When I was in my 30s and early 40s, I was still moderately invested in reading those “how to look your best” articles in women’s magazines. One of these I’ve never forgotten, chiefly because I never made it past the first few paragraphs. The writer described an interview with a young woman who, having been to the gym, hopped out of the pool and was strolling back to the lockers when, as she described it, she noticed a young man “checking her out”. This circumstance occurred a few more times as she wended her way to the locker room, and she was mightily pleased with herself until the changing room mirrors provided her the truth: she’d forgotten to wear waterproof mascara, and the evidence was streaming in two great, black runnels from her raccoon eyes.
Those young men had been staring all right – but not in approbation.
I was dumbfounded, not at the young woman’s mascara mistake, but at the confidence that led her to believe she was proving interesting to several young men. In her place, at her age, being glanced at repeatedly by anyone, man or woman, would have sent me scurrying as fast as I could to that locker room to find out what was wrong.
And that, I realized, is the difference in consciousness between a pretty, confident young woman and one such as myself, who was always plain. Plain women – plain people – do not expect anyone to glance at them with immediate approval. Ever aware of our physical defects, we know that the first, assessing glance when we encounter someone new will almost always slide over us quickly and then look away, finding us wanting.
Although terribly painful to endure in one’s early youth, this unintentional disregard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not once one comes to terms with it. Confidence steeps into the soul in a number of other ways; true self-esteem is slowly built not on a sliding scale of personal appearance, but on a sense of individual competence and effort, self-knowledge and personal evolution. The bricks of pride are slowly mortared into place with a firm certainty that worth is based not on individual appearance, but one’s behavior; that kindness and courtesy and compassion are worth a thousand times more than a pretty face which will, after all, eventually fade.
And in that lies the next basic truth: Age is the great leveler. No matter how many face lifts and tummy tucks one has, no matter the beauty creams and Botox shots – we all age. Those of us who began the race plain have very little to lose, and so slip comfortably into old age. Sometimes middle and old age even provide us with a presence and dignity that we never had in youth. But I cannot even imagine the angst of a once-beautiful person who sees that beauty slipping away each time they glance into a mirror. Sometimes (although certainly not always) they have spent most of their youth concentrated upon that reflection in the glass, and haven’t even begun to take the time for building personal pride from the genuine components of self-worth. Doing so can be a difficult task when begun too late in life.
Having little beauty to lose can be a blessing.
Not that any of this means I’ve given up caring for my personal appearance – far from it. Loreal is my friend; monthly, I fight every strand of my whitening hair. I dab lotions on the lines around my eyes to lessen their appearance; I still put on (waterproof) mascara and lipstick and eyeliner and, occasionally, a few other cosmetics when I want to look my best. But I am always aware that the face and body reflecting back at me as I dress and make up are just a shell. I am enhancing the “me” that others will see at first glance only in the hope that they might take the time to know the person who lies beneath. I acknowledge the somewhat sad reality that everyone, myself included, makes an immediate judgment about a person based on that initial glance. (And if you do not believe this, take note of your own reaction the next time you see a homeless person on the street.)
If being plain has not been a blessing, it has also not been the curse that I thought it in my teenage years.
Yet I will always wonder what it might have felt like to be the woman who believed each young man she passed thought her lovely.