I knew I was a girl when a neighbor looked at me standing against my mother’s legs, one of her freckled hands resting on top of my head, and said what a cute little boy I was. The tall summer grasses waved around us, fading and celebrating as they rose up from the ground, green stems to pale yellow tassles. I would have liked to leap away and disappear among them like a quail, leaving the impression that I might never have been there at all. I might have been imagined.
We had stopped on the long, gravel road home to get our mail, and when you do that out in the country, you have a conversation with whomever you happen to meet at the mailboxes. My mother didn’t hesitate. She seemed unaware that a little girl with hair as short as mine required an explanation. She politely corrected the man, one of the many farmers whose fields surrounded ours, and held up the thread of friendliness that such acquaintances required. From her shadow, I saw the baffled look on the man’s face, and my cheeks burned hot and bright like a prairie fire. I had failed at something simple, but important. My failure was something you could see.
Well before I understood why girls were supposed to be beautiful, I yearned for beauty. I would lie on the couch, chewing my fingernails down to the skin, and hope that someday I would grow up to be pretty. The destiny of my features, the parts of me that would evolve with age for all to see – long nose, wide hips, small eyes, high cheekbones – had not yet been revealed. And in its hiding place, my future face had power. Beauty was like fame or fortune, as plausible as any other childhood fantasy about adulthood. I could hope for it if I wanted to. I could have it if I tried.
The trouble was, beauty was a mystery to me. If I tried to investigate it, to follow its tracks across the faces of my peers, I met my mother’s disapproval. She was not from around here, and by association, neither was I. I was born at home, like a true hillbilly, but I did not belong. I was born at home because my mother was a hippie leftover from 1960s New York, and she had gotten herself a farm in the middle of nowhere on which to live out her own childhood fantasy of living off the land, being one with the natural world, self-sufficient, surrounded by animals. Her fierce feminism was coupled with a distinct lack of femininity. For most of my young life, I believed that this was the authentic mark of feminist principles; one could not wear a bra while fighting for liberation. One could not break the glass ceiling with the weight of a handbag slung over her shoulder. My mother carried a man’s wallet tucked into the back pocket of her Lee jeans. On her feet were flat- soled sneakers or steel-toed work boots. She operated a chainsaw to clear fallen trees out of the woods, and wrestled goats to the ground to clean and trim their hooves. My parents divorced almost as soon as they settled in our county, and the neighbors shifted uncomfortably around the realization that my mother was not going to marry the next eligible bachelor who came to call. Still, they sent envoys down the winding gravel road to our house to try to convince her otherwise, some of them toothless and driving a tractor, and she chased them all off, with a shotgun, when necessary.
When she was working far out in the fields, beyond earshot, I crept into her bedroom and examined the treasures that sat atop her bureau – little strands of jewelry dropped into flowered ceramic dishes that she had collected when she was a girl, tiny animals carved out of ivory with ears so fine they pricked my fingers. In the top drawer of the bureau, wrapped in tissue paper, was a silk bra in a dusty shade of rose, with straps that hadn’t frayed from use. There were little boxes and tubes of rarely used makeup, and a journal with a woven cover in a calico print, like the scraps of favorite fabrics she piled together in her sewing basket. I picked over each item, one at a time, ensuring that I left it lying exactly where her hand had last dropped it. A tube of lipstick held the clean, warm scent of a living thing. A tray of eyeshadows stamped into perfectly small molds glistened with color, like a box of unused crayons. I knew well the story of her young self, sitting beneath the Christmas tree, watching her brothers unwrap their presents – little cars that spun on quick and tiny wheels, trains sets and puzzles and games of all sorts. Her own name would be written in her mother’s neat and looping script across the top of a box containing a new set of cotton handkerchiefs. It wasn’t that mom despised being a girl, but that she was against her girlhood being defined by others, by customs and assumptions, by unquestioning allegiance to whatever came before.
When I was very young, I stumbled along in the wake of her values. I hid comfortably in her shadow. But once I was old enough to go to school, I learned that scrutiny was the price I paid for my differences. Scrutiny was punishment for what I could not conceal from view.
I was in the first grade when a classmate leaned, sneering, over the aisle between our desks and pointed at the light brown hair growing on my pale legs, and told me it was gross. In the 1980s of the American South, little girls shaved their legs. They pierced their ears and wore makeup, used hairspray and went to the tanning bed. If a true Southern girl was born pale, like me, she did not remain so – she took her parents’ meager paychecks and baked inside a lamplit coffin until her skin was the color of honey on a biscuit. It did not matter that hairspray was a paradox, promising movement in conjunction with ‘maximum hold’. Every girl I knew used hairspray, and I wanted it. I wanted the whole of my head to appear to have been dipped in liquid sugar that hardened on contact with the air. Each time another girl illuminated my cluelessness about such things with a flick of her mascara wand, I would take home the magical story to my mother – Hairspray! Foundation! Curling Irons! – and she would cut through my enthusiasm with offended, shocked dismissal. She exclaimed over the smell of hairspray, the way it choked you as it hung in a cloud around your head. I acknowledged her points and wanted it still, because I was willing to love it, in spite of its flaws.
Without the tools to call beauty forth from where it hid behind the mask of my everyday face, I could not meet the gender expectations of my schoolmates. My mother saw these things as shallow representations of the deep and beautiful individual she perceived me to be, and I saw them as survival.
Although I worshipped these tools individually, there was one purpose for which they seemed destined to come together in holy union: the glamour shot. When my best friend in the second grade informed me that she would be having hers made that weekend, I replied with naked curiosity, ‘What’s a glamour shot?’ She looked at me with sympathy and sorted among the cans of hairspray and compact mirrors in her purse for an example. I was presented with a wallet-sized photo of her cousin, taken the year before. Its pearly matte finish had the touch of leather, and its corners were rounded with precision. Beneath the foundation and blush, the dark and extensive eye makeup, I could see that her cousin was a remarkably beautiful girl. Even with her hair swept and set to be immobile, it shone with natural, golden color. On her shoulders, she wore a sequined satin jacket, and one hand with long, painted nails grasped the collar in a gesture that was at once tough and delicate.
I was deeply impressed, and my friend was generous enough not to lord it over me, but to fill me in on all the details. Her brother, who was older by twelve years, would be the photographer. She knew that the portrait, focused on the head and shoulders, required only the top half of your clothing to show, which meant that you could wear what appeared to be a formal gown on top, and keep your shorts and dirty tennis shoes on below. This disappointing reality touched a nerve in me. Somewhere behind my ears the shallow nature of beauty began to hum. The glamour shot was enticing because it perfectly captured the notion that what matters is not the authenticity of who you are, but how you make yourself look to others. It was a compressed and more accessible version of a beauty pageant, a chance to prove how beautiful you could be, without the extreme cost and effort.
Of course, they did cost something. My friend’s brother made his living taking them, and he supplemented his work with shifts at the Kodak film development counter in Wal-Mart. Sometimes, when I played at her house, my friend and I would dare to sidestep into his room, and he would allow us to try out his waterbed and show us some of the glossy 4x6 prints he had taken home from work. It was an unspoken benefit of his job that you could make extra copies of other people’s pictures. If those pictures happened to be explicit in nature, then shared ownership was the pact a customer made in asking for them to be developed in the first place. In these pictures, there would be women dressed in a bra and panties, standing in the woods in the middle of the day. Sometimes they held a gun, or bent over in an approximation of something they had seen in a magazine. I got the feeling there were other photos that he didn’t show us.
My friend and her brother had one other sibling, a sister who was the oldest of them all. She was married and lived in the house next door to my friend’s, across an empty field pockmarked with dried-up cow pies. This sister had been married twice to the same man, a fact that hinted at a kind of wildness that I did not yet understand about love. She was also a hairdresser – in our town, a deeply respectable job – and she had one eye that drooped under the weight of its eyelid, a fact that no one mentioned because she was otherwise pretty, and her clothes were always neat, and her sense of belonging – in her home, in her job, in the place where we had all grown up – was without question. She was glamorous because she belonged.
By the time I was old enough to make my own decision about hairspray, I was no longer interested. Perhaps I was also a little afraid that it was too late for me, that if I tried to make a place for it in my beauty routine, where it hadn’t existed before, the results would be unfortunate and awkward, like the wrong shade of blush. I would betray myself as the ignorant, late-blooming woman I had perceived myself to be since girlhood, a time spent innocently flinging open the doors of bathroom stalls to reveal previously undiscovered aspects of femininity that I had no chance of mastering. A time when my mother had been wise and strong and free, and I had been her captive.