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.
San Francisco, October 2010