there is no such thing as natural beauty

Posted by on May 19, 2007

I really hate movies and modern novels that romanticize the south, particularly ones that feature cardboard cutout caricatures with poorly imitated southern drawls. Yuck. Even so, I’ve always liked Steel Magnolias, which I think is a well-done movie all around. In it, Dolly Parton plays a hairdresser named Trudy, but (let’s all just admit) is really playing Dolly Parton. There are so many wonderful lines in this movie, which centers around a group of women who all get their hair and nails done at Trudy’s beauty shop. I thought about it because we’re in Tennessee right now visiting Jeff’s family, and my mother-in-law paid for me to get a pedicure at a local salon here, where her best friend cuts hair, and in which lots of local ladies apparently go regularly, as far as I could observe while sitting in the foot-soaker throne. There’s a part in Steel Magnolias where Trudy draws aside her newly hired beautician and shares the cardinal rule of her salon: there is no such thing as natural beauty.
I’ve always wavered back and forth on the low to high-maintenance continuum, depending on my surroundings. In high school, it was fine to be grungy (as in Seattle) and I was. In college, I moved up the low to high maintenance continuum just a notch, because suddenly I was surrounded by future business women of America, who woke up at 6:30 a.m. to prepare their visage. My natural tendency is to shun unnatural alterations to my appearance, and I always had a natural distrust of make-up, but I can certainly be persuaded to wear it, and have been persuaded, sometimes aggressively. I won’t even talk about living in New York, and being escorted to a Lancome counter in Lord and Taylor by a friend who was trying to help me out. Now that I’m in the Midwest though, I’ve slid back down a few notches toward grungy again, and I have to say, it feels good.
Jeff and I come back to his hometown of Cleveland (not Ohio–Tennessee) several times a year from our northern outpost. I haven’t lived in the south since 1999, when I graduated from college and went timidly northward. The rest is a long and not-that-interesting story, but basically, I haven’t managed to get back, which reminds me of the title of that Thomas Wolf novel, which I haven’t read, You Can’t Go Home Again, except that my story lacks conflict, drama, descriptive language, climax, denouement, or really anything that makes a story interesting. It’s just the way the chips have fallen, and I’m not tortured over it, although resettling in different regions does take some adjustment, and I still undergo a little bit of shock and bemusement each time I travel back and forth.
Sometimes I forget that there is any difference between the different regions of the United States, and that the real differences are only the stuff of the pre-globalism regional writers, like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and so on, not the present-day wannabe regional writers, who worship regional differences and blow them all out of proportion, and desperately want to be identified with said regional differences. But then I actually travel and am reminded that human beings really do have a tendency to settle into territorial pockets, and behave in a way that bears the imprint of those who live nearby. Even television and Starbucks cannot change this, and I am no exception: I have been influenced and changed by the regions, subcultures, and company I’ve kept, each time I resettle. When I come into the Southern Baptist culture of Jeff’s family, I feel myself unwittingly altering myself yet again to please and blend in (would I have dared to get daisies painted on my toenails anywhere else?). I’m beginning to think that not only is there no such thing as natural beauty, but there is no such thing as natural, at least for me.
  1. Jenny
    May 21, 2007


    LOVE those toes. Mine are are in sore need of TLC. I loved your flikr site as well–I was laughing at captions.

  2. Erin
    May 21, 2007

    I like this post very much, and I have like 300 things to say, but I will try to stick to only a few…
    1. I love Steel Magnolias also! My favorite character is Shirley McLaine’s character, esp. when Sally Field tries to defend her husband’s chivalrousness, and S.M. says “yeah, I’m sure he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it”. Hehe.
    2. I agree with you about having a hard time with conceptions of beauty. I especially have a hard time when I am surrounded by Lebanese women. And I’ve had the friends who tried to “help” me. Kinda just felt insulted.
    3. I hear you guys will be in CO in July- hope we can see you!
    4. I found out this weekend that our priest’s wife knew you pretty well in Boston. Katina Gartelos. She was very excited to find out that you had a baby! Small world.
    5. I just finished reading Middlemarch last weekend, and the last paragraph was one of the most beautiful I have ever read, and was somewhat of a “religious experience” for me. I recommend it if you haven’t read it.
    Wow, I better stop now! Take care!

  3. Julia
    May 21, 2007

    Go get a pedicure! Give me one reason why you should not.

    Now I have 300 things to say in response, so I hope you come back to read this. Here’s my top four:

    1. Shirley McLaine’s character is my favorite too, but one of my favorite lines overall is: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.”

    2. Seeing you in CO would be the highlight of our trip…my husband said your husband sounded doubtful about meeting up but everyone knows it’s a bad idea to leave social planning to husbands (sexist remark– sorry). Let’s talk.

    3. There are probably many parallels between southern and mediterranean beauty standards; together we should form a mutinous support group.

    4. And I can’t believe Katina and Fr George Gartelos are at your parish–they are so great. Please tell them hello for me.