Beauty, Family, Plain Speaking, Womanly Feminism

Growing Up Ginger, Redux

Some recent, and to my mind, quite moronic comments about female ugliness, elsewhere on the web, got me reminiscing about one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “A woman of 40 gets the face she deserves.” I went looking for its source some days ago, and found it attributed to a 1957 Los Angeles Times interview with Ingrid Bergman. The full quote is:

I think clinging to youth is terrible. No one wants to grow old, naturally, but you must accept it. Anxiety about wrinkles causes them–it sets your mouth down. What is it they say–after 40 you have the face you deserve.

It prompted an understanding of another of my mother’s favorite observations.  She believed you could tell the sweetness of a woman’s temperament by looking at the corners of her mouth.  Perhaps she took that insight from Ingrid’s words, too.  (I always think of my mother when I see a photo of “Auntie Maxine” Waters):

I think Mum died some years before the concept of “resting bitch face” became an almost universally-known Internet meme.  But she’d have recognized Maxine’s “mouth” in an instant.  Pretty sure the disapproving corners of it didn’t get that way without some serious work.  And I bet those close to her know it, too.

For a little palette-cleanser though, let’s return, for a moment, to Ingrid.

My, she was lovely. Perhaps the most beautiful woman ever to grace the big screen. (Change my mind.) Here she is–sheer perfection–in her prime, in the perfect movie:

As sometimes happens, after I started this little investigation and trip down memory lane, I ended up in a rabbit hole, looking into variations on this quote, whose first incarnation might have occurred (according to the invaluable QuoteInvestigator) in a conversation between Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary for War, and an unnamed military officer.  Stanton was complaining about a man who looked like “a cod fish,” and in the face of the officer’s expostulations remarked that “a man of fifty is responsible for his face.”

The full-flowering of the complete thought had to wait for Coco Chanel who, in a 1938 issue of Vogue Magazine, expanded it into (translated from the French):

Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; life molds the face you have at thirty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.

Along the way, before and since, some variation of it has been attributed–not always reliably–to George Orwell, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Camus,  Mae West, Maurice Chevalier, and many more.

And I’m glad.  Because I happen to think that anyone with any sense should believe that a woman’s temperament shows on her face and that a sweet disposition on the inside shows itself as a pleasant appearance on the outside, regardless (or irregardless as the case may be), of the height of one’s cheekbones, the color of one’s hair, the slimness of one’s waist, the amount of time one spends troweling on the war paint, or how many extensions of one sort or another one applies to appendages or extremities in the hope of pleasing someone other than oneself.  We are the most beautiful when we are the most comfortable with ourselves.  Change my mind.

The next lagomorphic declension (them’s what my good friend Tony would call “college words” for “rabbit hole”) I fell into was a reminiscence of the following post from Ricochet, written  on January 12 of 2017–“Worldwide Kiss A Ginger Day.”  My mother plays a prominent role in it, too.  Here it is:

It’s “Kiss a Ginger” day, so if there’s a redhead in your life, what are you waiting for? If there isn’t, you don’t know what you’re missing! Do your best to remedy the situation, pronto, and make sure you’re first in line next year.

I’ve been ginger from birth. While I haven’t quite reached the point where announcing that I self-identify as follicularly carroty provokes guffaws, eye-rolls and incredulous stares, it’s a lot less apparent than it used to be. I miss it. Still, que sera sera, as they say.

Sometimes, though, I can’t help looking back to the glory days of yesteryear, and pondering just what growing up ginger has meant for me.

First, there are several questions that some people feel it’s perfectly appropriate to ask redheads, even if they’ve only just met them. I’ve heard them all. I think these questions belong in the same category as the “Can I touch your belly?” question that some people feel perfectly comfortable asking very pregnant ladies whom they’ve never met, when they find themselves riding in the close-quarters of an elevator together. They’re just rude.

The answer to all those questions about gingers is, if you’re interested, “Yes.” Or “No.”  Pick one. It doesn’t matter. And you won’t find any other answers to any of them here, so if that’s what you’re interested in, stop reading. And don’t ask.

Second, there are several assumptions about redheads that have been around since time immemorial, including, but certainly not limited to, the following:

  • Redheads are hot-tempered
  • Redheads bring bad luck
  • Redheaded children are difficult to raise
  • Redheads are touched by God
  • Redheads are touched by the devil
  • Redheads turn into vampires when they die
  • Redheads are witches

The list goes on.

As with many assertions of this sort, most are untrue. Or so I think.

There are, however, a few stories about redheads that are receiving quite a bit of attention and scientific study. Among them are the beliefs that redheads are less tolerant of pain, that redheads get stung more often by bees, and that redheads require more anesthesia than others do. The jury still seems to be out on these, although my personal experience is that two out of three of them are true. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, so I’m calling that allegation false. I’m a bee-magnet, and moderately allergic, so I think that one’s true. And I really could have used a bit more anesthesia on the day I felt the doctor tweak out bits of my lung through a tube that went down my nose, during a bronchoscopy exam decades ago (not because it was all that painful, but just because it was so gross), so, true, that one, as well.

Throughout my early childhood, I found that my infernal hair, and what came with it, was constantly affecting my life in small, but annoying ways.  Freckles.  Sunburn.  “Always wear a hat.”  “Cover yourself up.”  Schoolyard taunts.  “Pull her hair!”  Tying the ends of my braids together.  “Carrot-top!” “Hey, Red!” First-world problems all, but occasionally, things would sting a bit.  And probably hurt more when they did (see “redheads may need more anesthesia than others do,” above.)

And a couple of months ago, I was even reminded of what I think was a small life lesson that came about as a direct result of my fiery mane.

In my teens and early twenties, I spent a great deal of time out of doors. During my high-school and college years, my family trekked, every Summer, up to Prince Edward Island, settled the 19-foot trailer we towed along with us down at our favorite campground on the North Shore (Cavendish and North Rustico, Anne of Green Gables country), and lived in it for three months. All five of us and a dog. Every year. Eight years straight.

I love life on the ocean waves, and I enjoyed nothing so much as getting up before dawn with my dad, and going out on the boats with the fisherman who had pretty much adopted us, and who were happy for the help. Pulling up the cod lines, hauling in the lobster traps and rounding up the mackerel nets, was work that I, in my innocence, and doing it as I was, volunteering, part time and without economic worries, thought was great fun.

Much of that work was over by the time the sun was rising high in the sky, so the consequences of of it on my youthful complexion were negligible. In fact, the fresh, moisture-laden, salt air was probably good for my skin, although the labor was hard on my hands.

Not so the rest of the day, though. The North Shore of PEI is blessed with an abundance of beautiful, soft, sandy beaches.

I also love the beach.

Did I mention I’m a redhead?

While I was looking back through some old family photos a few weeks ago, trying to find a particular one for my sister, I came across those old beach photos. There they were. Myself, growing up as a teenager, and into young womanhood.

Now, if there is any time in their lives that young women are self-conscious about themselves and their bodies, that’s probably it. Zits, pudginess, bulging tummies, mouth too wide, crooked teeth, big ears, huge thighs, knock-knees, bow legs, large feet, you name it. (And I already had that inescapable “carrot-top” thing going for me, right out of the box.) There was always something to find fault with about the way I looked, and if there was ever a time I didn’t need my body to let me down, that was it.

So, back to the old photos. There I am. On the beach. Slathered all over in Coppertone, or whatever it was back in the day.  In my skimpy little outfits, in what passed for all my glory. Looking as good as I ever did, and certainly much better than I ever have since.

And in almost every shot, there is my nose, never dainty at the best of times, daubed all over with a thick white layer of zinc oxide ointment, there to ward off the swelling, the peeling skin, and the second or third-degree burn blisters that were the inevitable result of its absence.

I hated it.

Looking back on it now, I realize that I had two logical choices when the necessity for this disfiguring prophylactic became apparent: I could either have become embarrassed, angry and bitter, and stayed inside all day, sulking; or I could have become embarrassed, angry, and bitter, put the stuff on my nose, made the rest of myself ugly to match, and stomped off to the beach, daring anybody to like me, or even speak to me.

I’m eternally grateful to myself that I did neither of those things.

Instead, in what I think was a pretty adult move for my time of life, I shrugged my shoulders, said que sera sera, “what will be, will be,” plastered the ghastly stuff on my nose, put a smile on my face, and went out to meet my fate.

And here is what I found out: It didn’t really seem to make a difference. I still had a social life (Such as it was.  I’ve never been a glittering social butterfly.  But I’ve never been a hermit, either.).

And I discovered that plenty of boys and young men, some of them quite handsome, and some of them quite nice, didn’t seem to mind being seen with, or going out with, the girl who looked as if she’d just come from an audition for the role of arch-villain in the next Batman movie.

This got me to thinking, perhaps at an earlier age than most, about why women pay so much attention to their appearance, and who, when they get themselves all gussied-up, they should get themselves all gussied-up for.

It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, to me that most women, when they dress and primp, want to look nice, and would like to think that the results of their efforts are attractive. (Those who don’t think this, or who appear determined to present themselves in as bizarre and ugly-looking a way as possible, are not the subject of this post.)

So, when ordinary women gets themselves dressed, who should they be dressing to please?

My youthful conclusion was that women who have the luxury (and it is a luxury) of deciding how they should dress, and how they want to present themselves, should dress to please themselves. And if they dress in such a way that they make the most of their attributes, and end up feeling poised and confident in themselves, that will shine through, no matter their individual positions on the Bo Derek scale of external feminine pulchritude. Because what’s on the inside matters just as much, if not more, than what’s on the outside. And it shows.

Those who do this won’t spent all that much time stewing about whether or not they are ‘pretty enough’ or ‘trying hard enough,’ or ‘doing the right things,’ to engage the opposite sex. Because members of the opposite sex, (at least, the only ones worth bothering about), will take care of themselves, sooner or later. Or so I believe.

It’s entirely possible that my little insight does not have universal applicability, and perhaps it does not work symmetrically, or in reverse, for boys and men (feel free to weigh in, or tell your own stories). But it worked for me. And I think my “ginger” life has been happier as a result.

My mother was a ginger, too. We sometimes fought like cats. Ginger cats. And yes, I’ve had the awful “OMG, In spite of my absolute certainty that this moment would never come, I seem to be turning into my mother” moment of self-realization that I think afflicts almost all daughters at some point in their lives. But she got many things right, in her example and her instruction to her older daughter, and I think I owe my little revelation largely to her. Thanks, Mum.

I leave you with what is probably the first song I ever learned at her knee:

I’m well known as the most camera-shy member of my family.  But a few days ago a friend sent me a photo she’d come across of the late Mr. Right and me at his retirement dinner.  It occurred to me, when I looked at it (after my immediate reaction which was along the lines of “Wow, I really was a ginger, once upon a time,” that I was fifty when the photo was taken.

Not young.  Not classically beautiful.  Not chemically or artificially “assisted” (h/t the great Dorothy Parker).  But sweet of disposition.  And happy.  It’s a face I can live with.

And a feeling I hope all good women share.

(Oh, and please note the mouth.  I’m proud to say that, despite a few of life’s inevitable setbacks, it hasn’t changed much in the intervening seventeen years.)

I think Ingrid would approve.

P.S.  I so wish I could have enjoyed a drink or a meal with Ingrid Bergman.  I’ve felt that we must have been sisters under the skin ever since the time I read her daughter’s memoir in which she describes their time in a villa somewhere with a couple of dogs who regularly lifted their legs and peed on the floor-to-ceiling curtains.  Rather than get rid of the dogs, or try to train them to do otherwise, Ingrid simply got a pair of scissors and cut the curtains off at higher than the dog-leg height.

OMG!  I am speechless with admiration! That’s so me!!

2 thoughts on “Growing Up Ginger, Redux”

  1. ishkamama – In my parallel life I edit the dictionary (preferably the OED) while getting paid to travel all over the world and eat fabulous food. In my real life I am delighted by words, my family, and the world as I meet it every day.
    WickedStepDaughter says:

    I love this photo so much. Especially good to see that version of Dad, and also, way to wear that color blue. Completely slaying there, ma’am.

    I have a much longer set of thoughts on this subject. Some of them are influenced by how I’m pretty much raising a daughter on my own and she’s become 13, against all my advice and or bribery. Finding myself a teenage mother at my age in this version of society ain’t for the faint (hmm… nor for the feint) of heart.

    I’ll hold those thoughts for now and ask you to ponder this. What did Dad look like at resting face? Here’s why. It’s pretty clear from my years of incessant clowning that my general baseline is gleefully mischievous. That, however, doesn’t always square up with the corners of my mouth!

    I have been blessed with Dad’s natural lip color (a weird pale shade best described as canned-cat-food-colored) and his facial features. At rest, my mouth is not necessarily turned up at the corners. It’s an architecture problem, not a disposition issue. Thus I offer this caveat: wait for a reasonable sample of things that come out of said mouth before making the final assessment.

    For those unblessed with compliant mouth-corners, we’d like a loop-hole here, please!

    1. Hm. Your Dad’s face was quirky and very mobile, and–for most of his life–quizzical, curious, and full of energy and good humor. It was rather dominated by his ski-slope nose, though. And yes, I see similarities between you two, although I’m dodging a discussion of whether the family nose is one of the “similar facial features” you might be referring to…

      I think your mouth is fine, and I think my mother and Ingrid would have thought so as well. Nowhere near it do I see the deep, downward-dragging grooves indicating, among other things, that you spend most of your life with your teeth clenched, your lips pursed in disapproval at the world, and when your mouth is open, with venom and falsehood spilling out.

      You’re good. In all senses of the word.

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