I am sitting in a small room at the hairdresser’s. Rosanna has lightened most of my hair twice and has applied red dye to the roots. Frankly, I look like a tropical fish with an excited orange mohawk. You’d think this would be an obstacle on the path to beauty but you’d be mistaken. This is the exit ramp to Comedy Town, and my foot’s mashing the pedal.
This week, essays on Shakespeare’s Sister have delighted and depressed me. The appointment at the hair salon was made a month ago but I considered calling in sick, since the plan was to put in a full day in Rosanna’s chair and emerge from the chemical cocoon as my own light at the end of my mid-winter tunnel. I wasn’t sure this morning I had the gumption to put myself through a full day of anything, but I stood myself up straight and decided, to paraphrase the philosopher, if I am not for my new hair colors who will be?
My father’s mother was a hairdresser and a successful businesswoman. In my bedroom now stand the appointment desk and chair from Edith’s last salon, where Daria and I played dolls under the desk and read books or on many, many Saturdays. Permanent solution reeks, and yet it is one of the comforting smells of my childhood. To me, its meaning rather than desperation or oppression is carefree experimentation. Within certain limits, a person can recreate her- or himself, and why not? Edith told me all kinds of people came in with the latest photos of Liz or Sofia and said, “Make me look like this!” Edith never said, “I’ll just wave my magic wand…” but she thought it. One of the best things about growing up in the salon, under the desk, was watching the beauticians experiment with color, texture and length on themselves and each other. Edith, who was always the North Star for me even when I sailed off in other directions, did not disapprove of plastic surgery. She was cognizant of some of life’s harshest realities, and though she was both proper and funny, she was the toughest person I’ve ever known.
Beauty has meaning. Beauty is a light over one’s head, mostly unearned and it’s usually trouble. Beauty ought to come with instructions and disclaimers: beauty does not come two-for-one with happiness or beauty may be accompanied by the obsessive expectations of strangers. Beauty does not offer the free ride that may appear as an enviable blur to the stunned observer. My mother was a very beautiful girl and remains a wholly uncommon-looking blonde woman, resembling no one so much as the aforementioned Liz. It was a nightmare for me to grow into my own face and figure with Mom standing around, incidentally spectacular. In retrospect, I see it was no picnic for her, either.
Mom’s beauty made my teen life hellish for several reasons. Let’s make a list.
1. I have dark hair, hazel eyes and paler skin than my siblings by the same parents.
2. My body hair issues became a real problem when I was in gymnastics and Mom saw my maturation as reflecting her own aging. I had to shave my legs in secret. Picture that scenario: “What are you doing in the shower?” “Um…um…nothing…with soap…”
3. Mom and I walk down a street. Frat boys whistle. Not at me. I can’t tell if I should be pissed or if I should be pissed. So I guess I’m pissed.
4. Wherever we go, men turn to putty. Mom doesn’t notice.
5. Starting when I am 14, Mom mentions my weight constantly. We have nothing essentially, so she buys me a leotard I desperately want and tells me I can have it when I get below a weight I can’t meet, not even after I learn from a fellow ballet dancer how to make myself yak. Even after I stop eating, I never get to that weight. When she gives me the leotard later, it is because she’s given up.
6. I could go on, and on, and on.
Now I am at home, and my hair is three colors, and I love it. Five hours after I arrived, I left the salon in a snowstorm and picked up some delights at the grocery store. Food is not love or a reward; it is part of living a fulfilling life. I had a yen for a BLT. I made myself a BLT and I am going to enjoy it passionately and without excuses.
I could tell you a long, boohoo! story about how after my mother left off torturing me, accidentally and less so, society picked up the slack. In the seventies, muscular Italian girls looked like nobody on TV or in magazines. Oh, so sad! Poor me! Fuck that, the eighties meant everybody found a special, individual way to look awful in blue eyeshadow and spring-loaded shoulderpads. I was sorry when Brooke Shields tweezed her eyebrows but hey – they were her eyebrows, right? A girl should tweeze a little if she wants to, and she really wanted to.
Ugly and disenfranchised was going around. And around. Which brings us to the comments on Shakespeare’s Sister, which saddened me. Women are a mess! Fabulous, brilliant women are going down in flames; charming, enlightened menfolk seem powerless to influence the situation in any meaningful way: “Honey, you look meow meow scrumptious!” goes unheard or enjoyed.
Disclaimer: I am smart. I am stupid. I am no raving beauty but I have sometimes benefitted from being attractive. I am brave. I am afraid. I change with the wind. I have sometimes been unbelievably stupid about love and my lovers. I am rebuilding my life after paralyzing depression and stage fright. I cannot reach the ideal weight for my height on the insurance charts no matter what I do, and never will. I have no credentials but my lifelong struggle and a wild idea. A commenter on ShakeSis has pissed me off beyond what I can tolerate without response. Brace yourself. We’re not taking another ounce of that shit!
Women! If I could, I’d grab you by the shoulders and shake loose that lifetime of programming, failure, despair and self-destructive dieting, you’d need some Dramamine and a lengthy lie-down. Forget your doubts. Forget what you think about yourself for a minute. Rosanna said something this afternoon that made me think hard and long about you.
Rosanna: You have to train yourself to see what’s healthy for you.
Women! The ShakeSis commenter advocating shunning, punishment, behavior absolutes stated outright that we should discourage drinking, smoking, drug use, and behaviors leading to obesity. Fuck that. That kind of ill-mannered buttinsky behavior doesn’t go over big with Americans – ask those pesky bureaucrats who failed to foist off safety regulations on mining operations! Because I have a long public history of sampling at life’s buffet table, I won’t condemn others when they do it without hurting anyone else. I’d love for people to live healthy and exercise and enjoy prop comedy in public places but if you think I’m giving up martinis to stand around looking virtuous, forget it. And even though I quit smoking, I love the smell of cigarettes and won’t apologize for wanting my favorite dive bar to stay filthy and smoke-filled.
Being a Good Girl has gotten you nowhere. It’s time to be the Bad Girl you always hoped you could if Mom and Dad weren’t looking, your kids might not notice and the PTA wouldn’t ban you from bake sales. You’ve been good and you can’t win. Stop playing the beauty game in competition with other women. Your only competitor is that voice inside that says you’re not beautiful, you’re not good enough. Fuck that inner voice. Fuck that! Let’s go shopping for fishnets and fake fur. Let’s smash the mental projector and burn the film.
Remember the scene in John Waters’ Cry-Baby where the chubby Rikki Lake says, “Let’s give her a bad girl makeover…our bazooms are our weapons”? I love that scene. Let’s make it our model, shall we? Throw away your pastel jackets! Throw away your uncomfortable clothes and your Disney princess ambitions. You’re a tshirt and jeans girl? Wear ’em and walk away sassy. You’re a Betty Page vixen? Mrrrrrrrow! Your secret mojo wants fresh fruit and palm trees? Lutefisk and turtlenecks? Rooftop gardens and urban skylines?
What are you waiting for? Approval?
On ShakeSis, I said stop it, just stop it. Waiting for approval guarantees a lifetime steeped in misery, resentment and degradation. Stop waiting for the magazines to change; don’t read them! Stop waiting to see your type on TV. Stop waiting for that douchebag boyfriend to quit admiring Lara Flynn Boyle while you rub his back; dump him! Stop waiting politely for politicians to finally get it; vote them out! Register. Vote. Accept no substitutes for representatives who understand women’s political issues. Fat is political. Health insurance is political. Reproductive rights are political. Who has control of your supersexy self is political. There is no escaping it: you must stand up for yourself or you must accept that you are owned by someone besides yourself, and you must never, never accept that. Stop waiting for conditions to be right for you to fit in. Be the character you are and offer no apologies.
And while we’re here, what part are you playing in your own subjugation drama?
Tata: That’s a fantastic outfit you’re wearing.
Antonia: What’s wrong with it?!
Tata: It’s fantastic! You look great in it!
Antonia: What’s the matter with you?
When people offer you compliments, stop oppressing yourself long enough to say, “thank you.” Then consider what it means. You’ve succeeded at something. Register it, and if you like what it means, do it again. Then, you know what you have to do? Pass it on! When you see a woman doing something you like or admire, tell her! There are two kinds of divas: the ones who tear others down to lift themselves up and our beloved Auntie Mames, who make everyone within earshot more and better for their presence. Walk it, talk it, mean it.
You don’t have to be a size 2, a 4, a 6 or a 16. You have to walk with a straight spine and a purpose, even if at first you have to put it on. You take no crap. If someone belittles you, say, “That might really hurt…if I cared what you thought,” or “Gee, I’m sorry you’re having a Bad Self-Esteem Day. I’m not.” Think it through before it happens and spit out that snappy line like it just came to you. Bullies are never expecting you to be unhurt, and they’re frustrated when they fail. It’s good to thwart them with a smile and a bounce.
I can own a room, if I want it. It didn’t come naturally; I taught it to myself. I watched the behavior of the most confident people I knew and imitated them until it came naturally. If I can do it, you can too. Sometimes what you need and want is something life has not trained you to achieve. You have to teach it to yourself.
Stand up, you wicked, wonderful thing. Stand up, you spicy genius. Strut your fabulous stuff. Don’t wait another minute for society to catch up. You’ve got to train yourself that you’re just fine, and what you don’t like – change it. You want to lose some weight? Lose it because you want to, and for no other reason. You will find joy in change you orchestrate for yourself and your joy will be contagious.
I ate a second BLT. It was delicious and exactly what my mouth wanted, as Edith used to say. Tomorrow, I’m going to roast a duck. For myself. And why not? I’m not waiting. Next week, I turn 43. Like you, I am hot as lava.