For the average woman, beauty is both a blessing and a curse. The so called "plain Janes" of the world may be overlooked for their "sexier" counterparts, both in relation to career and romance. On the other hand, every "beautiful woman" fears she is valued only for her looks, and wonders whether she might have succeeded so far in life based on her intelligence alone.
Saddest of all, is that most of us think we are "hideous", even in our most gorgeous, glamourous youthful peak of between 18-35. It's only when we look back and see our youthful photos that we realise just how beautiful we were.
A case in point is a black and white photograph taken of me at 22, that sits in a frame on my sideboard. At the time, I thought I was hideous. Despite being told by friends, family and romantic interests I was beautiful, no amount of reassurance would ever convince me otherwise. I saw my curly dark hair, lack of stature and volumptuous figure as belonging to another pre-Twiggy era. I would acknowledge I did have great eyes, decent legs, fine ankles and a damn good brain. The latter of which I viewed as my most valuable asset.
I climbed the rungs of my career and made a rapid rise through the ranks of my union, to achieve considerable offices of responsibility and leadership. I adapted an arty mode of dress and did the best to conceal my ample bosom and curves. Occasionally, I would embrace overty sexual dress, donning revealing, figure clinging numbers and stilletos for the odd formal function, or to turn the head of a rock star or two in the guise of my "groupie personna".
My pet hate was when I encountered what I can only describe as "oggling men", the kind that fix their eyes on your breasts, instead of meeting your gaze.
Then when I was turning forty-five I went into what I can only describe as a cycle of fear. I realised I was getting older. Like it or not, menopause lay ahead. I was about to commence on the journey of reinventing myself beyond youth. I didn't believe I had ever traded on my sex appeal. But did other people value me more, because I was even remotely "hot"?
Would I remain as valued and successful through mid-life as I had in my youth?
I was lucky to look younger than my years, but I knew it was a case of number crunching from here on in. My girth was expanding, I was going grey and that my looks were not as fetching as they once were.
I can only call this process a form of grieving the beauty and sex appeal I once had. I guess it was only when I was losing that youthful grace, did I realise I once posessed it in spades.
I look back on that young, beautiful women and wonder why I thought I was so hideous, if not downright uglly. I measured myself against images of the era drawn initially from 'Dolly, graduating to 'Cleo' and 'Cosmopolitain', then onto 'Vogue'. I was invariably too short, too fat and too curvy to measure up. On top of that, I think I hated my body, because it so revealed my very femaleness, despite my best efforts to operate as gender neutrally as possible in my professional life. I was an active feminist in both my private and professional life. With the kind of measurements and dimensions that would have dubbed me a sex kitten in the 1950s, I was desperate to be valued on my own terms and that was not to trade on my sex appeal. Like most women I just wanted to be me and valued as a whole package of internal and external attributes!
I look back on photos of my closest friends from university. All of us felt pretty much the same about our appearance. Invariably, we thought we were too fat, too thin, always stuck in "bad hair days" and aiming at redefining conventions. We set our own dress codes, pretty much rejected make up and on the whole, dressed for modesty and comfort. All of us were successful in our careers and personal lives. We both blessed and cursed the fact that we were born female. We had to work to prove our value, we hit the glass ceilings in our professional lives and fought to make the world an easier, more inclusive and accepting place for women, where we were truly free to be ourselves and free to be heard.
I sit here writing this aged 55. I am no longer that youthful young woman who denied her own beauty. Thesedays I do fear I will never again be told I am beautiful. Perhaps that belongs to the past and should be locked away in my heart as a treasured memory. Maybe some women never even get to hear it from others, even when they are young?
As for Elizabeth Taylor, who could ever have questioned her beauty?
I wonder if she was ever as convinced of her own beauty as the movie houses and media of the day. Did she struggle with the loss of her youthful sex appeal and have a life long desire to be valued as a highly intelligent person first and foremost?
Liz Taylor was revered as a great actress before her teens, with roles in films like Jane Eyre and National Velvet, then as a sex symbol through most of her Hollywood heyday. For 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe' Liz gained a huge amount of weight to play the role of Martha. This commenced a battle with the buldge that was to continue for the rest of her life. Great roles for older women were few and far between. Despite Elizabeth Taylor's lack of starring roles beyond her forties, she continued to be loved and respected by her fans and the film industry. She was condemned by the media for being too fat and bulgy in her senior years, but she was both very human and outspoken about her battle with the bulge. She continued to advocate for the causes she cared about, like gay rights and advocating acceptance for those suffering from AIDS. She was a highly intelligent, literate woman of immense intellect and depth, who contributed much to the arts and struggled with her health and addictions, as well as the paparazzi for the best part of her life.
As for myself, I know from here lies the path to old age. I am determined to remain "beautiful" and age gracefully. I am proud of my mane of grey curly hair. I don't care about the bulges. I still seek our arty but comfortable clothes and prefer wearing trousers to skirts. I trade on my brain, as evidenced by my blogs and continued work as a teacher. I am convinced older women can remain desirable and not be condemned to invisibility post-menopause. I hope, at ninety to be as active and on the ball as my great Aunt Alma, who was still enjoying her garden only months before she died, some two weeks short of her hundredth birthday. When I look into the mirror, all I see is myself staring back. I am who I am!