EDITORIAL NOTE: My huge apologies to Virginia DeBolt who writes The TGB Elder Geek column twice a month. For the past two columns, I forgot to put her byline and bio at the top of her piece. I want to clear that Virginia writes that column, not me. Here is the bio that should have appeared yesterday and is now there:
Virginia DeBolt (bio) writes the bi-weekly Elder Geek column for Time Goes By in which she takes the mystery out of techie things all bloggers and internet users need to know to simplify computer use. She has written several books on technology and keeps two blogs herself, Web Teacher and First 50 Words.
The media buzz surrounding Susan Boyle, the frumpy, 47-year-old, Scottish singer who became a YouTube sensation, prompted yet another story, this one in The New York Times last week, about stereotypes and the human need to categorize one another based on appearance.
Rounding up sound bites from the usual experts in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, the reporter concluded, as the headline declaims, “Yes, Looks Do Matter.”
They sure do. I'm certain there are some enlightened souls who never give a fig about what they look like to others. For most of us, however, particularly women, we start caring at – oh, about kindergarten age. I must have been seven or eight when, one day, it struck me how pretty all the girls in my ballet class were. And that I wasn't like them.
Although I didn't need independent proof of that observation, it was reinforced at our recitals each year when someone else danced Cinderella and I danced the stepmother. Another girl was the Sugar Plum Fairy; I was the Nutcracker.
But it hit home hardest in my freshman year of high school. Sometimes it is little things that bring home larger truths.
I was shy and awkward in those days, had no idea how to talk to people and fellow students were not admiring when they labeled me “the brain,” shouting the epithet at me in the halls. “There goes the brain,” they said. Could I help it that I had the answers when teachers called on me? Learning came easily; socializing and friendship did not.
A brutal revelation occurred one afternoon when I was walking home alone several paces behind a gaggle of the most popular girls in school. They looked so pulled together, dressed in just the right way, their hair bouncy and perfect as they laughed and giggled together - oh, so comfortable and self-assured in their attractiveness. Something I knew nothing of.
Then I noticed the backs of their ankles. They were indented on both sides. Mine were not and I remembered a saying I had heard now and then that “the mark of a lady is a well-turned ankle.”
I still don't know where that adage comes from or what it means. But that day I came to know for certain, by way of a more familiar adage, that the story of the ugly duckling would not be my story, that no swan ever had fat ankles.
Fifty-five years later, I remember that afternoon precisely. When I got home, I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time and thought about my appearance intensely. I knew even then that pretty people are granted dispensation by others as one expert confirms in the Times story:
“Indeed, attractiveness is one thing that can make stereotypes self-fulfilling and reinforcing. Attractive people are 'credited with being socially skilled,' Professor Fiske said, and maybe they are, because 'if you’re beautiful or handsome, people laugh at your jokes and interact with you in such a way that it’s easy to be socially skilled.'”
The rest of us have to work at it, which in later years I did, overcoming my shyness and learning to make the best of my peasant face and body with artful use of makeup, hairstyles and clothes.
On that day so long ago, however, I didn't yet have those skills and I ended my watershed afternoon of self-assessment with a kind of shrug: oh, well, maybe someone will marry me because I'm smart (remember, in those days marriage was the primary goal for girls) even if I'm not pretty.
Here is another thing I knew – later, but still at a young age: no matter how much I learned about making myself as attractive as possible, when I got old, I would revert to my teenage looks – an older version of plain and ordinary. And it's true. Only it happened differently from what I had imagined.
I had thought there would come a time when the artifice wouldn't work anymore. Instead, I've become consciously, even aggressively what I am. Sometime in the past few years I ran out of energy to make the effort, so no makeup now. No hairstyle. It has grown nearly down to my waist and I pin it up on top of my head to keep it out of my face. I had gained a lot of weight and now I've lost a good deal of it – but that's for health reasons, not vanity this time.
On the half dozen times a year I think I need to boost my appearance – for a TV show or a special social occasion – I can still pull myself together, at least in the context of what my 68 years look like. And it's kind of fun, in a girly-girl way, when it's only occasionally. But I wish way back in high school I could have been as accepting of myself as I am now.
This is a webcam shot taken yesterday as I was writing today's post. Still not the beauty I wished to be as a kid, but I don't mind now. I am what I am and beyond neat, clean and appropriate, I don't pay much attention anymore.
It was Susan Boyle's dowdiness that caused the sensation. If she had the attractiveness of a Julia Roberts or Demi Moore, who are in range of Susan's age, I doubt her performance would have had the same kind of impact. No one expects plain people to be anything special and except in rare cases like Susan Boyle, hardly anyone allows them to be.
Good looks give people an advantage over more ordinary appearance and it causes so much angst – of which my younger self is proof. One of the advantages of growing old is that we can get over such things.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Carmi writes of a harrowing story from her husband's experience as a young soldier in World War II – Kakushka.