I grew up a few doors away from a girl who looked like Grace Kelly. When she was 20, she sat for a formal portrait and I can still see the strapless gown she wore for it: how the light played on those bare shoulders; how the dress billowed at her hips. That June she married and moved away. The next time I saw her she had on a hat and a high-necked blouse, and her whole torso was encased in the tight rubber hug of a corset. She looked 50. I was 12 at the time, and I have to say: it scared me to death.
Expectations for women may be subtler today, but for sure they’re still out there.
Take hair colo. Women are simply expected to color their hair at a certain point. Now I always had black hair. When some grey began appearing, I thought, Fine.
“But you’ll look …. old!” said the hairdressers, mournful as morticians. So then for a while I had hair the color of somebody’s liver; the color of cow-tongue even. And I hated it.
I mean you care about you appearance; you want to fit in – but not that much, you know? I think of what Secretary of State Albright said once in an interview. Sometimes she dresses up, sure. “But when I work, I really work: I rub my eyes and my makeup comes off and I stick pencils in my hair.” Bravo, Madeleine! I thought, reading that
“Stay attractive!” is the message the world sends women generally. Attractive and slim if at all possible. Buy great scarves if you can’t stay slim, but please: Go easy on our eyes.
I understand these impulses. I want to look nice too. I don’t want to be rendered invisible, which is what this youth-centered culture does to the ‘older’.
At my last college reunion, I met a woman who got a masters degree a few years ago and went to work teaching women in prison. Once, she told us, somebody unpleasantly asked one of the incarcerees what exactly they were doing in this course. ’’Right now we’re reading Maya Angelou,” said the inmate with quiet dignity.
My new friend beamed proudly as she told me this. Oh and did I mention? She herself is 77 and wears her hair in a crewcut tinted a deep burgundy.
Maybe it was she who helped fuel the rebellion I feel building lately inside me.
I’ve always hated slips. I’ve always hated pocketbooks. That hot day just past I was doing without both, wearing just a sundress and the cellphone I rely to keep in touch with my young people and my editors. I had it hooked tucked into my bra as I chatted with the proprietor of a shop I go to every day.
It buzzed, causing me to glance down at the little square bulge it made under the cloth. “Does this look like a pacemaker? “ I asked, suddenly wondering.
“Yup” said my friend the merchant.
I undid a quick button and hooked it on the hip-band of my undies.
“Now it looks like a colostomy bag,” he said dryly.
Pacemakers. Colostomy bags: the language of mortality but what are you gonna do? We’re all bound to age, sure enough. I guess all I’m saying is I’d like to do it my way.