought there’s something wrong with me. I’m not feminine and beautiful like my counterparts. There was a huge emotional struggle for me. I didn’t buy into it and I felt like I should.
I became reunited with my mother in high school. It was always a love-hate relationship. My mother was very consumed with beauty. She went to modeling school and dated movie stars. My mom was very flamboyant, very into appearance, make-up and dress. She was married four or five times, and was consumed with superficial beauty and dress. In high school, I was reunited with her and went to live with her in Virginia. I went from podunk Idaho, where I had to ride a school bus for an hour to get to a non-accredited school, to Virginia, to a mother and a step-father I didn’t know and a huge urban lifestyle.
It was a hard time. I spent my whole life trying to get my flamboyant mother to love me. I felt like there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t like my mother, and she let me know it. I didn’t care about make-up. I would have off and on periods where I tried, for example, to wear make-up.
I decided that I wasn’t beautiful, and since I couldn’t relate, I fluctuated between (beauty/image seeming) superficial and ridiculous and it being a reminder that something was wrong with me.
What does beauty mean to you now?
Now, I’ve gone a bit the other way. But in my older days, I find myself having more respect and attraction to/for heterosexual older women. It seems to me that they do make more of an effort of keeping themselves active, fit and attractive, whereas lesbians in general just get old and fat and excuse it as being politically correct. It’s crazy! I think I’m becoming homophobic in my old age (laughs).
If I went to middle America, I’m sure that heterosexual women would be sitting on the couch, getting fat and not doing anything also. I think it’s being in an urban area. Most of my art friends are heterosexual and I find that they’re finding their way and keeping themselves up. Generally, I don’t find that true with older lesbians. I think younger lesbians now have had a different experience than the older ones. So my guess is that there isn’t going to be so much difference in 25 years between hetero- and homosexual women in urban areas.
The older women have been so influenced by feelings of shame. Shame takes away everything. A lot of older gay people have had a whole lifetime of trying to come to terms with shame. Feeling ashamed is more damaging to your whole soul and being than feeling inferior. Because Americans are so crazy about sex and religion, the very core of being of gay people was more damaged.
Some people say that the gay people were able to go to the cities and find their communities. But that’s like when they’re in their 20s, after all the damage is done. I remember as a young person going to bars, the first thing we did was to see how to get out if they were raided. Having been in a bar that was raided, we went out the bathroom window. It was illegal, and this was in California. You would be arrested. And I was a school teacher and could have lost my job. If anyone knew that I was a lesbian as a teacher, I would have been fired.
I think more than a lot of my friends, I struggle with aging. I am an ageist. I cannot deal with aging. Heterosexual women in urban areas seem to be fighting aging too, more than the lesbians I know. If I had time and money, I’d get every cosmetic intervention I could. But I don’t think of it as a feminine thing. I think of it as an anti-age thing.
I hate that business when people say, “Ah, but getting old’s better than the alternative.” I’m not so sure. I find aging so negative, so unacceptable to me, that I think dying is better. I can’t get into “aging gracefully.” I feel that when I can’t have the kind of life where I can be active, where I can schlep all over the country setting up booths for art shows, I don’t want to live.
I want to have the kind of life I want to have. When I can’t have it, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to sit home, watch television, take the dog out in the yard. I don’t want to do that. It’s not me.
What has influenced your change of mind over the years?
I have the concept of being feminine all mixed up with age. I see an older woman who keeps herself fit and dresses attractively as a symbol of not being old. Other people might see that as being more feminine. It’s becoming the same to me.
I think the idea of needing to age gracefully works for some people and just doesn’t for others. I think especially in California with accepting all people and therapy for everything, people can be over-the-top with political correctness. People go kind of nutsy about that…to accept your aging gracefully. And I think Screw it. I’m not going to do that. It’s like the kiss of death to me.
I’ve had mostly older friends. And now friends that I’ve traveled the world with have basically become almost invalids. It’s upsetting. Maybe it’s part of a judgment I have…that they could have avoided it, that they let themselves get fat and ill. One of my closest friends used to fly and had a sail boat that she took to Central America. Now, she can barely walk across the room. It’s been heartbreaking. She should have fought it better. I think she’s accepted some of those Midwestern values about aging.Not my mother. She was having every intervention imaginable when she got old. But my father and step-mother just sort of embraced getting old. I think it was a geographic thing in a way.
(all above artwork by Jana)