The End of the Beauty Trap: Opting for Eccentricity

I hate to contemplate the number of hours I have devoted over the years to trying to beautify myself. Preening is a part of the lives of numerous animals, but the human species, especially females of the human species, have taken the practice to extremes. I wore dungarees from childhood through my twenties, never wore makeup until well into my thirties, and to this day I have never had a manicure or owned a pair of real high heels, so I sometimes pretend that I have not succumbed to the cultural pressure that encourages women to pay unhealthy attention to appearance. But there’s no denying the truth that, even when wearing exclusively jeans and T-shirts, I have cared a lot about how I look.

All my life I’ve adored clothes. I remember my excitement as a young girl when a Willy Loman-style traveling salesman would visit us with suitcases of children’s clothing. We would gather in the living room, my two sisters, my mother, and I; and he would remove one outfit at a time, his meaty hands suddenly delicate as he laid the clothing across the sofa back. I remember in particular a matching pale blue shorts-and-top ensemble — a playsuit? — edged with frills around the pant legs and collar. It was nothing at all like the dungarees and T-shirts I favored, but sitting there in the living room I saw those clothes as magical, garments with the power to transform me into a different girl. My mother bought some of those girlie outfits, but once we owned them they lost their allure — they seemed babyish and I left them languishing at the back of my drawers.

In high school I had such a reputation for being fashion-backward that one of my friends, a skilled seamstress, made me a dress. It was a pink Dotted-Swiss A-line dress with bell sleeves. It fit beautifully, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. As a young feminist, I eschewed pink, thinking it infantilized women. That dress, too, hung at the back of my closet, worn only once.

Throughout college my hair was long and ragged. I prized that hair, loved feeling it graze my back and arms, loved the way it spun out as a flag in the wind. Brown, with hints of auburn, it was wild woman hair that could be easily teased witchy at Halloween. And I was aware, though I wouldn’t have acknowledged this even to myself, that it attracted male attention.

My perspective shifted when I moved to New York City and entered the world of film. I was still dressing in T-shirts and jeans, but I knew it was time to do something about my hair. Someone recommended a salon on the Upper East Side. As soon as I entered, I knew I didn’t belong there. It was filled with ladies in immaculate clothing carrying designer bags. Once in the chair, I told the hairdresser I wanted to change my style. “Honey,” she said, “You don’t have a style.” She was right, of course, but she soon rectified that. I left the salon with a feathered, shoulder-length cut that made me feel like Farrah Fawcett, and I received more catcalls on my walk home than I’d ever gotten before. A feminist, yes, but I was not immune to the flattery of catcalls. I knew I looked good.

That was the beginning of what I’ll call The Improvement Period, in which I realized there were steps I could take to make me look more, dare I say, conventionally alluring. I consulted with a few friends about makeup. I experimented with a variety of haircuts and with something called Magi-gloss to make my hair shiny. I began shaving my legs. And, being in one of the fashion capitals of the world, I realized I didn’t always have to restrict myself to jeans and T-shirts. I began dressing up more often in dresses and skirts, and exploring what colors and cuts flattered me. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t go whole-hog into beautifying myself with facials and manicures and daily makeup, but I was no longer eschewing the girlie, culturally-approved activity of trying to improve my appearance. I kept myself fit and wore daily sunscreen, largely in service of my appearance; I occasionally visited the Bloomingdale’s cosmetic counter, sampling the products like a stranger in a foreign land; I evaluated my reflection in storefront windows as I passed. I had joined the ranks of American womanhood.

During the daze of my son’s young childhood thoughts about my appearance were relegated to the back burner. My son and I passed those years covered with sand, mud, finger paint, ice cream, and I never felt the least bit apologetic. When he started school, I returned to graduate school, and suddenly it dawned on me that I had entered a new phase. Wrinkles and gray hairs had begun to make their unwelcome appearance. When had this happened? Did this mean I was no longer young? It was time to fight back against these incursions if I wanted to maintain my looks. Time for hair color and night creams. Time to toss out the cellulite-exposing short skirts. Time to accept that entropy had set in, and I was past my physical peak. I had entered what I will call The Maintenance Period. I stepped up my intake of vitamins, tried to eat well and make sure not to slack off on exercise or sleep. I was willing to do whatever might stave off decrepitude. Most of it was a hope and a prayer.

It eventually seemed I had reached some kind of appearance plateau. I was by then living in the Pacific Northwest, a place less attentive to physical appearance than New York. My clothing choices were more rugged — Athleta, Title 9, REI — but still selected to flatter. There were no streets to walk with rows of storefront windows reflecting back my image, which made for less self-consciousness, but that didn’t mean I stopped caring about how I looked. In fact, it was here that I began to have my generous eyebrows waxed into a more pleasing shape, a vanity that would have made me laugh in the past. More than ever, I began to enjoy accessorizing with the earrings and scarves I’d collected over the years.

Then the pandemic hit. You know what happened. For over a year, like many Americans, I wore mostly sweats and a robe. I showered less frequently, washed my hair only once a week. It felt like camping, and I reveled in the lack of inhibition I felt, along with the extra time served up. No time wasted choosing outfits, fixing my hair, assessing myself in the mirror, maybe changing my outfit a second or third time. An unexpected gift.

The pandemic coincided almost exactly with my voyage to an ALS diagnosis. Locked up, out of view of the public, I was becoming a different person, not only someone who wasn’t attending much to her physical appearance, but also a person with a changing body. My voice was becoming growly, largely incomprehensible to people beyond my husband and close friends. The weight I was losing made my skin sag like an exhausted balloon. One side of my face had begun to droop, and my mouth often sucked and gyrated as if I was missing dentures. Since these developments occurred slowly, I have adjusted to them. I’m not embarrassed. There is even a bit of humor in the situation. I am now the drooling woman who people might gawk at, the person I myself might once have gawked at, the person most of us can never imagine becoming.

These changes have made it clear that striving for Self-improvement, or even Maintenance, are doomed goals. As the disease progresses it will rob me of more muscular strength, possibly making it impossible to smile, or comb my hair. It isn’t clear exactly what will happen (it’s different for everyone), but someday I may not be able to attend to my physical appearance at all.

So I am developing a new approach to self-presentation. I’m beginning to refashion myself as an Eccentric, the woman who wears crazy hats, and cat glasses, and garishly-colored mismatched clothes. I hope my Eccentricity will elicit humor and thereby draw attention away from my physical oddities. I’ve been making baby steps in this direction. I recently purchased a striped T-shirt the color of goldenrod, a rich color I’ve always loved, but have avoided wearing for the way it pales me. What the hell, I thought, if I love that color I should wear it. I paired it with orange shorts and felt a surge of rebellious elation, as if I was finally giving the finger to all those beauty constraints and conventions I’d followed over the years. I donned a brimmed hat and took a walk, reveling in my Eccentricity, following in a time-honored tradition of aging ladies.

I am not trying to tell you that I’ve bucked every concern about how I look — I’m still coloring my hair and getting the occasional pedicure — but from now on I’m going to style myself my own way, embracing my difference, my oddity. It will take time to move into public spaces as a full-blown Eccentric, but the challenge is in front of me and, like others before me, I’m ready to engage.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.