Growing up as a lonely wolf child in the woods, I didn’t develop the usual self-awareness of my appearance. It didn’t help that I went from a beautiful child to something, em, not cute. Adults made loud statements over my head. “What happened?!” “She used to be so pretty!” Nobody bothered to point out when my gawky parts started to actually work together in a more acceptable way. If a guy gave me a compliment when I got older, I dismissed his comments as an obvious attempt to get me into bed, with the understanding that guys will do anybody if given the chance. Compliments didn’t put a dent in my inner laments about my unfortunate looks.
Even so, sometimes I got dressed up and people responded well enough to me. I figured it had something to do with being pleasant and/or interesting. Since I knew what it felt like to be dismissed or insulted for my looks, I wanted people to value my insides because looks might be taken away in a car crash, or will definitely be taken away with age.
When I was 29, I put on a black velvet dress. It was long-sleeved, off the shoulder, and tea length. I wore pretty high-heeled shoes despite the fact that my date wasn’t much taller than me when we were barefoot. I painted my lips very red, and caked on black eye liner. Ta da! My date looked at me with disapproval. He had shown up in khakis and a sweater for our double date to the theater. Since he had grown up in NYC, he thought he was more sophisticated than us rubes in Cleveland, and said I was overdressed. I didn’t care. I felt like wearing black velvet and I did. I felt like Madame X in John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait.
During intermission, I raced to the restrooms before the doddering old ladies could get there and reapplied my red, red lipstick. I descended the sweeping stairs of the Palace Theater, and paused on the steps with my hand resting gently on the balustrade. I was completely unselfaware at that moment. I was just searching the crowd for my date and friends, but I noticed a lot of men looking at me. I was confused. Toilet paper on shoe? Dress tucked into pantyhose? I looked for some sort of confirmation in the wall of upturned faces and noticed a local newswoman staring up at me with absolute hatred. Her face was pitted in a way I’d never noticed on tv, and hatred made her ugly. Why did she hate me? I continued to scan the crowd, found my date, and watched the men’s faces turn towards my date with some disbelief. Ha! So much for his khakis and sweater and disapproval!
He dropped me off after the theater, but didn’t come in. My brother was living with me at the time and joked that something was wrong when I couldn’t “get lucky looking like that!” There was a mirror over the mantle, and I examined myself in it. I had an absolute consciousness that I was peaking at that very instant. It was never going to get better than this, and I’d probably never wear velvet again. Everyone should know what it feels like to be the belle of the ball, at least once. At the same time, I also felt some loss. I hadn’t understood that I looked pretty good up till that point, and now it was going to all go downhill.
Having just lived through another birthday, with the usual inventory of my wrinkles and other signs of inevitable decline, I’ve had to face my vanity. I’m not 29 anymore, but I’m not 80 yet either, and I have at least one very excellent memory. That memory keeps me a little warmer inside when I walk past a mirror and notice that I haven’t combed my hair today and my sweatshirt has a new smear of paint on the front. Internally, I’m still the wolf child.
For the record, I also have some artistic vanity, and don’t like posting my art with one of the masters, especially when I whipped this little painting out this afternoon and Sargent spent considerably more time on his masterpiece.
“How can anybody learn anything from an artwork when the piece of art only reflects the vanity of the artist and not reality?” ~ Lou Reed