4/01/2015

I've Looked at Life from Both Sides Now pt 1


                                                                                                                      Weird smile but otherwise looking like Natalie Wood 

This two part blog posting is about societal-defined norms of attractiveness, and both our culture's and my own reaction to the presence or absence of this one aspect of my personhood......at various stages of my life. 

In spite of having fairly average looking parents, the roll of the genetic dice blessed me and I was a pretty cute little child. I did nothing to deserve this, and was too young and unaware of it at the time for it to have any bearing or influence over my life. It simply was. I don't remember any special treatment as a child, but then, like most children, I was pretty oblivious. (I do remember a neighborhood sexual predator sequestering and attempting to assault me, but was saved in the nick of time before anything actually happened. My family moved away, to a different neighborhood, shortly after that incident....But nearly every gf I have, pretty or not, remembers a similar incident, I am not sure if "attractiveness" has anything to do with it; opportunity does, more likely.) There were some girls my age whose mothers, still fixated on their own Great Depression era childhoods, attempted to dress and style their daughters like Shirley Temple, even in the 1960's. I thank God almost daily that I did not have a mother who was "into" those "little miss" beauty pageants. I do remember my mom saying repeatedly to me, "pretty is as pretty does", which she never said to my sister, so mom must have been worried that I'd turn out to be an evil she-vixen. (Mom also thought Scarlet O'Hara "deserved what she got", which tells you a lot about my mom.) My sis was also a pretty baby, fair where I was dark, and mom never said it to her. WUWT?


Somewhere along the path of childhood, my own attractiveness started to get pretty dicey. I had horribly buck teeth during my elementary school days, and one of them broke off in a childhood spree of  rigorous tomboyish playing. My parents went cheap when buying a crown for the broken tooth (in spite of also purchasing two RVs during this same period of time) and selected a silver, rather than a white crown. I had dark thick curly hair, never cut, that I was never taught how to groom or control. Looking back on it, I wonder if this "uglification" weren't deliberate. For most of my elementary school years, few of my classmates remembered my name at all, and knew me only as "the girl with the silver tooth."


From looking at these old photos, you would never know that my mom dressed my sis and I the majority of the time like characters from "Little House on the Prairie," which was totally uncool, growing up in the 60's and 70's, as I did. (The rare photos of us that exist from this period are from camping trips. I look so much better in these pix than I actually did, day to day.) My peers in fourth grade wore jumpers in wild psychedelic colors and purple velvet "hot-pants" ( aka short-shorts) with white plastic go-go boots, to school. Girls my age had long ironed hair, parted in the middle, and big round glasses, an imitation of the hippie style so popular then. Our fashion models were Laurie Partridge on "The Partridge Family" or Jan and Marsha from "The Brady Bunch".

As year after year rolled by and I lurched towards adolescence, I grew increasingly aware that I was regarded by my peers as a dork. Clothes, hairstyle and other ephemera are always the yardstick of "coolness" when you are a kid in school. For American boys, it's always been about sneakers, the slogan on your t-shirt, the brand of jeans you wear. For girls, it's your clothes, your shoes, your hairstyle, your backpack (actually, we had book bags back then, and your selection of lunchbox design as well was hugely important), your school supplies (design, color, brand) that were a reflection of your position in school age society. It shouldn't be, but it is. You can sometimes overcome a deficit in one area if you have a surplus in another area.....But I had really nothing going for me in any area : I had the silver tooth, bushy hair, and weird clothes. I was supposed to have orthotics as well but my mother refused to get them, because she "didn't like the shoe styles that could hold them", but I also never had the "cool" shoes, either. I had weird shoes my mom bought on sale at Neiman-Marcus, which were invariably two sizes too large, so I could "grow into" them. (At the end of the growing highway, I was wearing a pair of black patent leather mary janes from 6th grade until I got a job at age 16 and bought myself a different pair of shoes. My poor sister was stuck with my hand-me-downs for the rest of her life. I never grew into those enormous shoes completely, which I felt gave me "duck feet".) The only classmates who were worse dressed than me, according to the standards of the day, were a friend from Germany who wore strange European clothing (She was sent home the first day of first grade for wearing pants! oh the shock! the horror! living in the South in 1966, this was scandalous!), and the boy in the green colored "tough skins" who always pooped in his pants during math class. (Giving the phrase "Mr. Green Jeans" an entirely new meaning.) The "Holly Hobby" look my mother insisted on was groovy on Texas Heritage Day, but an embarrassment the other 184 days of the school year. Little girls back then often wore shorts under their dresses so that when hanging from the monkey bars on the playground, their underpants wouldn't show. My mother insisted I wear a slip under all my dresses until I was nearly 40 years old. Yes, I ignored her. I never even owned a pair of jeans or sneakers until I was 16 years old and could buy my own. My mom didn't think it was "ladylike."

All of this meant I was never one of the popular kids; I was one of the nerds. I did learn to cultivate qualities with some value to my social group: I was funny, I read voraciously, and I could draw.  Put these all together, and that means I was the quiet, seemingly well-behaved secretly smart kid, who sat in the back of the class and drew caricatures of our teachers, often with humorous inscriptions. Our classes in elementary school were leveled - teachers tried to hide it, but we all knew that the "bluebird" group was mentally slow, and the "cardinal" group were the smart ones. I made friends with my fellow nerdy cardinals, passed the time drawing little books of cartoons,  and was ok with my position in society.

                                                                        Still stigmatized by the silver tooth and hideous haircut

I wasn't blessed with daughters, but I know that the hair and make-up choices of 'tweens and teens often become a contentious issue between mothers and daughters, even today. Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, my peers started wearing blue eye shadow and bleaching their hair a harsh bottle-blonde. It was a trashy look that lead to straw-like hair, but we all thought it was cool. My mom reacted to my body's sudden surge into adolescence not by buying me a bra (my dad had to ask her to do that) but by dragging me (kicking and screaming) once I turned 13 to some horrible old lady salon named "The Vogue", full of ancient crones sitting under bonnet hair dryers, baking their two foot high beehives into birds' nests lacquered with hairspray, all the consistency shape and texture of cotton candy. After a five minute consultation with the technician, it was decided (not by me) that my hair was to be cut in a "shag", sort of a mullet with layers.  For a person with naturally thick, curly hair, this was the worst of all possible hair styles - it was impossible, even for the stylist, to coax my hair into even the faintest facsimile of the style, once she had cut it. The curls just rolled up like poodle hair. Couldn't they have gone with the pixie cut, or a pageboy, both of which I'd had as a little child? Later, at home, after crying my eyes out, I cut off the back fringe of the mullet and was left with a lumpy mess.

This hideous haircut was some sort of pre-emptive strike on my mother's part, her feeble attempt to fend off any emergent sexuality or unique attractive identity on my part. It was also her last strike. I can't count on both hands the number of girlfriends I have discussed this scenario with over the years, whose mothers did the same thing to them. What were they so afraid of? Was there an article in the Ladies Home Journal of  May 1973, read by all the mothers, that warned of their daughters' impending sluttiness if they didn't chop off their hair? I can see it now: "Take Control of Your Teen : Cut Her Hair OFF! "I felt like Samson, once shorn. The thing is, I was a "good kid", modest, scholarly, had friends and was myself in the honors classes, never in trouble, did all my chores around the house, made straight A's. I didn't wear make-up, paint my nails, or engage in any of the "loose" behaviors my mother (stuck in her own childhood of the 1930's) feared. My ears weren't even pierced ( -yet. That was another fight....)

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