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Preface: Confessions of an Armchair Beauty
When I was eleven or twelve in the early 1960s, my loving and ruthless mother offered me an unsparing assessment of my prospects in life. It was a good thing I had brains, she said, looking me up and down, because I was highly unlikely to get very far on my appearance alone. My dad amplified this assessment one day by telling me that I was "built like a battleship," a remark he intended me to accept as a compliment. But as he could no doubt tell from the wry face I pulled, this was not a phrase that the average young girl was dying to hear.
Inexperienced though I was in affairs of the heart, I was well versed in the language of love, and words like "brain" and "battleship" were not in the lexicon. The pink-bound teen romances that I borrowed by the armload from the public library studiously avoided any reference to female intelligence and instead did a brisk trade in adjectives like "pert," "bouncy," "tender" and "glowing." What's more, no romance heroine would ever have been likened to a piece of military hardware, however admiringly. Her qualities were more ethereal by far and could best be associated with wonders of the natural world such as sunsets, bird song and soft summer winds. "My dear," the handsome hero would whisper, as he stroked his girl's downy cheek, "you have the grace of a slender willow tree." Would anyone ever say such dreamy things to me?
At that time, I had to admit it didn't seem very likely. Although I might be clever and strong, in my mom's and dad's eyes at least, it was obvious to all concerned that I was no beauty. If the small prairie town where I lived had had a soda fountain (which it did not), Iwould clearly have run no risk of being "discovered" by a talent scout and whisked off to Hollywood. No matter how I primped and posed and slathered on mascara, I simply could not make myself look like Debbie Reynolds. The reigning teen queen of the day, Miss Reynolds (a former Miss Burbank) was svelte, fine featured and perky, like the girls in the romance books. I was short and plump, with big front teeth, bushy eyebrows and stubborn, straight-as-string hair. What's more, my mother said I had a smart mouth, and there was nothing pretty, she assured me, about a lippy girl.
Beauty was like baseball: I was just no good at it. But that didn't exempt me from playing the game or keep me from dreaming that, just once, I'd step up to the plate with the bases loaded and hit a grand slam. When it came to the sport of beauty, I didn't set my sights too high, I never aspired to be queen of the fall fair or the Valentine's dance. (Frankly, I wasn't prepared to be nice long enough to attain anything so grand.) But what I did want--what I longed for, with a hopeless, sickly teenage desire--was the admiring attention of a small, handpicked selection of boys. Boys like Tim in grade eight, who shocked everyone by claiming that he wanted to be a Playboy photographer; or Steve in grade ten, whose mother, notoriously, was having an affair with an appliance dealer; or someone called "R.S.," whose name I no longer recall but whose initials are still inscribed, with furtive passion, inside my desk drawer.
Does he love me? love me not? Would he like me better if I wore more eye shadow? less? If I wedged my stocky body into a panty girdle? If I lost five pounds or ten? If I smiled and giggled and flirted with him after French class? And what did I think of myself when, as my teen years progressed, I invented and reinvented my image through the feminine artifices of makeup, hairpieces, hair removal, high heels, body toning, calisthenics, corsetry and studied cuteness?
"All day long in my sloppy jeans, I just romp like a pup. But at night I put my French Heels on, and a teen-age girl grows up. Doo-wah-wah." As pathetic as it now seems, Debbie Reynolds's hit song "French Heels" was the anthem of my dawning maturity.
Compared with the round-the-clock influence of girls' fiction and pop tunes, beauty contests made only an occasional--if nonetheless indelible--impression on my teenage definition of womanhood. By the time my family got its first TV, circa 1964, the Miss America Pageant had been beaming its message into millions of homes for a decade, and the Miss Canada competition was already into its second year on CTV. Although I would have been well into my teens at the time, my first TV pageant has not left a detailed trace in my mind. All that remains is a hazy sense of a screen filled to bursting with romance heroines. Girls with unromantic addresses in Prince George, British Columbia, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, floated in front of the cameras amid billows of chiffon. To the cynic in me, they looked like a fleet of animated lampshades or vivified meringues.
It was all very silly, and I knew it even then. The romance stories I fed myself on were trashy and cheap, with cardboard characters, stock plots and treacly endings. Smart aleck that I was, I mocked them as "and-he-kissed-her" books because of the inevitable, climacteric moment when the good-girl heroine got her man. But this elevated analysis did nothing to temper my compulsive desire for happy endings, and my loud-mouthed scorn of beauty contests did not prevent me from watching the telecasts to their glitzy and glorious conclusions. Yes, the girls looked ridiculous as they swanned their beehived heads; yes, the interview questions and answers made me squirm with embarrassment. The bathing-suit judging was tacky, and the "talent" performances made Ed Sullivan's weekly lineup look like a night at the Met. But the crowning of the winner--so "natural, young and sweet"--sent an electric thrill of pleasure through my pubescent body.
Dream the impossible dream: let it be me, let it be me . . .
Beauty contests on TV were a magic mirror that, willy-nilly, made every girl and woman into a participant, whether she was built like a willow or like a fortress; and recalcitrant tomboys like me were not exempt. In our dizzy identification with winners and losers alike, a whole generation of women and girls in the fifties and sixties tumbled in a narcissistic dream of our own potential perfection. I know, because I was one of them. Against my better judgment and with my whole heart, I was an armchair beauty contestant. And then, one day in 1968, the world began to improve--not only for brains and battleships but for beauties, too.