{80} The Value of a Woman

My mother was beautiful. Then she wasn’t.

I’ve been pretty invisible most of my life; I’m not pretty, wealthy, thin, or famous and so I’ve lived in that average mundane body that I was born into. I’ve looked better and I’ve looked worse, and while I loathe my face and figure as only grown women can, I’ve also accepted my place in society as one of the great unseen.

Now that I’m pushing 50, I’m hearing and seeing a lot of women around me bewailing their gray hair. See, it’s a thing, for women, to never go gray. Gray = OLD = unattractive = invisible. The irony is that they are becoming what I have always been, and they are horrified.

Understand: this is a traumatic thing for women who are used to being seen, used to being admired and chased and complimented. My mother was just such a woman. She lost all of her teeth to do it, suffering from bulimia in her teens in order to look like a cover model by twenty. Thin, gorgeous, whip smart and the daughter of a wealthy man, she was the epitome of what a young woman is supposed to be.

Poppa and Mother on their wedding day, 1966. She was wearing full dentures.

But it didn’t last — not the looks, or the money, or the luck. She gained weight when pregnant and that was it, the war was lost: her looks were gone, she was fat, and she had ceased to be anything but a wife and mother according to society. That destroyed her, impacting her self-perception even more than her poor health or mental illness did.

Watching her obsess about looks and hair and growing older and being overweight taught me one thing: it is far worse to lose something than to never have it at all. I may be bitter and resentful that I was never a “pretty girl” and never partook of the fortunes that come with being pretty, but I’m also not devastated when no one notices my entrance at a restaurant or bar. I never stopped traffic, so I don’t expect it to stop.

Every older woman I know who dies her hair to hide the gray says she does it “just because I look better, not because I’m afraid of getting old.” I can’t speak to how they really feel, but I would question the definition of “better” being used here. Better how? Better why? Is it because socially we conflate “better” with “youthful”?

I get that having white/gray hair or a salt-and-pepper mix is a change. Growing old is a change. It might take you from being lithe and alluring to, well, invisible. But that isn’t a function of aging, that is a reflection of our society.

Brown or red or blonde or black hair does not make wrinkles fade any more than gray hair makes wrinkles stand out. What happens is that we lose the gloss of youthfulness and begin to think of ourselves as lesser for it because for as long as recorded history exists, old women have been described as ugly.

It’s not that your graying hair “washes out your skin”, it’s that society views wrinkles and gray hair and “elder paunch” as detestable indicators of unattractiveness. Put gray hair on young, attractive women and it’s a fashion trend with zero commentary about how awful gray hair is for their complexions or how it ages them. Because that’s not a function of gray hair, we don’t age because our hair is gray. We look old because we are old.

Gray hair, wrinkles, a stooped back…none of these things intrinsically make us invisible; it is simply that we have collectively been taught to disavow the signs of aging and to fear growing old, to the point where we simply don’t even want to look at old people.

The idea that age is not ugly, that old women can be beautiful and interesting just as they are, is counter to the whole idea that youth = beauty = importance. It is understandably harder to accept by those who once were invested in the status quo of “youth as beauty.” I can’t say I have a solution to that, it’s an emotional and deeply personal matter of self-identity.

What I can do, though, is point out how wrong and corrupted such shallow aesthetic ideals are. No, not everyone is beautiful (I’m certainly not), but the value of a woman should not rest on her beauty, or the color of her hair, or the number of years she has lived.