Friday, May 10, 2013

Invited Post: Mother's Day

What, y'all don't put your mother to work on Mother's Day by asking her for 1,000 words on beauty, stat? Enjoy today's guest post from Deborah Whitefield, my mother.

"When my hair finally turns gray, my first inclination will be
to color it some color unknown to my 16-year-old self."
Or: How my mother will wind up with kelly green hair circa 2023.

Remember those quizzes in magazines which will reveal something about yourself when you tally your answers? Some were about your personality type, some about what type of boys will like you (or vice versa), and so on. I wonder if a quiz couldn’t be created for how we modify our looks. For instance, “What Does Your Head Tell the World?” Questions would ask readers about where they apply makeup (outlining eyes and lips? lips only? foundation?), what they apply to their hair (shampoo? coloring? braids?), extra additions (piercing, tattoo), and the like. The results would indicate how much readers were shouting to the world, “Look at Me!” For, after all, isn’t that basically what alterations to our faces are saying? “Look at Me—I’m your normal woman, who will blend in.” Or, “Hey, Look at Me—I’m not taking any crap from anyone and my chartreuse blush tells you that!” Or, “Yes, I AM a Metalhead!”

At age 16 I began noticing old women with gray hair. As I grew up familiar with both my grandmothers, I knew what naturally gray hair looked like—they were not dyeing their hair gray to maintain the same gray color throughout. Yet in 1966, old women were donning uniformly gray-white hair. And gloriously gray—a certain sheen to it which my grandmother’s hair never had. Salon hair, no doubt. The next year I began seeing that some of those women opted to add a blue rinse to their gray. Odd and ethereal, I thought, but it didn’t look outrageous. Then, one day at a mall, I saw a woman with a pink rinse over her gray hair and I laughed out loud. As I was with a friend, I suspect I made quite a to-do over it. In retrospect I can only hope I wasn’t so loud that the woman heard me. Yet, I “needed" her to know her color selection was inappropriate and that only teenagers had the “right” to express their individuality. I didn’t even want to grant that woman the right to take the “Look at Me” quiz. The End. 

Believe me, as enlightening as the ’60s became, we were sort of unenlightened simultaneously, not initially cushioning our societal critiques with kindness or affirmations. While it wasn’t only teens who were questioning authority, which included fashion and styling standards, we were in the vanguard—we thought. Hearing my mother say, “The kids are right, the war is wrong,” was one thing; changing one’s opinion isn’t necessarily easy, but doing so allowed for subtleties that were risk-free compared to looking like you questioned authority. It was another thing entirely to see a woman of “a certain age” sporting light pink hair. Next thing you knew, old women would be letting their hair grow long and straight! (Plus, the idea that mature women could drive anything countercultural seemed amiss to me—but not necessarily to counterculture icons. Some women began to don rimless eyeglasses around age 50, when their eyesight began to change. We called them “Granny glasses” then. You’d call them “John Lennon glasses” now.)

Between that year and now I’ve seen a proliferation of tattoos and pierced face parts, which have been taken in stride much better than that pink rinse on one old woman. Why? I suspect I came to see the yearning for expression of individuality in the piercings, tattoos, and even the simple choice of color for eyelids. Not a scream of “Look at Me!” but a way to state to others that this person was not your ordinary seeker of perfected beauty. 

To further the idea of quizzes, how about a quiz for those who look at other people and “rate” them, for lack of a better term? After answering questions, readers would learn how judgmental they are. Questions would include how one reacts when s/he sees a clerk with a nose stud, nose ring, runny nose. (Ok, not that last one.) How about a facial tattoo? Do you reject their purchasing advice? Think, “She’d be pretty if she didn’t…”, as I recently heard my 86-year-old mother-in-law say about another diner in the restaurant?

As this blog notes, beauty is as much about the Perceiver as the Perceived. When I see a 63-year-old woman today who has put on colored eye shadow and eyeliner under her eyes, I wonder what she is trying to prove or what is wrong with her life. This is much the way I looked at one of my grandmothers, who powdered her face several times a day. To my teenage eyes, it only increased the depth of her cheek wrinkles, making her look as though she was trying to capture something she’d clearly lost. Yes, I was that awful—but I was young. I took in her beauty rites as a teenager would, not as one of her peers might, and certainly not as she herself did. If a woman doesn’t apply makeup, I presume either allergies or a back-to-nature personality, since that’s part of the reason I never wore much of the stuff. And too much makeup? Hooker! Man wearing makeup? I waffle on this one—“It’s about time!” or “Why would you want to do that when you don’t ‘have’ to?” I saw my first pierced woman-on-the-street when I was in my mid-40s. My reaction was to want one. Were it not for my allergy to metal, I’d have a small, fine gold hoop on my left eyebrow. And I’d get a tongue stud, which I like seeing when someone laughs. 

There are two things I know on this Mother’s Day weekend. The first, is that when my hair finally turns gray, my first inclination will be to color it some color unknown to my 16-year-old self. Maybe a kelly green. And maybe even spikes—which, while of the ’80s, have long been a style of interest to me. I hope I have that kind of nerve.

The second thing I know is that on the day my daughter was born, I looked at her hands and told her about the things she could do with them. Speak sign language, play piano, applaud, write letters, build tables, climb trees, shake hands, give massages, bake, swim, dress herself, dig. One thing I am sure I did not tell her she could do was to apply makeup. Is there a quiz for this?

Mother and daughter, Manhattanhenge 2010.


  1. I'd take the "how judgmental are you" quiz. I'm pretty sure I'd disappoint myself, though. Just this last weekend I observed that a rather well-endowed woman in a low-cut tank top had pierced her breasts. Two metal studs sparkled in the sunlight on either side of her ample cleavage, drawing all eyes. My reaction? Not of the "hey, maybe she's a genius working a cure for cancer". No, my reaction was more of the "wow, that is a sign of some seriously low self-esteem." I automatically assumed she felt the only way she could get attention, or to be valued, was by calling attention to her must important attribute - her breasts.

    As I said, I disappoint myself sometimes.

  2. This was a very nice piece to read. And there were two things that hit home.

    Firstly, I was a teen much later than your mother was, but I remember similar judgements that I made about random persons on streets or in shops, as well as about my relatives. I was very polite, and didn't say them aloud, but in my universe thinking such things counts too. I guess that teens can be so self-absorbed that they become rude and arrogant without even fully realising it themselves. And although I consider myself a person that sees at least 3 positive features in every stranger in less than 10 seconds (it's kind of a game to me when I use public transportation), I still sometimes catch myself making rather harsh judgements based on no other reason than looks. Definately not proud of it.

    Secondly, I realized that usually I forget, no, rather am not able to recognize that my mother is a woman. Well, I know that she is a female, but I have difficulties to see her story of life as a story of a woman. I see women in my friends, my colleagues and strangers, but I have this weird blindness when it comes to my mother. The Mom persona dominates my perception, although I am a grown-up now and I should have been able to see past that. At least I feel that way. This guest post reminded me about that once again.

  3. As I get older I find it fascinating how my own aging in my eyes is a burden and I tend to view it as a problem to be solved. But as I look around at other women who are also aging (my peers, my mother, strangers), I can finally see a beauty there that I was unable to see from the vantage point of youth. I think it's really interesting how we age and perceive one another along the journey. As for judgment....I tend to tale it own reflection and less on others (or at least I think I do). My quiz would be, "what percentage of your looks would you change if you could?"

  4. It never once occurred to me that all the older women I've seen with pink (or blue) tinged gray hair did that on purpose. I grew up hanging around my aunts hair salon so I know that gray hair can be tricky to keep...well gray and so I assumed that all those pink haired little old ladies were just victims of a bad salon service. Thanks for enlightening me.

  5. I appreciate the comments on the piece. We probably never stop judging in some manner, even when we think we have. This is probably some part of being human, even when we don't "judge" on physical appearances.

    And Mary Elizabeth's comment reminds me that the truth is we never know if what we see is intentional. Maybe the pink hair woman i saw as a teen had a bad dye job, so little did i know about beauticians. And back then it would never, ever occur to me to admire the fact that she was out & about. How many people close themselves indoors, lest some yahoo like me judge them?!

    Thank you to Autumn for giving me this moment to share. Signe's comment about not seeing her mother in the role of mother reminded me that i kinda FORCED Autumn & her brother to see me that way. I was not going to be "just a mother", even though that is what i appeared to everyone else.

  6. "The first, is that when my hair finally turns gray, my first inclination will be to color it some color unknown to my 16-year-old self. Maybe a kelly green. And maybe even spikes—which, while of the ’80s, have long been a style of interest to me. I hope I have that kind of nerve."

    Huh? She must be like 60! Makes a BS of everything she says when she pretends not to be coloring her hair in the first place.

    1. Anonymous, at 37 years old I have more gray hair than my 62-year-old mother, who hasn't dyed her hair a day in her life. Some people just have the right genes for it! In the future, please don't come into my space and call any of my guest writers--especially my mother--liars. Thank you.

  7. Then you'd be one of the more than 60 percent of Americans have some gray hair by age 40.

    You must have skipped your mom's genes. Tough break.

    But "your space"? Is this for public consumption or not?

    I started to go gray before I was 16! It didn't work for me. I knew I didn't look good and it clashed with my complexion, making me a target for teasing and even bullying.

    Any idea how many times much women in denial have used their "natural" full-colored hair to make me feel somehow I'm supposed to be less attractive, even fertile when everyone knows they're lying?

    I refuse to color my hair and I refuse to be lectured when 62-year-old women write about how cool they are with graying when they're doing the same thing.

    Maybe she went white instead of gray - that happens to redheads - but then she would NEVER go gray so the lie stands.

    Maybe you should edit your guest writers -- even your mom -- instead of fighting your readers for entering "your space" and saying what the rest are thinking.

    1. Thank you for your contribution to the comments section!

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