(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
I don’t look much like my mother did at this age. Her hair, caught between blond and brunet, was gray at her temples and looked as if she had had it professionally frosted. Her eyes were the color of rain, a cold gray. My hair, thanks to monthly visits to my hairdresser, is still brunet, and my eyes are amber. Ma was tall, almost 5’7”, and I must stand straight and proud to nearly reach 5’3”. She was buxom, a D cup; I was barely A up until I got pregnant at age twenty-six. Yet I see her in my hands, the way my thumb joint is curling toward my palm and in the crepe of my forearms and décolletage. I see it in the bunions that frustrate me away from the heels I so adored wearing because they made me look leggy. I see it in the depressions around my eyes, so unlike hers in shape and color, but now resting more deeply into my face just as hers did at this age.
Ma and I, when we weren’t feuding, sat and watched old movies together when I was a child, with bone china cups of tea and buttered English muffins on paper plates. It was from the movies of the 1940s and 1950s that I developed my vision of beauty. It was Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; or Marilyn Monroe as Sugar in Some Like It Hot; or Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday; or Sophia Loren as Cinzia in Houseboat.
It wasn’t their skin color or ethnicity that made them each beautiful; it was the way they carried themselves, off-handed, sensual, and appreciative of the differences between men and women.
I am a feminist. I didn’t want to be like Ma, a stay-at-home wife who didn’t know how to drive or pay a bill. I wanted to pursue higher education. I expected to work after graduating college, to pay my own way. I expected a career. I expected equal pay for equal work. I thought I could have it all: spouse, children and career. I did, but I didn’t forget how different my inside felt compared to my outside.
I raised my twin daughters to trust what came naturally to them, and I also made sure they knew I thought they were beautiful. I didn’t want them to experience the inner turmoil I felt as a child and a young woman. I didn’t want them to wonder, because they are interracial, whether or not they fit a specific standard of beauty, a standard that holds Eurocentric features as superior.
One of my white work associates, back when Cara and Mackenzie were around eight, exclaimed, as she looked at photos, how lucky they were. She explained her statement by saying, “They have the beautiful dark skin but none of the ugly African-American features.”
I was incensed. “They look like me, but they look like Ronald, too,” I said in response.
Cara and I looked at old photos as I was writing this essay. There were many featuring all the ways I used to style their long, curly hair: half-backs, French braids, herring-bone braids, pigtails, buns, and multiple ponytails that began at the forehead and graduated every couple of inches, gathering more hair, until the last one placed at the nape.
“Oh, I loved your hair like that,” I said of one photo that showed them with their hair down, falling below their shoulder blades, brushed out and full. I remember the arguments I had with Ronald about the oil he recommended we use in their hair so it wouldn’t become brittle and break off. It was the same oil his mother and sisters used when they straightened their hair with the hot comb, a metal instrument they heated in the flame of a gas stove burner. The heavy weight oil made Cara and Mackenzie look like drowned cats. I resisted until Ronald’s ex sister-in-law suggested a brand of lightweight oil. She had an interracial child who was African-American and Puerto Rican.
“Mom, you don’t brush hair like ours,” Cara said, laughing. “I used to try to tell you that.”
“But it was so pretty,” I said, remembering how mine was fine, straight, and tangled at that age.
I don’t want them to experience the uncertainty I feel now as I watch my body change and push against me, this time from the outside in.