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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Guest Post: Mother’s Day

What, y’all don’t put your mother to work on Mother’s Day by asking her for 1,000 words on beauty, stat? Enjoy today’s guest post from Deborah Whitefield, my mother.

“When my hair finally turns gray, my first inclination will be
to color it some color unknown to my 16-year-old self.”
Or: How my mother will wind up with kelly green hair circa 2023.

Remember those quizzes in magazines which will reveal something about yourself when you tally your answers? Some were about your personality type, some about what type of boys will like you (or vice versa), and so on. I wonder if a quiz couldn’t be created for how we modify our looks. For instance, “What Does Your Head Tell the World?” Questions would ask readers about where they apply makeup (outlining eyes and lips? lips only? foundation?), what they apply to their hair (shampoo? coloring? braids?), extra additions (piercing, tattoo), and the like. The results would indicate how much readers were shouting to the world, “Look at Me!” For, after all, isn’t that basically what alterations to our faces are saying? “Look at Me—I’m your normal woman, who will blend in.” Or, “Hey, Look at Me—I’m not taking any crap from anyone and my chartreuse blush tells you that!” Or, “Yes, I AM a Metalhead!”

At age 16 I began noticing old women with gray hair. As I grew up familiar with both my grandmothers, I knew what naturally gray hair looked like—they were not dyeing their hair gray to maintain the same gray color throughout. Yet in 1966, old women were donning uniformly gray-white hair. And gloriously gray—a certain sheen to it which my grandmother’s hair never had. Salon hair, no doubt. The next year I began seeing that some of those women opted to add a blue rinse to their gray. Odd and ethereal, I thought, but it didn’t look outrageous. Then, one day at a mall, I saw a woman with a pink rinse over her gray hair and I laughed out loud. As I was with a friend, I suspect I made quite a to-do over it. In retrospect I can only hope I wasn’t so loud that the woman heard me. Yet, I “needed” her to know her color selection was inappropriate and that only teenagers had the “right” to express their individuality. I didn’t even want to grant that woman the right to take the “Look at Me” quiz. The End.


Believe me, as enlightening as the ’60s became, we were sort of unenlightened simultaneously, not initially cushioning our societal critiques with kindness or affirmations. While it wasn’t only teens who were questioning authority, which included fashion and styling standards, we were in the vanguard—we thought. Hearing my mother say, “The kids are right, the war is wrong,” was one thing; changing one’s opinion isn’t necessarily easy, but doing so allowed for subtleties that were risk-free compared to looking like you questioned authority. It was another thing entirely to see a woman of “a certain age” sporting light pink hair. Next thing you knew, old women would be letting their hair grow long and straight! (Plus, the idea that mature women could drive anything countercultural seemed amiss to me—but not necessarily to counterculture icons. Some women began to don rimless eyeglasses around age 50, when their eyesight began to change. We called them “Granny glasses” then. You’d call them “John Lennon glasses” now.)

Between that year and now I’ve seen a proliferation of tattoos and pierced face parts, which have been taken in stride much better than that pink rinse on one old woman. Why? I suspect I came to see the yearning for expression of individuality in the piercings, tattoos, and even the simple choice of color for eyelids. Not a scream of “Look at Me!” but a way to state to others that this person was not your ordinary seeker of perfected beauty.


To further the idea of quizzes, how about a quiz for those who look at other people and “rate” them, for lack of a better term? After answering questions, readers would learn how judgmental they are. Questions would include how one reacts when s/he sees a clerk with a nose stud, nose ring, runny nose. (Ok, not that last one.) How about a facial tattoo? Do you reject their purchasing advice? Think, “She’d be pretty if she didn’t…”, as I recently heard my 86-year-old mother-in-law say about another diner in the restaurant?

As this blog notes, beauty is as much about the Perceiver as the Perceived. When I see a 63-year-old woman today who has put on colored eye shadow and eyeliner under her eyes, I wonder what she is trying to prove or what is wrong with her life. This is much the way I looked at one of my grandmothers, who powdered her face several times a day. To my teenage eyes, it only increased the depth of her cheek wrinkles, making her look as though she was trying to capture something she’d clearly lost. Yes, I was that awful—but I was young. I took in her beauty rites as a teenager would, not as one of her peers might, and certainly not as she herself did. If a woman doesn’t apply makeup, I presume either allergies or a back-to-nature personality, since that’s part of the reason I never wore much of the stuff. And too much makeup? Hooker! Man wearing makeup? I waffle on this one—“It’s about time!” or “Why would you want to do that when you don’t ‘have’ to?” I saw my first pierced woman-on-the-street when I was in my mid-40s. My reaction was to want one. Were it not for my allergy to metal, I’d have a small, fine gold hoop on my left eyebrow. And I’d get a tongue stud, which I like seeing when someone laughs.

There are two things I know on this Mother’s Day weekend. The first, is that when my hair finally turns gray, my first inclination will be to color it some color unknown to my 16-year-old self. Maybe a kelly green. And maybe even spikes—which, while of the ’80s, have long been a style of interest to me. I hope I have that kind of nerve.

The second thing I know is that on the day my daughter was born, I looked at her hands and told her about the things she could do with them. Speak sign language, play piano, applaud, write letters, build tables, climb trees, shake hands, give massages, bake, swim, dress herself, dig. One thing I am sure I did not tell her she could do was to apply makeup. Is there a quiz for this?

Mother and daughter, Manhattanhenge 2010.

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