This fear PLAGUES me.
Though I cannot be sure of the demon's origins, I'm pretty sure it manifested with the birth of my younger brother.
Unnaturally beautiful with big blue eyes, long lashes, and curly blonde hair, Ryan was the "pretty" one. (I was born damn near bald, with squinty eyes and a squashy little body. Did I mention I was fat? Of my mom's kids, I was born the shortest but weighed the most. This is not a statistic of which I am proud.)
Anyway, Ryan gets to be about one or so, and my mother cannot bear to cut his beautiful hair. Consequently, when we ventured out as a family, strangers would stop and comment on the "beautiful baby girl." (When they said this, they were not looking at me.) Despite dressing him in all blue all the time, Ryan never heard the end of praise from strangers. And I never heard the beginning of it.
Yep. I was the homely child. A fact I knew too well by age four.
It was right around this age that my preschool paranoia reached epic proportions. While Ryan was allowed to continue on with his flaxen locks and angelic face, I was somehow selected for the visage guillotine when my mother decided to saddle me with a boy's haircut.
To this day, she will swear the haircut was feminine. She will tell you that, though short, the sides were "feathered" in a becoming and ladylike fashion. Like Farrah Fawcett, she will say. This is a point on which she and I will forever disagree.
I remember pleading for my thin, honey blonde whisps. But my cries fell on deaf ears. I remember crying myself to sleep the night before the cut, a scared little child in my single bed at 3914 Ebeneezer Road.
As predicted, no amount of "feathering" endeared me to the look. (Ms. Fawcett am I none). And there remains a loathed picture from Easter of that year (ironically featuring a white picket fence) where Ryan sits, smiling ear to ear in his blue ensemble and uncanny loveliness. As for myself? I am wearing a peach dress, white gloves and a white hat. I am standing, smiling ruefully. A feathered nightmare.
(See image below for reference. NOT of me. Hopefully that vile Easter monstrosity has been lost to the annals of time. Rise from the dead in three days indeed! He would have returned, had he seen me with Mary at the tomb!)
As my mother was force-fed short cuts in her youth, perhaps she was just doing as she knew best. Or perhaps she saw it as a character building exercise. I haven't the faintest idea. And I really can't blame her for the lapse in judgement, as she, around this same time, also chose to perm and highlight her naturally straight, brown hair.
The family photo of me in feathers and my mother in blonde streaks? I know what true terror is.
Time passed and my brother got his hair cut. My lackluster hair grew out. My mom came to her senses and lost the perm. But somehow I never got over knowing Ryan was the pretty one. Fearing I was somehow "less" by comparison. Knowing that little girls were supposed to have big blue eyes with looooong lashes and curly blonde hair. (Barbie anyone? Can I get an "Amen"?) Knowing that, by age four, I was already a failure to my sex.
Like Penny in "The Rescuers," I could just hear Medusa's malicious drawl: "My deeeeeeear Penny, who would want a homely child like you?"... Some two decades and change later, that scene still pains me to watch.
I was asked--last night in fact--if a film had ever fundamentally altered my life. For me, the answer was an easy "yes."
In fifth grade, seated on the floor of Ms. Zeblewski's classroom, I distinctly remember looking past my size 5 white sneakers to a screen. The framing was oddly perfect as the film pushed in on the front porch of a white columned antibellum home. There, flanked by two men with fire engine hair, sat she. I stopped listening to my friend who was yammering through the picture and distinctly remember as everything offscreen faded away.
When she spoke, she was the epitome of femininity. When she walked, she sashayed, skirts swinging in the wake. When she laughed, men fell. HARD.
I didn't know who this Scarlett was or where her 4-hour long saga would carry her...and, at age 11, I'm not sure I fully understood the journey she took anyway...all I knew was that no one anywhere would ever mistake her for anything less than she was: A LADY. At least in MY idea of the word.
Since then, she's been a bit of an obsession. One that most don't really understand.
After all, it's just a movie. And Vivien Leigh just an actress.
Her home was just a set, and her wardrobe was not her own, but the expertly-crafted vision of Walter Plunkett. Her hair was the result of hours of work by the most talented professionals. The makeup and the lighting as well.
It was all planned to precision. Not real. A world of fantasy. A world of illusion but...as Mrs. Leigh would iconically remark in her later (and second Oscar-winning role in a film) "A woman's charm is 50% illusion."
I've never forgotten that little gem either.
I think for so many women there is this undeniable pressure to portray this illusion of femininity--of grace, of pois, of helplessness (or, paradoxically, strength).
I'm not sure I shall ever overcome my fear of failing it.
Stripping away my hair, my dresses, my jewelry, my perfumes...forcing me to don shorts and socks and tennis shoes. For me it's a nightmare so severe, it may as well be feathered hair.
And, as we've discovered above, that is a desperately scary fate indeed!