portrait of meHere I am at the Met.  Here I am in my new dress.  Yes, that is me.  Look, look.  The feminist and the philosopher in me are fretful, though, about me putting my own picture out, “posting” it is the verb, like soldiers are posted somewhere. Do people now know that I care about how I look, or, worse, do they know that I care that I care what they think of how I look?  Look how I look when I like how I look!  Look!   Isn’t it embarrassing to be vain?  Isn’t it even more vain to be embarrassed about being thought vain?  

Perhaps this is all, as someone said to me, “Something you should get over.”  (But then what would I write about if I got over things?)

Vanity I don’t fear out of some Puritanical sadomasochistic urge.  Well, perhaps a little of that, as I am a good Episcopalian, but I also have found that humility is almost always the first step to happiness, and vanity threatens humility.  Doesn’t it?

I remember this moment, reading some ladies’ magazine, when I thought, all this about being beautiful is wanting to be loved.  All these magazines were about wanting one person to tell you you were beautiful because he was in love with you, and once someone is in love with you, you look different to him, of course.  I felt, then, freed to enjoy the magazines, all of fashion and beauty, because I knew what it was.

My sometime bursts of wisdom, notwithstanding, I spent age twelve to sixteen hidden in my clothes, thinking that because of my breasts or my braces and glasses, no one would ever love me.

Although deeply humiliated to agree with a New York Post article, being a good feminist, I am pleased when strangers say anything positive about my appearance.  I say thank you to polite men and completely ignore rude ones, and I am pleased.

This does not mean men should call out to strangers, as many women find it upsetting.  Let us refrain.

I understand that there is a lot of pushback that has to happen, from so many years when women’s appearance, and others’ ideas of it, was the source of what little power they had.  But let us also ask: why are women frightened by strangers talking about how they look?  Why is the idea that your appearance is attractive, or arousing, threatening?  Why does this empower the man, and not the woman? Isn’t saying no to a man a powerful thing?  It feels very powerful to me.

There is power you have over someone when he wants to look at you, wants to touch you.  You know.  Someone has had that power over you.

Wanting to be noticed, wanting to be hidden, back and forth, back and forth.

Did I not make of myself a bit of visual art, dress choice, makeup, dyeing my hair– for that matter, standing as I stood?

The photos I’ve taken of myself, trying to look just as I want to, are secret.  They would show that I am just as vain as everyone else, and I am both somewhat vain and somewhat ashamed of it.

Being single, perhaps my looks matter more?  Perhaps I need them.

And how do you keep yourself seeing yourself as you are?  Is the outside a part of that?  Changing it, looking at it?  The outsides-matching-insides adjustments.

When I go to the monastery, I don’t put in my contacts, or wear makeup.  I don’t do anything but wash my face and comb my hair and put it back so it’s out of my face.  I wear covered-up tops and the same skirt of pants every day.  This feels good and normal there.  I can’t imagine anyone there asking me to dress any particular way, this just feels right to me, the same way it felt right to cover my shoulders in Rome or Qatar.  Right?  Even exciting, that you are so lovely you must tone it down.

And when I put the other three minutes back in my toilette, the last morning at the monastery, I feel sparkling.  There are my curls!  My eyelashes!

Sometimes, perhaps, it is out of love for my dress I chose for the occasion, I do have many dresses, and I am happy they have gotten to go to that party, and the dress will help me remember that occasion, where I bought it, how it felt to wear it.

And I think, I will be old, I am only older and older (as They Might Be Giants would remind me), and I would like photos of when I was…young?  Younger?  To do what with?

Photos of in a swimsuit to prove to someone, someday, that I had a lovelier human body, not one that looked worn, as it will, if I am lucky.  Photos to show something of my accomplishment as a woman, as still, part of being an accomplished woman is being as lovely as possible, as it is a pleasure to add to the loveliness of the world by dressing thoughtfully to go buy a newspaper.  Photos to have on the door of my room at the nursing home so people will think, Oh, she was a pretty one, she was.  Let us treat her like a pretty person.

Some families have photos of your parents or grandparents that people would use to remark, She was so pretty.  In our family, what I remember is my dad calling my mom “a pretty girl,” and me “a pretty girl,” my mom saying, “You look beautiful,” and I knew what they meant was, “I love you.”


All these facebook statuses said “black,” and “pink,” and everybody curious was googling to find out that said color was a bra color.  Sadly, I’m too repressed to share any information about my underwear, and, were I less repressed, I still don’t think the internet would be my venue.

The more annoying part of the whole thing was hearing, later, that bra color was supposed to remind us, “make us more aware” of breast cancer.  So now my underwear isn’t private, or sexy.  Now it’s a reminder of decay and mortality.

I don’t think Americans need to be any more “aware” of cancer.  In fact, we’re the world’s leaders in finding cancer that wasn’t doing no harm to begin with, and carving it out of our bodies to convince ourselves that we can cut or burn or medicate our mortality away.

I’ve had a couple of what we like to call “pre-cancerous” nasties, and one of them I had removed.  Even that baby step to cancer was scary.  The very idea of “cancer” personifies evil for us so well.  It’s inside you.  It grows.  It’s a part of you that goes bad, insidious.  And kills you.  Some Christian theologians have given that thing a name.  We call it “sin.”  “Cancer,” “sin,” “suffering”– I think those are all names for the same team.

What I don’t like about the idea of cancer “awareness” is that it suggests that by being “aware” a person can avoid cancer.  You can’t avoid cancer with diet, exercise, or any other kind of good girl behavior.  You just might get it anyway.  It’s totally stupid.  (Which isn’t to say I don’t try to eat some basically good food and get some exercise, but that’s for my current well-being, not an investment in the future.)

We’re so anxious to believe that if we get our boobs x-rayed or eat pomegranates or something, we will not get sick or die.  I would like to believe that.   And I like that humans are so proactive and so hopeful.  It’s really sweet.   But it’s a twisting of the bedrock spiritual concept of “awareness” to suggest that awareness gives you power or control.  It does the opposite.  Awareness gives you smallness, and awe.  And, ideally, a little more patience with everybody and everything.

Maybe we do need to be more aware of how people around us are struggling, and how we don’t have all the time in the world.  Those are good things to be aware of.  Maybe we need to be more aware that more money for research could help make sick people suffer less.  And go easy on this “spray first, ask questions later” chemical routine we have going on in our fields and factories.  Sure, I’m all for that.

And maybe we need to be more aware of how we rebuff the sick and the vulnerable because they remind us of our own vulnerability.  Sometimes sick people need privacy to heal, and sometimes they need healthy people to suck it up and carry more of the load.  I guess usually they just need people to ask after them.

I’d also like to be more aware of how we’re all in this together, the cancerous and the pre-cancerous, and the living and the dead.  That is a lot more comforting to me than hoping we will fix people or cure them or help them live forever.

A dear friend of mine once nearly ruined a dinner party by musing about his “saddest Christmas,” and asking us all to recall our saddest Christmases.  We have teased him mercilessly about this, I assure you.  This last Christmas, though, was one of my saddest Christmases.  The amazing thing was that I was happy a lot of the time.

I sang songs and ripped open presents and chatted my head off and slurped down soup and drank a healthy amount of Pinot Noir.  I was pretty impressed that loving, cheerful people, and pleasure and joy and thankfulness are sometimes audacious enough to bust through grief, or worry, or cancer.  That’s a good thing to be aware of.

link to facebook/bra color story on NPR: