Learning From My Past
by Lynne Blumberg
A few years ago, I was standing beside one of the four aisles of cashiers at Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia. My cashier, like her co-workers, wore a tiger orange t-shirt with “Iovine Brothers” written in white across her chest. With a young forefinger hovering over the button that would total my items, she turned to me and said, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”
She’s trying to be nice, I told myself, forced a smile and said “No.”
I paid full price, trudged away from the market stall clutching two supermarket bags of vegetables and fruits, and recalled the hairdresser I stopped going to a couple of years earlier. She pleaded with me to let her color the band of gray framing my face. She said it would take off ten years. People would think I was in my 40s again.
Whenever I considered her advice, I recalled events that began in the seventh grade when Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg. Piecing the events together chronologically, I remember in the seventh grade I tried to distract attention from my nose by begging my mom to let me wear makeup, hipper clothes and longer hair.
Mom, and Dad, wanted me to turn off my stereo and study more in school. I couldn’t fathom how this would improve my situation. I remember sitting in my assigned seat in seventh grade English class, and surveying my classmates tucked into their own desks in different rows. They were all paying attention to Mister Binkley, even the students sitting in the back. I thought: Don’t they get it? They’re where the action is. In other words, whether or not they considered me cool was much more important to me than Mister Binkley’s explanation of number three in a grammar exercise.
In the eighth grade, Mom finally let me get a tube of frosted rose-pink lipstick from the Woolworth’s in the Abington suburban shopping strip across the street from Sears. I had fantasized about wearing a “Slicker” frosted pearl-white lipstick by Yardley of London, but a Woolworth’s lipstick was better than no lipstick at all.
I snuck on eye makeup in the girl’s bathroom in-between classes until Mom, whose only makeup was a shade of love-that-red 1950s lipstick, let me wear eye makeup the following year. I remember getting up extra early before going to school to work on my large brown eyes that classmates said reminded them of Paul McCartney.
I sat in front of the face mirror I had propped up on my desk, and pried open my tortoiseshell compact with three shades of brown shadow. As the saleslady at Wanamaker’s instructed, I applied medium brown shadow on my lids, a darker taupe on my creases, and buff shadow beneath my brows. Next I dipped a mini brush into a Dixie cup of water, and swept it across a cake of mahogany-colored mascara. I wiped a hand dry on a leg of my bellbottom jeans, and this hand kept an eye open while the other hand brushed on the mascara. After blotting out accidental globs, I placed the pads of a metal eye curler around my upper lashes, and gently clamped the pads together. I had heard a story of a girl who pressed too hard, and all her lashes fell out. Then I rested the curler on my desk and sat back to view my whole face. I expected to see Twiggy’s doe-eyes, but my coated lashes seemed to make my lids droop down over my eyes.
Because of my bad grades, Scott S. was no longer in my classes. Guys in my eighth, ninth and tenth grade classes simply ignored me. A saleslady showed me how to deflect attention from my nose by covering my face with skin-colored foundation, and then blending a darker shade around the sides of my nose. I also wrote to Dear Abby for advice on how to wear my hair, with a drawing of how my nose uniquely hooked at the end to ensure an accurate reply. Abby’s typewritten letter said I should part my hair on the side, not the currently fashionable middle. This would draw attention away from the center of my face.
Makeup, hairstyle, mod clothes, a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—nothing seemed to get the boys’ attention. After one particularly frustrating day at school, I took the scotch tape dispenser from a kitchen drawer and brought it into the upstairs bathroom. Using the medicine cabinet mirror to guide my hands, I taped the end of my nose to curl up like a ski slope; like how Mom used hair tape to create pincurls beside her cheeks.
I kept on the tape for ten minutes, returned to the bathroom and peeled off the strips. I looked past the red marks left by the adhesive, and swore I saw the end of my nose starting to curl up. I applied new strips to set my nose for an hour, and came back downstairs. Mom saw me passing through from the living room to the kitchen and asked what in the world I was doing. I explained, and she squirmed with distaste and told me to take the tape off before I hurt myself. I had my father’s nose and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I could get a nose job,” I said.
Who actually gave me this nose wasn’t clear cut. My pretty mom had her father’s Roman nose, but her mother had an eagle’s beak bigger than mine. Nana told Mom she would have done anything to get her nose fixed at my age. Nana convinced Mom to let me get a nose job, and they both convinced Dad. A morning during the summer before my senior year of high school, I awoke on the operating table, looked up at my masked doctor, heard him scraping away at my nose, and fell back into an aestheticized sleep. I re-awoke in my semi-private hospital room with my nose covered in white tape.
About eight months later, while shopping with Mom at Woolworth’s, we bumped into Mrs. Corcoran, my English teacher senior year. Mrs. Corcoran told Mom what a good student I was, and Mom told her this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, I brought home report cards with five D’s…I drifted away to another aisle while Mom went on with her usual spiel.
In English class a few weeks later, we finished the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Mrs. Corcoran’s weekend assignment was for us to write what we would do if forced to make the Knight’s choice. Would we choose an old and ugly spouse who was kind and faithful, or a gorgeous spouse who was cruel and promiscuous?
That weekend I recalled my friend, Joanne. She was gawky, taller than most boys, and her overbite had reminded me of a horse. As I got to know her sweet personality, her mouth seemed to resemble Sophia Loren’s. So using metaphors I thought would make F. Scott Fitzgerald proud, I wrote that I would choose the ugly spouse because my perception of him would change as I got to know his personality.
On Monday I handed in the paper, and later in the week Mrs. Corcoran returned it with a big red “A” at the top, and the word “Beautiful” beside my favorite metaphor. When she finished returning the rest of the papers, she came back to my desk and said, “Did you show this paper to your parents?”
I shook my head.
“Show it to them.”
After the school bus dropped me off, I found Mom working by the kitchen sink. I read aloud my composition while she leaned against a kitchen counter wearing a short teased hairdo, A-line dress, and sensible black pumps. At the end she shrugged and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is about.”
I squinted with disbelief: “This is how you respond to your daughter’s composition, that her teacher recommended she read to her parents?”
“I’m not going to lie.”
I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home and get her in trouble. His sports car roared up the driveway a couple of hours later. I reported what happened as he stepped through the back door. He stopped in the kitchen and I read my composition as he stood beside Mom, eight inches taller and dark and dashing in his pinstriped suit. At the end he shrugged and said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”
My mouth fell. After all the times he sided with me against Mom’s ridiculous ideas, and a few years later would divorce, I couldn’t believe he was siding with her on this one.
Mrs. Corcoran, who dressed like Mom but without a trace of makeup, came up to my desk the next day. “Did you show your parents?”
“What did they say?”
I couldn’t tell her the truth. “They really liked it.”
About ten years later, I was sitting in the dark office of my therapist, Betsy. She was helping me get past my own brief marriage and my parents’ bitter divorce. Betsy claimed Mom was a better parent than Dad, so I brought up this incident. “Are you sure your mother was putting down your intelligence?” Betsy said.
I threw out my hands. “What else could it be?”
A few days after our session, I thought about how I began studying during my junior year of high school. I had attributed my behavioral change to the heart-to-heart I had with myself while walking home from a girlfriend’s house one afternoon the summer before. Like my father, an attorney, grilled me, I asked myself what I was good at. I thought of how I wasn’t good at drawing or doing other things with my hands; and two years of piano lessons confirmed that a dormant musical talent wasn’t veering me away from my schoolwork. I decided if I wanted to get anywhere in this world, I needed to go to college.
I earned B’s and C’s my junior year, and when I became a senior, I got report cards with A’s in everything except Math. Mom boasted to everybody that I achieved those A’s because my nose job had boosted my confidence. I was positive Mom shared this theory with Mrs. Corcoran that day in Woolworth’s, and this explained why Mrs. Corcoran wanted me to show Mom my composition. Mrs. Corcoran was a nun before she married a priest.
I recounted this memory about my nose job to Betsy during our next session. I also confessed that I used to look in the mirror and think I was beautiful before Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg.
Betsy, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with thick black layered hair and jingling jewelry, took the door mirror resting against one of her wood-paneled office walls. She held it in front of me and said, “What do you see?”
Sitting on a black cushioned chair sat a 26-year-old woman in jeans and a black tank top that revealed thin yet muscular arms; thick brown hair streaming past her shoulders; a band of natural gold highlights framing her pale unblemished face; and naturally long lashes fringing cinnamon-colored eyes.
“That’s real,” Betsy said. “You’re really that pretty.”
I crossed my arms over my ample chest, not knowing how to integrate this.
After the session, inside my studio apartment, I considered how knowing I was pretty could change me. In my family, Mom was typed the pretty one, and Dad the smart one. How could I be both? I didn’t want to become one of those people who are always conscious about how they appear. I didn’t want my looks to go to seed either.
I decided to forget about how good I looked and just live my life. I focused on getting A’s in college, eventually teaching, and maintaining my health. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when people asked me about the senior discount that I panicked about my looks again. I had procrastinated in my search for another mate, and without some major renovations to my appearance, I feared I was now too late.
After the comment at Iovine Brothers, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror of my current apartment. Since my late 30s, the dark marks under my eyes stopped disappearing after I got more sleep, but the corners of my eyes weren’t crinkled with crows’ feet. Worry and the sun had lined my forehead, but young people had worry lines too. What they didn’t have, was the band of gray replacing the gold highlights around my face. The hairdresser was right.
Yet I remained hesitant about coloring my hair. In addition to my nose issues, I thought about the men who were perceived as more distinguished-looking when they grayed. Look at Richard Gere and George Clooney. Someone who thought I should color my hair bet that Gere’s salt and pepper shade came out of a bottle too.
I also debated with myself about what is natural. Simply washing my hair or brushing my teeth could be considered unnatural too. Personal maintenance was always a balancing act between what you’re born with and what you can change.
I realized if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have fixed my Semitic nose. As society grew more accepting and I grew into my features, I would’ve been considered attractive with the schnoz. The surgery also dulled my sense of smell. So this time around when my looks weren’t conforming to the cultural ideal, I could be a pioneer. My embrace of aging could help expand future definitions of beauty. But I wanted people to think I was pretty now!
I remember the surprise of Michael, the colorist a friend highly recommended, when I announced that this would be the first time coloring my hair. “Let’s make you into a red head,” he said.
“Whaaat?!” My eyes were popping out in the mirrored wall before the salon chair.
Michael clasped my smocked shoulders and laughed. “Relax. I do suggest you go a shade or two lighter. Skin pales as we age.” I bet the pale-blonde hair color blending with his pale lined complexion covered a full head of gray.
Since most of my hair, except for the front, was still brown, instead of covering the full head, I opted to frost my hair with dark-blond and pale-brown highlights and left a few gray strands untouched. After Michael unwrapped the foil sheets and blow-dried my hair, he swirled my chair so I faced the mirror. I thought I looked the same…Maybe a little more rested.
I paid the 100 dollar fee, Michael’s tip, and paraded my new look along Chestnut Street’s brick sidewalks. It was lunchtime in Center City, and I peered at the business-suited men for their expressions. No one that day or in the days that followed paid attention to me in the ways they paid attention to me when I was ten years younger. Did the highlights make me feel more confident about my appearance nonetheless?
While brushing my hair in front of the large mirror above my bathroom vanity, I discovered orange-tinged gold streaks in my hair. Ewwww! I wondered how this blatant artificiality could be considered more attractive. Michael changed the blonde highlights to caramel during my next appointment, but even these seemed too synthetic. Plus I was getting some kind of itchiness on my neck, and one of the first questions a dermatologist asked was if I was coloring my hair.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
A month ago, I walked past the decorative mirrors in my apartment building’s lobby. I glanced at a sweet elderly-looking woman with dark hair except for the gray framing her smiling face. I did a double-take and walked back. This elderly-looking woman was me, and I was still ineligible for the senior discount.
I pressed the up button and waited for an elevator while I considered going back to Michael for a full head color. Inside the elevator and riding up to my floor, I considered never stepping outside of my apartment again, like how Greta Garbo handled aging. Walking down the carpeted hallway and inside my apartment, I decided to forget about how old I looked and focus on staying healthy and sharp. I’d still strive to be attractive, but also embrace that attractive at 59 was not the same as at 26. Maybe I’d even find an eligible geezer whose love for my inner qualities would transform me into his beauty queen.
Of course I wavered on this decision later that day and during the days that followed, especially after Comcast posted photos of blonde, 61-year-old Christie Brinkley, in a bikini. Then a few days ago, when I thought about visiting my mother in Florida, I finally pieced together another memory. I realized that the summer I got my nose job was the same summer I read about ten hours a day, every day. My 16 year-old-self calculated that by reading this much, I could make up for the years I goofed off in school. Unlike taping my nose, maybe this idea of mine actually worked: the disciplined reading enhanced my study skills, and the enhanced skills, not my enhanced nose, brought about all those A’s.…
After piecing together this memory, my mental fog lifted. The decision was final: I’m not coloring my gray hair. It’s like what Doctor Freud said about recovered memories … And after election of Mr. Beauty Pageant, I won’t even be tempted by model pictures for a long time. Standing up for more inclusive body images is imperative.
Lynne Blumberg has written for various national and local publications about topics in health, religion, education, and urban living. She lives in Philadelphia, and when not writing, teaches English as a Second Language at the Community College of Philadelphia.