"My two cents" is this week's Sunday Scribblings topic. My piece about the power of beauty and aging gracefully was inspired by a news item that a Malaysian Muslim group has banned the use of botox. While I don't like the way botox tends to leave people looking like deer caught in the headlights, I don't think a religious body has the right to try to regulate what beauty treatments its citizens choose.
In 1997, I frowned as a photographer in Pacific Grove, California handed me my passport renewal photo. He smiled as I stared at the photo, searching for flaws. "It's beautiful, even if you don't think so. And ten years from now, you'll be glad for this photograph."
Nine years later, I'm happy to report that my face has barely changed since that photograph was taken. Wasn't it George Orwell who said "at 50, you have the face you deserve?" Now I am closer to 50 than 40 - and don't ask, that's just rude! - the years of religious moisturising combined with high cheekbones and a round baby face have done their job fairly well. Yes, there are a few laugh lines around the eyes. And a line or two appear on my forehead if I frown. Otherwise, no real complaints. (As for the body, that's a different story. You women out there know what I'm talking about).
I was briefly engaged to a Nashville rich boy, who was notoriously tight-fisted. When discussing projected finances he often referred to "pink balloon" purchases, or little luxuries. At dinner with friends he famously said, "I don't mind if you spend five dollars on a jar of moisturizer." I looked at him incredulously, as other women at the table averted their eyes in horror. "Five dollars? The moisturizers I use cost $50 or more." "Well I'm sure you could find something for much less," he replied, failing to note my obvious chagrin.
That little exchange pointed to a lifetime of having my choices questioned, the stress of which would certainly undermine benefits of all that moisturizer. So it was adios, amigo to the rich boy hoarding his pennies! (Needless to say, the important thing about moisturizer is not its price, but how well it works for your particular skin type).
Remembering that long-ago conversation, I am reminded of a scene in the first season of the American television show Desperate Housewives. The character Gabrielle uses her young lover's credit card to buy shoes. As his credit limit is quickly reached and he wonders how to pay the bill, he suggests she take the shoes back to the store. A shocked look appears on her face, as she dismisses his idea, "RETURN THE SHOES?? I can't talk to you when you're being hysterical."
It's all in the eyes
In my early '20s in New York, an art gallery owner invited me to dinner. Arriving at my apartment to pick me up, Lee noticed a black-and-white photo of me. Next to it was a portfolio containing head shots of my tall, willowy roommate, who was then house model for Saks Fifth Avenue, while trying unsuccessfully to make inroads into editorial work. Her photos had been shot by a professional photographer, using various hairdressers and makeup artists.
Lee picked up my photo, contrasting it with the professional ones. "You see this - it's an amateur's photograph, but it's better than any of these professional ones. Because it shows the light in your eyes, which reflects real beauty. All these photos of your roommate are technically good, but her face is flat and lifeless, like cardboard. There's nothing there: no expression; no sign of what's going on inside; no joy," he concluded. So that was my first big city lesson: that it didn't matter what clothes you were wearing or if you had a $200 haircut. What counted was brains, personality, charm, good manners and the art of conversation. Like our grandmothers were fond of repeating, "Beauty is as beauty does."
I was 19 when I first began to understand the real power of beauty. The power to enthrall a man; intoxicate him; to bring him under my spell. And I quickly learned I didn't have to be the most beautiful girl in the room to realise that power.
Once I was having dinner with a troubled friend "Darcy," (not her real name) a tall blonde blue-eyed beauty. We were approached by three men, one who was fixated on Darcy from the moment he saw her. But after spending a few minutes with her, he lost interest. Dancing with me later, he confided, "You know, Darcy's beautiful. But she's boring; she has nothing to say. All she cares about is material things."
Yes, Darcy was a spoiled girl, born into a wealthy Miami family. She had attended a Swiss boarding school, spent holidays at European ski resorts and was well-acquainted with fashion designer labels and expensive jewelry. When she was a teenager, her father abandoned his family, leaving Darcy, her mom and sister without the cushion of their large fortune. Darcy resented this sudden thrust into what she considered abject poverty - most of us would regard her changed circumstances as middle class - and at 20 moved to New York with the objective of marrying a millionaire.
Sadly, Darcy failed to hold anyone's attention for long. While presenting a pretty, well-groomed facade, she contributed little in the way of personality or wit. Last I heard, she'd married a con artist, who'd initially represented himself as an executive for an international steel conglomerate. They had a daughter and were living in New Jersey, quite unhappily, as the "steel magnate" tried, failed and abandoned various money-making schemes. As for Darcy, she never held a job for long; she considered it her due to be a rich man's wife, who should never worry about earning her own living. I wonder what will become of Darcy, as her physical beauty inevitably fades.
Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty. - Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
I am dismayed by Hollywood actresses' obsession with Botox. I recently saw an attractive actress nearing 70, who had been aging well. But she'd recently spent time with Botox needles, as her face was expressionless, frozen into a smooth, bland look. I couldn't concentrate on the movie - every time her face appeared onscreen, I felt sorry for her - for the pressure to look young; to compete with younger actresses; her desperation increasing as acting offers waned.
In February I wrote a piece about how European women are allowed to age with grace and dignity - none of this "must look 35" mania for them. They laugh at the American obsession with youth and appreciate the finer qualities that come with age - more wisdom, humour, compassion and understanding. These confident women don't feel the need to compete with younger beauties, as they have their own unique and valuable qualities.
Years ago the actor Burt Reynolds said no woman is really beautiful until she's over 30. At the time, my friend Pam and I were in our '20s and didn't agree with his opinion. Once I turned 30, I could see Reynolds had a point. Because at that age, women are beginning to come into their own power; knowing who they are and what they want and with the wisdom and skill to realise their dreams.
Perhaps that self-aware beauty occurs earlier these days - many young women in their '20s seem to be much more confident and together than we were. Still, Reynolds was right - beauty doesn't decrease with age. It changes, yes. But it doesn't disappear, as long as one is engaged and involved in the world; as long as one has someone to love; laughs often and spends time learning new things, while keeping an open mind and open heart. My hope is that as physical beauty fades, inner beauty blooms to compensate.