The Body I Inhabit

The body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention.

An acquaintance was, as the slang saying goes, ragging on me for the fact that, at age 67, I still regularly color my hair the same red-gold shade that I’ve used for 19 years. I didn’t respond to her banter, merely shrugging and saying that when the effort of coloring became more trouble than the results were worth, I’d give it up.

The truth, though, is a lot more complex than I alluded to her. I’ve colored my hair off and on throughout most of my adult lifetime, and it has become almost a sacrosanct ritual of self-care. Disliking my dishwater-blond natural color, I bleached it to a lighter shade throughout my teenage years. In my early 20s, following a disastrous haircut, I ceased bleaching and dyed my locks back to my natural shade in order to keep it strong as it grew out. For the next several decades, the non-chemical lightening methods of chamomile and lemon sufficed to keep my hair brighter. But finally, at age 45, succumbing to vanity as I noticed the first of what would soon be a deluge of whitening strands, I returned to dyeing my hair once more. I was at the time newly divorced. Despondent and depressed during the final months of my failing marriage, I hadn’t really been taking great care with my personal appearance. Coloring my hair was a self-affirming action.

It still is. And while I suspect that someday, in the not-too-far future, I will at last make the decision to let my hair reassume its now-white natural shade, today is not that day. Not by a long shot. If nothing else, I appreciate the compliments I frequently receive from total strangers, remarking on the lovely color (to which, by the way, I answer in perfect honesty, “Oh, that’s L’Oréal.” The company should pay me a premium for the number of customers I’ve sent their way!)

Perhaps that’s why, reading any number of articles and personal essays during Covid-19, I found it bewildering that so many people blithely discussed their total disregard for personal grooming standards while in lockdown. I simply don’t get it. Hair color compliments aside (and though they are appreciated) I’m not doing this, or any other of my self-care routines, for anyone else; I’m doing them for myself. Pride in my appearance circumvents my readily-acknowledged innate plainness and basic ineptitude with makeup and fashion.

Since I always keep a couple of spare boxes of colorant on hand, I still treated my hair throughout lockdown; trimmed it, as well, keeping my bangs in check and the ends neat; washed and conditioned it regularly. I shaved my legs on my usual schedule. The few times I left the house for necessities—groceries, and the like—I eschewed only lip gloss, since my lips were covered by the mask, but brushed on mascara and a touch of shadow and liner and eyebrow pencil, and dabbed essential oil on my wrists. I continued my weekly self-facials and plucked my eyebrows, trimmed and shaped my fingernails and treated the cuticles, and gave myself pedicures. I may have lounged in my PJs until the late morning, but I got dressed, properly dressed, every day. I skipped none of my self-grooming rituals.

Then, recently, others of my aging acquaintances mentioned that self-care routines, even daily showering, often felt like a time-consuming nuisance; a lot of bother. The remarks made me shudder. “Smells like old ladies” was a frequently-voiced insult during my youth, and it established in me a determination that I would never, ever, be the smelly old woman shunned by those around her. Until I am either too weak or too feeble-minded to do so, daily bathing will certainly not be too much trouble; if I have anything to do with it, my granddaughter will never associate any smells with me except those of wisteria and lilac; rose or lavender.

Looking back now on the years I’ve spent caring for and about my appearance, I understand that, as a young woman, I latched onto grooming rituals in an effort to be something I was not: beautiful, attractive, desirable. But, over time, that desire has melded into a healthier attitude. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Each stroke of the hairbrush, each splash of scent, every scrape of the emery board across a broken nail, says to me that the body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention. I am a divine soul having a human experience, and the body in which I dwell, like any temple, needs an occasional lick of paint.

And so as I spend those few hours each month coloring my hair, I remind myself that I am, despite every appearance to the contrary, a Goddess.

Vanity of Vanities

§   I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn.  §

Because I am and have always been a plain woman, I am usually meticulous about my grooming. Having no beauty to present to a judgmental world, I at least strive to present a tidy appearance. My hair, dyed these days to disguise the whitening roots, is colored with monotonous regularity; the roots are touched up between dye jobs. Peach fuzz on my upper lip and chin is removed weekly from my face. It’s rare for me to leave the house without at least lip gloss and mascara, and never without brushing my long hair into some semblance of order. In fact, the only time during the past two years when I have disregarded all these self-imposed rules was the dreadful winter morning when a friend called, begging help. Another of our group had awakened to find her beloved pet dog dead. Help was needed, and needed as quickly as possible. I hopped out of the shower to answer this early-morning distress call; only a few minutes later, having paused just long enough to run a towel over my sopping wet hair and throw the first clothes I could grab onto my body, I was speeding over ice-glazed roads to her home.

But dreadful events like that are rare. I can usually find, or at least make the time to present an orderly appearance. It’s my standing joke that, if I’m so ill that I haven’t at least gotten out of bed to put on clothes and brush my hair, it’s too late to call a doctor; call an undertaker.

I suppose that’s why I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn. Inch-long visible roots on women and grubby feet in flip-flops with chipped polish on their toes; men sporting chins thick with stubble and ripped, stained shirts…  I find myself ashamed, not of them, but for them. Why, I wonder, do they think so little of themselves, to present themselves to the world in so careless a manner?

Pride is a funny thing, though. I’ve been accused a few times of being quite vain, although that is, I feel, the furthest possible thing from the truth. I know that I have always been unbeautiful; now I am aging, as well. I have absolutely no vanity.

But I do have pride. That is why, looks aside, I always strive to be both neat and orderly, well-groomed and tidy. And since I also endure an on-going struggle with feelings of insecurity, I find in myself the need to always put my best face forward to a censorious world.

Standards of just what comprises that best face, though, do change. I recall my paternal Grandmother bemoaning the fact that dressing for church no longer meant a fine hat, pumps, and white gloves. In Grandma’s worldview, standards had undeniably slipped; I thought the lack of fuss refreshing. She would be utterly horrified by today’s come-as-you-are churches, where I have even seen young people arrive in pajama pants. (“Well,” I’ve sighed, explaining this phenomenon to my Grandmother’s shade, sitting there beside me in that pew, shaking her head in disgust. “Well, Gramma, at least they showed up.” )

But now, looking at my own attitudes through the lens of time, I wonder if I have not become my Grandmother. Are the strictures, I put myself through, the grooming I require of myself, really necessary? I no longer attend a church, but I certainly wouldn’t be arriving for services in pajama pants and a tank top. Long after most women had given up pantyhose, I still wore them, knowing that my tan-less legs look a helluva lot better when encased in nylons (and my stockinged feet felt a lot more comfortable in my shoes, too). But my other personal rules about appearance: Are they truly necessary? Am I lying to myself when I claim that I am not vain, but merely proud and insecure?

Perhaps my answer lies in something that happened when my mother died. As Dad and I chose clothing for her body to be dressed in prior to cremation, he objected as I dug through her mounds shoes for heels that matched the dress I’d chosen.

“It’s not like she’s going to be walking anywhere!” he protested.

“I am not sending my mother into the afterlife without proper shoes on her feet!” I retorted.

Standards of appearance. Pride or vanity or insecurity, it does not matter. I adhere to them, hold myself to them, even in the face of that final appearance in this world.