Natural Beauty + Aging

I won’t pretend looks don’t matter to me. They definitely do. But I’m not as afraid to go my own way. Perhaps that’s due to growing up outside the “normal” range ­– the vegetarian daughter of an Adventist minister in rural Minnesota towns where no one my age had heard of either.

My 9yo daughter is into makeup. To the point where she changes her eye shadow multiple times per day, and it’s nearly rainbow in acid-bright colors. She’s adorning herself, her flawless skin, with radiant, unnecessary color. She watches videos about “contouring,” following along even though she can’t explain what it does. Every night she braids her hair so that it’s wavy – that’s the best, I’m told – in the morning, and not “just” the naturally straight, thick locks she’s blessed with.

I wrestle with her need for adornment in ways I’ve long since abandoned. My mother didn’t encourage exploration in this way, and so I recall hours of bathroom work to twirl new hairstyles into being while being screeched at about leaving for church.

As a teen in my rural churches, no one spoke of beauty or aging. Everyone shopped at the same three stores, and from those forged our own styles of dress. Our hair looked similar: curling down our backs, sprayed waves over our foreheads. The sister-wife look, in retrospect.

How do we acquire these standards for beauty that don’t quite fit? Or, worse, hold ourselves accountable to an ideal of beauty we can’t even touch? These are questions my teenaged self would never have asked. Instead, I felt all wrong on the outside.

My looks intersected with other people’s treatment of me, I learned that young. This dimpled smile paved many paths – so long as I played the part. My father told me I was beautiful, and so did all of the men at our church. It was awkward, falling short of the encouragement I know they intended. Their praise only touched my facade. The boys’ commentary strayed from sports to grades to farm jobs. But me, though I had all the same content to my life, I was pretty. I used what I had as a door-opener throughout my professional, adult life too.

In retrospect, it felt like nobody wanted to see the real me anyway and were grateful I’d covered her up. Aside from the topical beauty aesthetic, I have trouble with taking the mental space to deal with this fake life. It takes longer, more energy to work for the ever-changing outsider opinion.

Yes, it bothers me that you have an opinion about me, that I’m not enough on my own. My effort to give your opinion no more time in my mind doesn’t always work, but I try.

I am living a real, whole life. Why pretend I’m not changing as my body ages? On top of the shower-and-shave ritual that female-presenting bodies share, why must I complete additional tasks before entering the world?

The sheer volume of shape-shifting clothing, the types of makeup for every “issue,” the toxic hair removal supplies, and the hairstyles available make it obvious that we’re not ever doing enough. Add in exercise programs, spa treatments, injectables and dyes, and we’re clearly in a separate head space, if not another world entirely.

Time rolled by and I spent a little longer in the mirror, trimming, plucking, examining those new lines. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that – why shouldn’t I feel pretty? Only below I found a de-valued feeling instead, then a wide chasm of fear over not being seen as pretty anymore. Wow.

When I recognized that fear, I understood how little of this charade I was doing for myself. And that’s when I stopped. What a weird, disparate reality I was living!

I began by looking into the mirror with kindness. That was a switch from the punishing scrutiny I’d learned on my steady diet of women’s magazines concerned with beauty routines, clothing and products to “fix” me. I unsubscribed to those, and to the clothing catalogs. I learned what I liked to wear and that’s what I wear now, no matter where I’m going.

More years passed and I’m deep into middle age. My dark, auburn hair sparkles with gray. Even the white hairs in my eyebrows catch the light. I’m still so beautiful, even with the lines that show my eyesight isn’t what it used to be and how often my patience wears thin. Deepest are the smile lines. I mostly look happy, like I have lived well. But I feel pretty, so I don’t really need your opinion about the matter. – c

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