On Beauty

Do women let themselves go as they get older?  Or are we held to a higher standard of beauty than men?  Even if George Clooney did have his eyes “done,” I still feel youth is a more crucial characteristic for females than males.  Our breasts can’t sag, our brows can’t furrow, our hair can’t gray.  It’s not fair.  But if we don’t give ourselves over to a plastic surgeon, is that “letting ourselves go”?  We have children, we gain weight, we age.  And it’s not as pretty as man-aging, I guess.   Whatever.

Last weekend someone brought this up (incidentally, it was a gay man who had a failed marriage with a woman some time ago), and it kind of bothered me.  This after I had an uncomfortable day of uncharacteristic, peer-pressure primping (pedicure, eyebrow wax, eyeliner — all things I don’t like terribly, but that I can be talked into at times).  During the pedicure I started to wonder about what kind of chemicals my skin could be absorbing, and why we (namely women) spend so much time and money on stuff like this.  Is it for ourselves? For men? Just because we live in this society, and that’s what American women do?  I swore off pedicures, and later that evening started to wonder if that was a sign of letting myself go…

I’m into beauty that results from health, not beauty for beauty’s sake, I guess.  I like a healthy skin glow due to proper hydration and nutrition much, much more than anything painted on.  I like smile wrinkles.  I know my lips will flatten eventually, but I won’t inject anything into them.  I like wearing shoes that don’t kill my feet, and I don’t think it’s wise (but in fact rather sad) to think that one’s feet will eventually get used to torture.  I like spending 15 minutes maximum getting ready for anything, and spending other time doing other things.

In January I went to the opening of this show, Parlor Project, and was able to see it again last week.  It was interesting timing, considering recent ruminations on ideas of beauty and the inevitable aging process, as well as the recent loss of my grandmother.  The artist, Sarah Gjertson, went to various neighborhood beauty parlors — the old kind where women hold weekly standing appointments to have their hair set and styled, and don’t wash it for the week in between visits.  My grandmother did this, and had the same woman, Stephanie, care for her hair from the late 1960s forward.  Aging will happen, but these women still put a fair amount of effort (and time and money) into beauty.  It’s not a lost cause, either.

Having seen some of Gjertson’s earlier work (see her website), I was surprised at the tone of this project.  She has been known to take society’s idea of “beauty” and subvert it in such a way that it becomes grotesque.  A couple of examples would be her work Slip, in which three 5-gallon buckets are filled with liquid makeup, or Loves Me, Loves Me Not, a container filled with fake, painted fingernails.  Parlor Project has some elements of the grotesque (such as the antique permanent machine, which looks Medusa-esque, or the weapon-like antique curling irons), but for the most part, the tone is very sweet and tender.  I came out with a very different feeling about beauty than I had before, and I didn’t expect Gjertson’s work to do that.  For some reason it’s different when little old ladies spend a few hours each week having their hair done, and I’m not sure why.

Is it different when older women do this?  Do I view it as trying to hang on to a few shreds of beauty that used to come so easily?  I don’t know.  In some ways I appreciate the routine, and the social aspect, and that they seem to do this for themselves, and not for other people (which is a feeling I’m projecting onto them, I know).  It seems, somehow, not entirely external.  It’s about friendship, too.  Personally, I have yet to make friends with a hair dresser because I never know what to talk about with them, and end up feeling kind of oafish and dorky and judged and low-maintenance (in the very worst sense).  But that doesn’t seem to be the case for the hair dressers and clients depicted in Gjertson’s project.  If you’re interested, you can listen to an interview between Gjertson and Ryan Warner from Colorado Matters here.

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