Women Who Were Not Born Beautiful
by Carla Chlouber
There are women who were not born beautiful but who have, through their own willed efforts, convinced everyone that they are indeed great beauties. When such women are deprived of the aura created by the force of their will, they may appear quite plain (perhaps this explains those beauties who are not photogenic). But in her presence, the power of her own overwhelming need for us to believe convinces us again of her loveliness.
I have read of identical twin girls, separated at birth, who developed in strikingly different ways. One became a scholar, highly regarded by her students and colleagues, but not considered particularly attractive. She was slightly overweight, dressed conservatively, and wore little makeup.
In contrast, her twin became one of the highest paid call girls in Las Vegas. She was so beautiful that people would stare at her in stores or at restaurants, and she was frequently asked if she was an actress or showgirl.
The most interesting fact about this case is that neither twin had her face or figure altered by accident or surgery, and as adults they had essentially the same features. The difference was entirely in how they perceived themselves. One saw herself as unattractive, while the other believed that she was so desirable that men would pay great sums of money for the pleasures of her company.
I cite this case because it is similar to that of my mother and myself. My mother is considered quite beautiful, while, although I resemble her in many ways, I have always been thought plain.
As a child, I first became aware of the fact that my mother was in some way not an ordinary woman when other children began telling me how pretty she was. Then, I took these comments as a tribute; and I was, I believe, quite proud of my mother.
I remember watching as she put on her makeup before going out in the evening, the light gleaming on the shoulders of her satin robe and on the bottles of astringent, moisturizer and cologne lined up on her dresser. She would work swiftly with her brushes, lotions, and powders, an artist creating her masterpiece over again each time. There are scents—of a particular face powder, a certain perfume—that will send me immediately back to that bedroom and that dresser. I would sit on the edge of her bed and watch, sometimes asking about where she was going. But usually I would remain silent, since the names and places she would mention meant nothing to me.
Once she wore an emerald green silk dress, cut very low in the back. She wore eye shadow of almost the same shade, making her eyes more green than blue, and I was dazzled by the effect. I burst out, “I have the most beautiful mommy in the world!”
“Thank you, darling.” She smiled at me. “And I have the most beautiful daughter!”
I thought she was going to hug me, but then she didn’t, and I knew it was because she didn’t want to smudge her makeup or disturb her hair. She had spent two hours having it done that afternoon.
I also knew that I wasn’t the most beautiful daughter in the world. I was awkward and chubby with plain, straight brown hair.
When I was eleven, my parents were divorced. I didn’t know at the time what led up to the divorce—I had never heard them argue. The following year my mother told me that she felt it was her last chance to make something of herself. She was over thirty, and living with my father, she said, was “like being buried alive.” He didn’t want her to work or to go back to school. She felt she was a possession that he kept simply to display to his friends and business associates, like something to be put back in its box when not in use.
I have learned, though, that the least reliable source of information about a person’s motives and feelings may well be that person. Although my mother never said so, I suspect that another reason for the divorce was a man she had met while she was campaigning for John F. Kennedy for president. The man was a graduate student in political science and was younger than my mother. The one time I saw him, I thought he looked like Pat Boone. Once, I overheard my mother talking to my grandmother about him, saying, “He’s opened my eyes to another world.”
I stayed with my father the summer of the divorce. My mother was going back to school to finish her degree in sociology, and she felt that she needed to concentrate on her studies. When I moved in with her that fall, I was struck by the change in her appearance. She had cut her hair and was wearing it in a short pageboy. She wore skirts and sweaters and looked more like the college girls who used to babysit with me than the elegant mother I had known.
She was still beautiful, though, as I was often told by the men who would come to take her out. One, a rather courtly gentleman with a Southern accent, would always say to me when I answered the door, “Ah, Miss Jennifer, is your beautiful mother ready yet?”
The Pat Boone look-alike had joined the Peace Corps. Occasionally my mother would receive a letter from him, and I am sure that she must have written to him. She did not seem to miss him, though, perhaps because by now she was becoming more and more involved with her classes in anthropology—and with one of her professors, who was separated, but not divorced, from his wife.
I remember this period as being a rather happy time for me. In the evenings I would often sit at the kitchen table doing my homework while my mother studied. She would put on a pot of coffee early in the evening and drink black coffee and smoke as she studied or wrote, using the same Royal portable she has since passed on to me.
Sometimes in the morning I would find two empty wine glasses on the kitchen counter, indicating that my mother had had a visitor after I had gone to bed. I believe that she would never have allowed a man to spend the night, though, and the possibility of such a thing happening never even occurred to me. I don’t now with certainty who had stopped by, but I think it was probably the professor.
I felt closer to my mother during that time than I did at any other. On Saturdays I would go to the library with her, taking my Nancy Drew mystery to read while she worked on some paper or read articles or books on reserve. I loved the quietness of the library and the smell of the books. People whispered and shuffled, and there was a kind of seriousness there that I found very comforting. The library seemed to say that there were things in this world that endured, things worth knowing and remembering.
One evening the professor came to dinner. He sat next to me on the sofa and talked to me while my mother was in the kitchen.
“I have a daughter your age, Jennifer,” he said. “Do you know her?”
“I don’t think so, I answered. “I don’t know many kids at school.”
“Just wait. Someday you’ll be as beautiful as your mother, and everyone will know you.”
“I don’t want to be beautiful,” I said. “I want to be a writer.”
At this, the professor laughed. I could see my mother standing in the doorway, smiling faintly.
The professor patted my shoulder and said, “One does not necessarily preclude the other, you know.”
After dinner, they drank more wine and listened to folk songs on the high fi. My mother’s face was flushed, and she laughed frequently. She was wearing blue jeans and a coral-colored sweater, and she looked—to me—very, very young and very pretty.
The next morning I passed by my mother’s bedroom to see her sitting in front of her mirror, staring at the image she saw there. She had not yet put on her makeup or combed her hair, which was unusual for that late in the morning.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She turned to me. “I’m looking at the lines around my eyes. I just realized that I’m getting wrinkles on my forehead and lines around my eyes.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” I said, quite truthfully, since I could not see the lines and wrinkles she was talking about.
“And I’m so tired,” she added. “I don’t get enough sleep, and I have to worry about money all the time… and I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.”
“I thought you were going to go to graduate school.”
“I don’t know, Jenny,” she said. “I’m awfully tired. I feel like I’m ninety years old, and I think I’m beginning to look it.”
I put my arms around her and said, “You’re the prettiest and youngest looking mother I’ve ever seen. No one else has a mother as pretty as you.”
She put her arms around me and squeezed me tight, holding me in a wordless embrace for several moments. I was desperate to reassure her, and I think she desperately wanted that reassurance, but I had said all that I could say. Perhaps it was enough. The next week I learned that the professor had moved back in with his wife and children.
As the spring semester drew to a close, my mother began seeing a new man. He was older, a successful businessman who was more like my father that any of the others. He brought flowers and candy, and once he brought me a stuffed animal, for which I though I was far too old. Oddly enough, I still have that silly pink rabbit. It is one of the few things I have kept all of these years.
When my mother graduated that spring, I was enormously proud of her. I remember her in her cap and gown, smiling radiantly. I think the smile, though, was probably one of relief as much as pride, because she had almost stopped studying several weeks before the end of the semester. She was spending most of her evenings with Howard, the new man. Then, just before papers were due and finals were coming up, she had worked frantically for several days and nights, trying to catch up.
One evening she and Howard had a loud argument because he wanted her to go to dinner with him, but she had to finish a paper that was due the next day. He didn’t call or come around for several days after that.
My mother had an opportunity to do field work among the Pueblo Indians that summer, and she was excited about the chance to pursue her interest in anthropology. So I went to stay with my grandmother while my mother was in New Mexico. My father had a new wife with children of her own, and I did not feel particularly welcome at their house.
My mother’s letters from New Mexico were full of anecdotes about her life among the Indians and her observations of the landscape, climate, and culture of the area. She wrote of the blueness of the sky, the cool crispness of the morning air, and the sense of peace she felt there. The pace of life, she wrote, was much slower, geared to the changing seasons, the crops, and the major human events of birth and death.
Howard went out to see her, and they visited Santa Fe and Taos. My mother sent me a small ojo de Dios—a God’s eye—to hang over my desk. She wrote that it would bring me good luck in my studies. Howard sent me a postcard of the Indians sitting around the square in Santa Fe.
When my mother returned that fall, she enrolled in graduate school, and I thought that our life would resume the pattern of the year before. At first, it seemed to. I still spent most of my time reading—not even Dobie Gillis could lure me to the television set. We still spent Saturdays at the library, and Howard took my mother out to dinner and to the movies, usually on the weekends. One of the rituals of their evenings out together was what I have come to think of as the “opening compliment,” rather like Johnny Carson’s opening monologue. After Howard’s first greeting, he would invariably praise my mother’s appearance—her hair, her dress, her eyes, her general loveliness.
But lack of money was becoming an almost constant worry. I needed braces, and my father had refused to pay for them. I wanted new penny loafers and a white angora sweater, but there was not enough money. For the first time, we had to worry about spending money for small items. Whether or not to buy a magazine was a major decision, and my mother became terribly upset when she had to buy a new battery for the car.
Then I could see the tiny lines around my mother’s eyes, even the beginnings of a crease between her eyebrows. She was smoking more and more, while she worried about the money she was spending for cigarettes. By November the headaches I had started having that fall had become worse and were more frequent, but I didn’t tell my mother, since I knew we couldn’t afford another doctor’s bill.
I think that almost anyone old enough to remember the event at all can remember what he or she was going at the moment of learning that President Kennedy had been shot. Without telling my mother, I had stayed home from school that day with a headache so severe that I felt nausea every time I moved, and I heard the first announcement of the shooting over the radio my mother had forgotten to turn off when she left for her classes that morning.
My mother came home at noon, crying. She had heard the news at school. We sat in silence before the television set the rest of the day. That evening Howard came over and sat with us. The only light in the house was from the TV, and all we had eaten was leftover spaghetti that my mother had reheated for supper. Life had never seemed bleaker for us than it did that day.
Two weeks later my mother told me that she and Howard were getting married after Christmas. She said this in a matter-of-fact way, in the same way that she had told me that we couldn’t have a cat because the landlord wouldn’t let us have pets. I asked her if she would still go to school, and she said that she wouldn’t the next semester. She would go back later.
Of course, she never did. She slipped very easily into the role of Howard’s wife, playing bridge in the mornings, shopping in the afternoon, entertaining or going out in the evenings. Howard’s first wife had died, and his children were grown. He seemed to adore his beautiful young wife and continually urged her to buy dresses, coats, shoes, whatever she needed.
The next summer they took a delayed honeymoon trip to Europe, and I again stayed with my grandmother. My reading tastes had progressed beyond Nancy Drew, and I was reading books like The Call of the Wild and The Black Stallion—anything about animals or the outdoors. I had not made friends with any of the other young people in the neighborhood, so I spent my days alone. My grandmother watched soap operas on television during the day and played bingo in the evenings.
One afternoon I came across a shoebox full of pictures in the closet in my room. They were mostly of my mother and her friends when she was in high school. I began looking through the box, finding snapshots of my mother with groups, by herself, and sometimes with a boy who must have been the high school steady I had heard about.
Fascinated by this glimpse of my mother’s early life, I began examining the photographs. My mother always seemed to be smiling, and it seemed she was usually wearing a white blouse and white bobby socks. Her friends were always smiling, too. There were several pictures of her in her cheerleader’s outfit, apparently in poses that were part of the routines that cheerleaders went through.
One of the pictures I came across, though, was different. It showed my mother standing with her bicycle. She had long braids and must have been about thirteen. She had round, pudgy cheeks, and she was chubby as I was then. She even looked knock-kneed. The bicycle had a large wire basket full of books on the front.
That evening at supper I asked my grandmother what my mother was like when she was my age. My grandmother though for a moment and then said, “You know, Jennifer, she was a lot like you. I hadn’t thought about it, but she even liked to read like you do, and she was a little bit on the plump side, too.”
“What happened?” I asked. “She wasn’t like that later.”
“Well,” my grandmother said, “I think she just decided that she was going to be slim, and one summer she lost a lot of weight. That fall, we had to buy all new clothes for her…and she’s just always stayed slim since then.”
“I didn’t know about that,” I said.
My grandmother sighed. “The boys started coming around and your grandpa really got aggravated with them. She was always talking on the phone, washing her hair, or going to some party or dance.”
I was impressed with the transformation that had taken place. My mother had left her cocoon of pre-adolescent fat and emerged a dazzling butterfly. Somehow, though, the girl with round cheeks and long braids interested me more than the smiling homecoming queen of later years. What books did she read? Who were her friends? What did she dream of doing, of becoming?
My mother returned from Europe that summer with dresses from Paris and a heightened interest in clothes. Shopping became, more that ever, her chief pastime. I benefitted from this some, of course, since she would at times take me with her, but I was never able to derive the same kind of pleasure from buying clothes that she did.
Throughout my years in junior high and high school, I felt that I was living my life on the edge of hers. Her schedule revolved around the hair stylist, her exercise class, shopping, luncheons, dinners, and parties. She was always immaculately groomed, meticulously dressed.
By the time I was in college, I was openly disdainful of what I saw as her materialism and overriding concern with appearance. I had developed twin passions for learning and social justice and saw my mother’s life as the antithesis of all my ideals. My tastes in reading were both eclectic and random. I read Dostoyevsky, then Durrell, then Huxley—whoever caught my attention at the moment.
Once when I was home from school between semesters, I tried to draw my mother into a discussion of the controversy between the supporters of Noam Chomsky and B.F. Skinner. I was excited by the clash of differing ideas, as well as intrigued by the subject, how we acquire language. I explained that Chomsky, the linguist, believed that patterns of language are inherent in the child and then more or less drawn out through exposure to the language, while Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, believed that language is learned. I asked her, “Which one do you think is right?”
She looked at me for a moment and then said, “Frankly, I have no idea.”
“No idea! How can you have no idea!” I was indignant, angered that she wouldn’t respond to a simple question of opinion. “Don’t you have anything in your head besides clothes and cosmetics and parties? Can’t you think of anything except your looks?”
My mother stared at me, and then her face reddened. In a low, intense voice I had rarely heard her use, she said, “Jennifer, I know that you think you know everything, but you don’t. You don’t know what the world is really like, and the truth is that looks are much more important than you like to think.”
I started to answer her, but she wouldn’t let me. “Your looks are what you’re judged by more than anything else. They’re not everything—I know that—but the inescapable fact is, if you’re a woman, that is first and foremost how people form their opinion of you, by how you look.”
“That’s not right,” I said. “Looks may influence people, but they’re not the most important thing. What about intelligence, character, integrity?”
My mother laughed. “Oh, Jenny. You have so much to learn. When was the last time you heard of a woman being admired for her integrity?”
“But what happens when you lose your looks? What have you got then?” This, I knew, was the dark side of the mirror, the terrifying fear of old age and the loss of beauty.
“Don’t think I haven’t thought of that,” my mother said. “And it scares me. I look at myself and I can see that I’m getting older. I have lines on my forehead, skin sagging under my chin, and nothing is as firm as it used to be. I hate it—but that doesn’t change the way the world is.”
I grabbed her hand. “It doesn’t have to be that way. You can have other values, other interests, so that when you’re older there will still be things that you’re valued for, not just your appearance.”
My mother sighed, “I wish you were right.” She smiled slightly. “I’m not as empty-headed as you think I am, Jenny. I do read newspapers—I sometimes even read books. And I do think of things other than clothes and cosmetics.”
“Oh, Mama,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry about what I said. You know I didn’t really mean it. And you don’t look older—you’re as beautiful as ever, more elegant looking, even.”
She was, in truth, more elegant looking. Her hair was a lighter shade than when she was younger, almost more gold than red, but with subtle highlights so that it looked soft and natural, although whether it was or not, I don’t know. She was slimmer than ever, and her sense of style was faultless. Everything she wore looked perfect for the occasion.
This particular kind of elegance, I realize now, is achieved only through a great deal of effort and a constant awareness of the desired end. For my mother, I believe that nothing had proved to be so seductive as her own image and the effect it had on others.
During the next few years she maintained the elegance she had achieve and seemed to age little. What she now lacked in freshness, she made up for with polish.
After college, I did not go home often. I was more comfortable staying in my apartment during holidays. I had my books, my records, and my cats, and usually I could count on one or two friends from the newspaper to come over for dinner or occasionally, to go out to a movie with me. Being around my mother made me feel that I was slovenly, even though I knew I really wasn’t. I would begin to feel that my hair needed washing, even though I had just washed it, or that my clothes didn’t fit right, or that my lipstick was smeared.
The only extended length of time I have spent with my mother since I was in college was the month after Howard’s death. He was always in the background, so it didn’t seem very different to me for him to be gone completely, and I don’t think my mother really missed him either. Her grief at the funeral was genuine, I’m sure, for I think she was fond of her husband and she did appreciate his generosity. But Howard himself was not central to her life.
During that month, I watched my mother reinvent herself. After a brief initial period of shock and confusion, she began planning her new life. At the age of fifty-two, she decided to enter the job market. She bought several very smart business suits with matching shoes and purses. She consulted her friends and was referred to other friends, until she was offered a position as a fundraiser with a charitable organization.
I visited her office recently, and she introduced me to her secretary and then to the director of the organization, who took me aside and said, “We feel very fortunate to have someone like your mother. She is a remarkably attractive woman, yet mature and poised enough to relate to everyone we deal with.”
My mother had made the transformation from pampered wife to widow to career woman in a very short time. In a sense, she is now doing what I had earlier thought she should be. Yet I feel more distant from her than ever. The mother that I want to know was contained more in the chubby girl with the long braids, the books, and the bicycle than the perfectly groomed woman who now appears on television promoting charity balls and benefits.
I watch her appearing on a local talk show and wonder why it is that she has lovely red-gold hair—always in place—beautiful blue-green eyes, and exquisite clothes, while I sit here, too often alone, in my baggy pants and old shirt, with my hair hanging shapelessly on my shoulders, and my face pale without makeup. I can see that other guests admiring her, responding to her, for even at her age she is still a beautiful woman. Is it truly in the eye of the beholder, or is it in the mind of the beheld? I sometimes wonder: if I wanted to, could I look like her? Should I want to? I consider the implications of that question, and I am confused. I just don’t know.