I’m thinking about the…

I'm thinking about the obligation to be pretty.

a) A few days ago, I ran into some older desi women (my parents' generation), friends of the family, who were clearly distressed that I don't color my grey hair. (This isn't the first time this has happened.) My hair was pulled up in a loose topknot, which really exposes a ton of grey at the temples -- really, your first impression is probably that I've gone completely grey (though it's actually more like 25%). They haven't seen it like that before, and I'm sure it was a bit shocking. But what I find interesting / disturbing is that they (and my aunts, and my mom) all talk about it as if I have something of an obligation to color the grey. They feel that obligation themselves, I'm pretty sure -- they all have jet-black dyed hair in their 50s and 60s. On the one hand, I kind of wonder who they think they're fooling. On the other hand, it's their hair -- if they want to color it, I don't care. I don't even notice. But when they get cranky with me, I get a little cranky back. Hey, it's not my fault that my refusal to perform what you see as an essential feminine task makes you feel...what? Defensive about your own time and effort and money put into hair coloring? Subconsciously worried that some harm will come to me if I'm not as pretty as I can possibly make myself be? It's not like they want me to be out there dating right now; you'd think they'd be happy that I'm not tarting myself up. But they're not. I'm not sure what motivation is actually at play here, but there's clearly some reason they care about my hair color.

b) I automatically, when I look at women's clothes, think about whether they'll be flattering to my figure. Whether they'll make me look thinner or heavier. I kind of hate that, but I can't seem to turn it off. I have had over twenty years of choosing my own clothes and dressing myself, and at this point I have well-learned the lesson that when you are small with a large-ish stomach, dresses that are fitted on top and A-line or empire waist may be most slenderizing. (What a horrible word -- but it's more honest than 'flattering'). Fitted tops and slacks may be even 'better.' I was noticing this particularly last night on Pinterest, when I saw some truly gorgeous Japanese garments that were essentially big rectangular boxes of fabric. The sort of thing that Lucy Liu's character sometimes wears on Sherlock, and that look so chic and lovely on her. I bought a top like that once, and never wore it, even though I loved it, because it 'made me look fat.' I would like to stop thinking about this when I buy or wear clothes, but I don't know how to turn it off. (I did pin the stunning Japanese garments I saw last night, even though I may never wear such things. My own minuscule act of rebellion.)

c) This summer, I mostly haven't had to see people much, and as a result, my standards have really dropped. I climb out of bed at 5-ish, put my hair up in a ponytail so it's not bugging me, grab some tea, work for an hour or two, wake and dress and feed the kids, pull off my nightgown, throw on some clothes (usually a light summer dress that is essentially identical to a nightgown in fit and function, but somehow doesn't look like one) and drop them off. Now that I've had reduction surgery, I don't have to wear a bra, and often don't bother. I am often unshowered at this point, though I usually shower at least once during the day; often, I prefer to wait until I've done some exercise or gardening, since that's going to make me even more grubby and I'll want a shower after that. Why am I telling you about my showering habits? Because I feel this weird guilt when I'm doing drop-off, that I'm so un-put-together, guilt that I'm making the people at preschool and camp look at me like this. That I should have showered and put on some minimal foundation and scrunched some gel into my wet hair and generally done my best to be pretty. Oh, pretty in a 'reasonable' way for a summer day, not going-to-a-wedding pretty. But still, there's a level of obligation that I'm not meeting.

Three examples; I could've listed a dozen more. The time a Frenchman came to my house for dinner and argued with me that I should've let my hair loose instead of wearing it in a ponytail, that I had an obligation to my guests to be as pretty as I could be for a nice dinner. The way I feel when my writer friends come over for writing dates, and I'm still unshowered, in t-shirt and shorts, home clothes, and I feel like I should've changed before they arrived. I mean, I'm not stinky -- I do feel comfortable saying that inflicting overmuch body odor on your friends and neighbors is something to be avoided. But I'm definitely not my most 'put together'.

And on the one hand, one thing I love about this summer of not teaching is that I can be not-pretty most of the time. That I don't have to see anyone for most of the day, and they don't have to see me, so I can wear my comfiest clothes even if they're not at all flattering / slenderizing. But at the same time, I often have a voice in my head, especially when I run out to the grocery store or to pick up the kids. It's that voice from What Not To Wear, that woman haranguing the poor soul who got dragooned into this by her 'friends,' -- saying don't wear sweats to the grocery store, put a little effort into it. Look nice, as nice as you can. And on the one hand, much of my life is about creating beauty in the world, and on the other hand, why do I have to try to perform that with my body and clothes, every hour of every day?

I think I should go read some Joanna Russ.


"You Don't Have to Be Pretty. You don't owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don't owe it to your mother, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked "female"."

- Diana Vreeland

3 thoughts on “I’m thinking about the…”

  1. I have a lot of grey hair and am in my early 40s. I got my first grey hair at the age of 19! Worse I live in Southern California and I know exactly one other women who is like me. Everyone else dyes their hair or is lucky enough for this not to be an issue. I just refuse to do it. It is a step too far for me. I will dress up, but I won’t paint my fingernails or dye my hair (both feel uncomfortable). I will wear makeup (though I don’t often) and have begun wearing more color so I look a bit livelier. it just think it is important to do what feels right to you. Then you will be happy.

    It is sometimes hard to have a weird look in an environment that values conventional ideas about youth and beauty so strongly (it is not like I’m in a college town) and I sometimes feel bad about myself but I decided I can’t spent my time worrying about this. i’d rather be reading!

    I feel strongly about this issue. this is a book I want to read: http://www.annekreamer.com/going-gray/book-photos

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I think it depends what industry you’re in too. In academia, I think the grey gives me a professional advantage. I think I get more attention from my students, and more default respect from colleagues, if I don’t look like a grad student. 🙂

  3. Bleh, I have gray hair and still get addressed as “dear”, “sweetie”, “young lady”, etc by sales clerks, police officers, and receptionists. I think my squeaky voice covers the gray hair better than Miss Clairol.

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