What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?
I was told that I was good looking. My pictures will verify that. But I had serious acne, and I had very,very kinky curly hair. I never felt good about myself. In 1945, we were still very influenced by the movies and what was considered glamour – that was the word – glamour girls. I guess I tried to emulate that.
I resembled a couple of movie stars in that age, and I would get comments about that. One was Lynn Bari. That was the culture of the products being pushed for beauty, like if you use this soap…It’s still going on. I have studied advertising and propaganda. I wanted to be attractive. My parents wanted me to get a husband.
I put on make-up. I couldn’t do much with my hair, and I was extremely discontent because the girls that were popular and got to go to all the parties and seemed to have the best advantage were the blonds with straight hair. I wanted straight hair, and I wanted to be a blond…which at one time I did try. We were streaking it then. It was much cruder than today. It looked like hell. I got the pictures somewhere.
Most of my thing was clothing – high heels and clothes. I had gone to work. My parents did not feel that college was necessary for me, and I went to work. I had a small paycheck and I spent it on clothes.
I had to have clothes I could go to work in because there were strict dress codes. Feminine suits. There was one manufacturer called Lilli Ann and I had a studio portrait done with that suit on. My daughter’s got the picture. I had thick brown hair.
I have had plastic surgery on my ears – not until after marrying and having children – because my ears stood out from my head. So I always had to wear my hair to cover those ears or I began to wear stylish turbans.
And then the skin. It was always the skin. I began putting make-up on when I was about 14 years old to try to cover up the zits. It was awful. There wasn’t the help that we have today. And my parents weren’t understanding at all. They were good parents, but the zits were because I ate butter…(laughs) They didn’t know. They didn’t know all the internal turmoil of the sexual awakening, the hormones.
What does beauty mean to you now?
I don’t think of it very much at all because I have a great tragedy in my life. My husband at the age of 83 went to sleep with a tramp. She’s everything I’m not. She’s short and unattractive.
First of all, I have no more illusions about being attractive to any man. I am a completely feminine woman. I’ve had opportunities in my life to be lesbian and been invited, because I was in a business suit and attracted all kinds of women. So I just feel that I’m going to do the best I can. My health is frail and I do the best I can to keep myself personally clean. I bathe everyday. I wash my hair everyday. And I try to get a good haircut and put on my make-up.
I just keep trying. And it’s an effort that in some sense rewards me because a few people are kind enough to make comments. But I can no longer be the ravishing beauty that I was once told I was. It’s all gone.
If different, why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?
Well, there’s 60 years difference. I’ve changed because I’ve aged. I’ve stayed around a long, long time. I’ve been weathered and I’ve been emotionally distressed to the point where my face was contorted. I’ve got a picture from the year he started this, when we still got together for Thanksgiving, and my face is literally contorted. I still cry. I allow myself to do that as a health benefit. I have to take care of myself. My children are all now far away, and my husband has disrupted our family.
I’ve watched the aging process and learned a great deal. It’s important for me to take care of myself. No one else will. And I don’t believe in using all the drugs that are proposed for me.
Sonnie Willis, 85