Native American Beauty

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

In my 20s, I was always kind of conflicted about what beauty was. I only had one other brother, and I think we were treated a little bit differently as a boy and a girl. My mother loved to dress me when I was little. I often remember her buying me dresses with too much bow, which I would cut off.

I left home when I went to college in Boulder, Colorado. I was just out of high school, probably 18 or 19, when I met a painter. He asked me to model for him. He used to paint Native Americans. He had access to wardrobe collections of Native costumes. He would often borrow buckskins and different types of jewelry. From him, there was a group of Denver artists who I would model for. I never really thought of myself as being a beauty, just somewhat different. When I started modeling for this Denver artist, I began to realize I had something, which is hard to describe. I modeled until I moved to San Francisco at 25.

a Southwest Indian School, circa 1900s

I am Chicana and Native American. My paternal grandmother was from southern Utah, and she was sent to Indian School, which was kind of like a convent Indian school, in Las Vegas, New Mexico as a young girl. She went to school there. Both of my parents are from southern Colorado.

I always liked my hair and my eyes. I don’t really like to wear a lot of make-up. I don’t color my hair either. There was a time earlier in San Francisco where I did find somebody who added some color to my hair. That was fun for awhile. Streaks of color…purple, blue. I wasn´t trying to cover up anything. I was trying to add some color to my hair. Other than that, I´ve never bleached my hair or wanted to have a different color. At one time when I was young, I wanted to have green eyes. I thought it would be interesting to have dark hair and hazel eyes.

What does beauty mean to you now?

I think of ethnic beauty. If people think about their own roots and where they come from and try to accentuate that…to be that instead of something that they’re not. That is something I consider to be beautiful.

I do that now by letting my hair grow out (color-wise). As far as clothing, that has taken a long time to feel comfortable. There was a time when I had good jobs and bought nice clothes. Now when I buy things, I usually go to 2nd hand stores. I’m more conscious of money. And I also know that I can find nice things because people have had them and often they´ve never been worn. I have a great time finding beautiful things.

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

I´ve matured. But I really don´t think that my ideas have changed that much. I would never want to go back to being younger or in time. I prefer to go forward.

Bernadette, 53

San Francisco



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

When I was growing up in the bayous of Louisiana and the Mississippi delta, I didn’t think much of those kinds of things at all. I remember being tortured with bobby pins. My aunt would wash our hair and roll our hair up in bobby pins, criss-crossing them. We had to sleep like that. In the morning, I would take them out and have these little spring curls. I was horrified. I did not want this in my life. I would immediately go out and run around the yard, and they would fall because my hair is naturally straight. That’s my first beauty memory or this concept that I was not okay the way I was, that I needed to be altered and improved somehow. As a young girl, I totally rejected that.

But I also remember standing on the side of the bathtub when my aunt put on lipstick, watching her. I can remember how it feels even now, moving my lips in the way you put on lipstick. I’ve never worn lipstick. But still it’s a feeling of being hypnotized by that action…a woman staring at herself in the mirror and coloring her lips. That’s a really strong memory from when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old.

Fast forward…I was subject to all the fashions going on. I remember having short shorts, bell-bottom and low-rider jeans in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I was really attracted to shoes, particularly flamboyant shoes with bows and odd heels. I would buy them but never wear them. When I went shopping, the odder they were, the more attracted I was. I would bring them home and they would be in my closet. I would never wear them. I would keep them for a few years and they would go away and I would add new ones. This probably went on for about 10 years…this odd thing where I was attracted but didn’t wear them.

I remember in my 20s getting my ears pierced by a girlfriend. It was on a Sunday afternoon. We had Sunday tea. We were all there in our big hats. This was in the South, in Jackson, Mississippi. The tea evolved to whiskey. I was the only one there who did not have pierced ears. As we became more and more inebriated, my friends decided I must have pierced ears. It felt like an initiation. I had no idea how you did this. No one in my family had had their ears pierced in front of me or told their piercing stories so that I understood what the process was – my mother’s ears were pierced but I never knew how she came to have pierced ears. My friends got ice out of the refrigerator and froze my earlobes. They took a hatpin from one of the ladies’ hats (which had held her Sunday hat) and put it in some fire and stuck it in my ears. After that, I had pierced ears.

This was during the time of the hippy movement. I had long hair and listened to Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I had 3 other roommates who didn’t look like me at all or listen to that music at all. I started to diverge from my first strict primitive Baptist culture to hippy, more liberal thinking. I started reading about Eastern religions and doing that kind of exploration. There was a really divergence at that point. It was less about keeping up with the norms, like the dress had to be down to here and that you wore your white gloves and went to church regularly. You had hats and Sunday attire which you always wore on Sunday.

At that point, I had started to go to dances in bars and nightclubs, which I had not done in that kind of way before. When I was growing up in Cajun, Louisiana, I always went to dances. But the whole family went to dances. They were these huge pavilions where everyone danced. There were babies and grandparents there. That was a different kind of thing. Your parents were always there with you.

I wore peasant blouses and long hair. By then I had earrings. I didn’t wear that much make-up. That wasn’t part of the hippy mentality. But I wore Patchouli perfume oil. That was sort of the group I fell in with. We spent a lot of time out in nature, camping. I wasn’t dressing up. Even for work, it was very plain. I was in Jackson, Mississippi, at the time. I moved to Portland, Oregon, when I was 27, and that was really interesting because I had this idea that I was moving to a really liberal environment. In a lot of ways it was.

I was trying to leave the narrowness of the Southern culture behind. It was a real conflict because I absolutely loved the South. I loved the land, the stories, the Gothic, rich, thick drama of it. But I didn’t like the narrow life that women had to live. In my opinion, we had very few choices of how to live our lives there. I have Native American – Choctaw – on both sides of my family. I wasn’t interested in living in a culture where other ethnic groups were treated so badly. I had a daughter by then, and I was really interested in her living in a more open society and culture.

So I moved to Portland. That was a real shock. In a lot of ways it was wonderful. I was not hanging out with people who were interested in how you looked. They didn’t wear make-up, they didn’t do much to their hair. They wore weather appropriate clothes because it was raining much of the time. Once again, we spent a lot of time outdoors. It was just not what you thought about, your physical appearance. I always wanted to be in good shape. I didn’t want to be out of shape. But it wasn’t anything I thought about very much. I was healthy and very physically active. It was never much of an issue.

What does beauty mean to you now?

I am probably much more aware of it on a day-to-day basis, being almost 64. I started thinking about it in my 40s. I’ve always used a moisturizer on my skin and tried to take care of my skin. In my 40s, I also started exercising my facial muscles. It was sort of a spontaneous thing and I thought well, of course you need to exercise your facial muscles, just like you exercise the rest of your body.

I have really good genes. My mother,when she passed away, had no wrinkles. I think a lot of it has to do with being Choctaw. She was just beautiful. Her bone structure was incredible…big, wide forehead, strong jaw, high cheekbones. I read a book once about a woman shaman who was being taught to exercise her face everyday.

I worked with a Medicine Woman one time who taught that we should not wear sun-shades as much as we do because there is a relation between the sun and our brains that doesn’t get activated as much as it should because we’re always wearing sunshades. Of course, she subscribed to the fact that you should not wear underwear and should always wear skirts so there’s no impediment between you and Mother Earth so that energy is always available to you through your Root Chakra.

I did start coloring my hair, early in my 20s. I’ve always colored my hair (since then). Now I’d probably let it go back to it’s natural state except that it’s in-between the world. It’s not gray and it’s not blond. I’ve gotta wait. At some point, my mother’s hair became beautiful white. She let it go and it was just gorgeous. That’s what I’m looking forward to, getting to that stage in my life. I still exercise my face everyday in the shower or in the car. I don’t want to scare people.

I’ll open up Yahoo and see “Five Beauty Tips.” I’ll immediately go and see if I’m doing those tips. They never talk about exercising your face. It’s always about creams or things you eat. What you put into or on your body, but never mention exercising your facial muscles. I don’t understand that.

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

When you’re young, you don’t have to think about age the way you do when you are aging. I’ve done experiments when I’m riding public transportation and I sit across from an elderly person who’s in their 70s or 80s or even older. I actually try to engage with them visually. I try to look them in the eye and acknowledge their existence because I feel like they’re so accustomed to not being seen. Nobody notices them. You can see the look of surprise on their face when they realize you’re actually looking at them and acknowledging them as human beings. In that glance, all this information gets transferred. There’s all sorts of information and energy that gets transferred that’s totally unspoken.

That was the first time I started thinking about what it means to be invisible, to be old. How old equals invisible to the rest of the culture, and how sad this is. So there’s a part of me that does things…I exercise my face and try to stay in shape physically. There’s all sorts of prejudices against obesity, aging, wrinkles. There is a conscious decision on my part that I do not want to become invisible. I do not want to deal with the prejudices. I don’t want to have door closed or not have opportunities because of those kinds of perceptions.

I’m much more aware of it now at almost 64 than I was at 34. At that time, I didn’t have to deal with it. I was not in that world. Now I am in that world. I just lost my job. So here I am at 64 out in the job market. Fifteen years ago when I was about 50, I remember looking for a job and going to several different headhunter employment agencies. I was 50 years old and considered myself in my prime in terms of my skills and abilities. I remember walking in there and reading the expression on the person who was interviewing me and knowing I would never get a job there. I was 50 years old.

That was my first real experience of this reality of what it means to age. I remember thinking You’re going to have to make opportunities for yourself in some other way because these doors are closed to you now and that’s because you’re this old. It just gets more complicated as you get older. I don’t think I’m interested so much in beauty as how that translates into aging and how the culture looks at aging. It doesn’t honor older people. It doesn’t look at them and say what an amazing resource this person is.

Annie, 63

San Francisco

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