an Afro and a mini-skirt

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?

The way you dressed made you feel beautiful…mini-skirts was one of them. I liked to wear mini-skirts. Some people say that women dress for men, but I (have always) dress for myself. When I did dress up, I knew when I looked good…well, at least I thought I did. I knew I would get men’s attention. In my 20s, the Afro was in style. I don’t know that I thought it was beauty, but it was stylish. So I wore one sometimes. I didn’t use a whole lot of products – I still don’t – because to me that didn’t make you beautiful. I always liked some type of cologne. I would use products like Noxzema for acne.

What are your ideas of beauty now?

It’s more about what’s on the inside than on the outside now. Some people can really be very beautiful on the inside and not so much so on the outside. I think you have to get to know a person to know what beauty they hold. I can remember a time when I was probably in my 30s. There was a woman who worked at the shop where my husband and a bunch of other men worked. Everybody talked about how beautiful Betty was, and I thought Betty’s a dog. (laughs) Betty did not look good at all, but all the men thought she was just wonderful. I wondered what Betty had that the rest of us didn’t have. Talking to the guys, it wasn’t her outer beauty, it was her inner beauty. I’m surprised that the men saw that.

I don’t do any routines to be beautiful, maybe I should. I always use lotion or some type of moisturizer. I don’t necessarily do it for the sake of beauty. I don’t really have dry skin, but you know, you get ashy. That’s why I use it. I just make sure I take a bath, brush my teeth, comb my hair, try to look well. But I don’t care that I’m not the striking beauty.

Is there a change in your ideas of beauty?

There’s not really a change in how I think. I don’t think my thinking was the norm even when I was in my 20s, especially being black. From the images that black people see on TV and in ads and the things black people were told by their families or by white people, many of them started believing if you were black, you weren’t beautiful. On TV, you see blond hair and blue eyes. I think people think that that’s beautiful. Black people themselves thought that lighter complexions made you beautiful. That never bothered me. I never thought that, but the idea was prevalent. People say Oh, I don’t believe it, but then you look at TV and the ads and see it there. So people think, Oh, it must be true.

Lee, Ohio
Editor’s Note: I found the above Elle image in an interesting related blog post


beauty is all about personality…

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?

In my 20s I thought that beauty was all about being thin.  It didn’t matter how people got thin or kept themselves thin, but having a good body was definitely the most important component of beauty.  I also thought that beauty was about wearing cool clothes and being self confident.  

What does beauty mean to you now?

In my 30s beauty is about being healthy in mind, body and soul.  I find beauty in people who enjoy life, who laugh and who are genuinely happy on a regular basis.

If different, why have your ideas about beauty  changed over the years?

My perception of beauty probably was shaped most by what I thought men were attracted to.  Everyone knows that men are attracted to women in magazines, so in my 20s, that’s what I wanted to look like.  As I got older I realized that, more than anything, men are attracted to people they enjoy being around.  In my 30s, I realized that everyone is attracted to people they enjoy being around, men and woman.  It took me 30 years to realize that beauty is all about personality.

Martha, 32

Chicago area

curves in all the right places

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s and what does beauty mean to you now?

I probably wouldn’t have admitted it in my 20s, but I think I had pretty standard ideas of beauty…what the culture and what my mother told me was beautiful. She was influenced by the culture just like everyone, and I was too. For women that meant a good, well-proportioned slim figure, with curves in “all the right places”, preferably tall, clear skin, nice hair, male attention and stylish clothes and shoes. So basically perfect everything. Like I said, I wouldn’t have admitted that I was influenced by that stuff, but I know I was. It was an underlying standard and pressure all the time.

I did have one consistent quality of beauty. I had long, thick eye-lashes. That was one I could count on. The figure? I was small with kind of a boyish figure. When I did develop more curves, I liked it but I was also afraid that it would change any minute. My skin wasn’t consistently clear. I wasn’t tall, so that was something I couldn’t change. So the eye-lashes? That was something I had – long, thick eye-lashes. I did have to use mascara to accentuate them. I didn’t like going out of the house without mascara because of that. That was my one quality I could count on when all the others didn’t quite measure up or felt too “movable”.

By college, I found the thrift stores, and I had fun experimenting with clothes. It was more free.  It helped to be in a more diverse community too. I knew lots of women who didn’t fit those standards of beauty…women in theater and in art. I noticed qualities in them that were really appealing…personality, humor, other kinds of talents. I noticed that even those other qualities did get male attention. But I think I still secretly held those old standards of beauty too. They still worked on me a bit and lured me into thinking life would be easier and more “sure” with those qualities.

I’m 46 now. I’ve seen changes in my body, and even my thick eye-lashes aren’t the same as when I was in my 20s. I still wear some mascara but the mascara doesn’t quite go on my eye-lashes the way it used to. My world hasn’t come to an end because my eye-lashes aren’t quite as long and beautiful as they were. I see other women my age and older who don’t match the standards of beauty anymore. But they have a different kind of beauty, a beauty appropriate to their age. I find that really appealing. This has helped me too in relaxing some of those standards.

I think it helps that I don’t live close to my mom, who, even though she’s 80, still does hold a lot of those standards of beauty. When I see her, she mentions things about my hair or my clothes which still can feel like I’m 13. I think having some distance helps.

Why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?

I think my ideas have changed for two reasons: my own experience in a changing body and seeing that my world hasn’t fallen apart with the changes and also knowing a lot of older women who I consider beautiful and role models in the way they’re aging. They have a naturalness about themselves and their physical appearance. Their beauty seems to come from inside them instead of all the external things which used to matter so much.

They may have some external qualities which are beautiful or not. Yet they still have a beauty that comes from something deeper. They smile a lot and they laugh a lot. And they laugh in a real way. They care about things deeply, like other people, animals, and the world. That makes them interesting and beautiful.

Susan, 46

San Francisco, October 2010

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