Strolling around Front Royal, you can’t help but notice the profusion of hair salons and beauty parlors. On a side street near my house you can walk by these buildings in quick succession: Sheriff’s office, gun shop, beauty barn. Every commercial building here sits near a salon.
Do the cops stop in for a hair chop every now and then along with the purchasers of handguns and rifles? Will those weapons someday be used in crimes that land their owners in the clink? Let’s face it, whether we are good guys or bad guys, we all want to look attractive.
Yesterday I saw a woman at Martin’s grocery sporting a classic 1960s country grandma bouffant. It really was impressive—good height, evenly teased and shaped, hair-sprayed into a solid but delicate blonde-gray mass. It reminded me of a wasp’s nest. Her lady’s leisure suit and high-heeled sandals clinched the look. I must admit that I admire that kind of sassy style, even if it is 40 years old—this ma-maw was stepping out with pride.
Senior citizens probably make up a huge portion of salon devotees in Front Royal. But there also seem to be a lot of customers at the other end of the age spectrum, too many perhaps. What is it about small towns that keeps so many cosmetologists busy?
I first noticed this phenomenon at the Festival of Leaves parade, where fire trucks, pickups, and convertibles were decorated with more beauty queens than any one town should be able to produce.
Even though I could never condone the crowning of any beauty queen, from Miss Universe on down, I’m willing to accept the usual one or two per small town civic event. Certainly, Winchester would implode without its Miss Apple Blossom Festival.
I tend to combat the unwanted influence of adult beauty queens on my psyche by meditating on images of Carrie at the high school prom. Or I read my husband’s poem about Barbie, which I quote here in its entirety:
I am Barbie.
I live in your dollhouse.
You change my clothes every day.
If I could get out
of here I would
kill you all.
I believe that inside every beauty queen, every Miss Universe, a homicidal Barbie bides her time, waiting to make herself known and take her revenge for all the reductions to which she is subjected daily.
Fighting these reductions (person reduced to object, complex sentient being reduced to a pretty shell), becomes more complicated when the beauty queens are not adults but teens, kids, or even babies.
Though this year’s oddly quiet Festival of Leaves parade needed something—more marching bands and floats, maybe some bagpipes, trick motorcyclists, or Shriners in their funny little cars—what it didn’t lack were beauty queens: big ones, small ones, and really small ones.
As one friend put it, “It’s like they multiply and divide every year. First it was Little Miss Whatever—now it’s little Little Little Miss and Little Little Little Miss.”
Seeing grown-up women graft their beauty obsessions and insecurities onto young girls makes me almost physically ill. I watched those girls in the parade with their curls, in their crowns and frilly dresses, make-up applied artfully to their young skin. What were they trying to be? What did their mothers want them to be? Some kind of living fairy tale, a strange kind of lie.
For some reason, this kind of pimped up kid makes me think of that wonderful horror movie from 1960, Village of the Damned, in which evil-eyed, outwardly perfect, tow-headed children attempt to take over the world. They are truly creepy.
I can almost hear the beauty pageant mothers shouting back at me.
“Lighten up!” they say. “What’s wrong with being pretty?”
Nothing, of course, as long as being pretty is not the goal, or even a goal. Physical beauty is a mirage manufactured for us by culture and commercialism. I’m not immune to it and neither is my six year old daughter. Sometimes I succumb (hair dye) and sometimes I fight it. But I never forget it.
How can I? In America, the emphasis on looks pervades everything. Just when you think you’ve been clever enough to lead your child away from socially proscribed standards of beauty, she comes out with this statement:
“Mommy, I want don’t want to be brown. I want to be white. I want blue eyes and blonde hair.”
Is there no escaping the Aryan ideal? Does my child have to feel inferior because she is brown haired, brown eyed, and not lily white?
In some ways I think she is lucky because she will never come close to the Barbie stereotype. She has to find a more legitimate source of personal power. And if we tell her over and over again that she is beautiful because of who she is and not what she looks like, and that all colors of skin are beautiful, I know it will sink in—eventually.
But it can be a fine line to walk between celebrating femininity and not placing too much emphasis on the physical. One friend has undergone two rounds of liposuction and plastic surgery in her quest to be “hot.” I’m of two minds about this—she has worked hard to lose weight, tone her muscles, and be healthy. She is confident and happy. That’s all good.
But she’s also spent a lot of time and money on surgery and personal trainers—this has been a major focus of her existence and is critical to her role as a wife. When I hear that there’s a new beauty pageant solely for women who have undergone plastic surgery, I think about this friend and wonder how far she will go to try to reach some ad executive’s idea of perfection. I don’t begrudge her her beauty but I’d like to see her focus on it less.
I try not to get too wrapped up in how I look—what clothes I wear, what make-up I have on, how heavy I am—but I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it. I don’t usually wear make-up but sometimes, for a night out on the town, it’s fun to put on. My daughter loves to play dress-up and to shop for clothes. We don’t shop often—who can afford it?—but I can see she cares deeply about what she wears. I’ll have to carefully steer her away from equating clothes and fashion with self-esteem.
Like the funky, stylin granny at Martins, I want my daughter to feel confident but without placing too much value on looks. There’s a big difference between the two.
In 2004, Dove began something it calls the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” This marketing strategy is ingenious because it addresses image head on, defusing any criticism of Dove as a perpetuator of beauty stereotypes. Dove has positioned its products as tools to improve confidence and self-esteem outside narrow definitions of what constitutes pretty.
The campaign is impressive. It makes a point to use images of real women and girls of all colors, shapes, and sizes. It also claims that the images are not altered. They’ve developed workshops and guides for girls and parents on how to develop self-esteem that is not dependent on outward appearance.
But it’s crazy that we need such guides in the first place. Someday I’d like to see all the small town beauty queens throw away their crowns and the mothers of pageant babies give the finger to pageant promoters. Wouldn’t that rock?
Recently, my daughter picked out a brown Barbie at the toy store of her own accord. Jose and I were astounded. Granted, it’s still Barbie, with her insane waist, torpedo breasts, and stiletto-ready feet but at least Maggie didn’t gravitate immediately toward the Nordic-looking doll, like she usually does. Her world is starting to expand.
Jose and I can’t let up though. It’s our job to keep reminding her that every ad she sees has been airbrushed, touched up, and rendered false, that TV and movies construct a beauty ideal that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. Together, I hope she and I can learn to create our own authentic beauty from the inside out with less than perfect hands.
-Heather Lynne Davis