Brand building through storytelling

If looks could thrill

The first time I saw Naomi, I instantly knew two things. I wanted to look just like her and I didn’t stand a chance. Nineteen and newly married to my mother’s favourite cousin, she positively shimmered with glamour. Her white sheath dress revealed a model’s figure; her sleek blonde beehive and stiletto heels made her appear even taller than she was. In the arrivals lounge of the Winnipeg airport, she towered over a navy blue throng of elderly relatives like an orchid surrounded by pansies.

There I stood in my scuffed ankle socks and too-tight dress from the sale rack, a stocky 12-year-old smitten by beauty. More than anything else about Naomi, I loved her smile, which hinted at secrets she would pass on to me like the big sister I didn’t have. Perhaps if I asked nicely, she’d teach me to do my eyes like hers.

We never did get around to makeup lessons. But about 45 years later, with the offhand wisdom of a woman just being herself, she taught me something more profound.

We were sitting in the window of a busy café in the Toronto neighborhood where both of us live. We were dressed in the uniform of comfort-minded women—yoga wear and running shoes. As we talked about movies that touched us and the grown children who amaze us, I studied that wonderful smile, which has left its imprint on her cheeks and around her eyes. Naomi is in her sixties now, and neither lifted nor Botoxed. Yet she radiates the artless confidence that comes with letting go of whatever constricts a woman’s best self. She has given up stilettos, sheath dresses, eyeliner, a couple of careers and my mother’s cousin. When the coffee arrived, I had a flash of insight. Naomi still embodies my notion of how I want to look someday. But the beauty she has now is the kind I can hope to grow into.

She was just the person I needed to see. I’d been having a bad face day, when it seemed the reflection in my bathroom mirror must belong to some haggard interloper. My skin looked crumpled, like heirloom linens roughly shoved into a drawer. An array of creams and potions had failed to iron it smooth. Even more than the lines that I could swear did not exist the previous week, I resented the primal fear they unleashed in me. I’d always thought I was much too high-minded to fret about such things. But that was when I still believed that sunscreen, Pilates and naturally fresh skin could keep me looking forever 40-something—or maybe early 50s, in a pinch.

I’ve always looked younger than my age. Catch is, I’m turning 58. My sixties are practically upon me. I’m still a tad young to “feel bad about my neck” (to quote the title of Nora Ephron’s best-seller). But the day will come when I can pass for half a dozen years younger and still look-let’s be honest-old. With luck and care, I’ll be a great old dame. I can drape my thickening form in exotic robes and carry a silver-headed cane as if it were a scepter. Still, 80 is not the new 40, dammit.

I know, I know. Thanks to needles, lasers and scalpels, none of us have to look anywhere close to our age. Many women in my circle are already looking tighter and brighter, with not a wrinkle or a jowl in sight. Well, why not? That’s a question every woman must answer for herself—and deserves to. I cringe at earnest declarations that we owe it to young girls to love our lines. Oh, please! We’re living real lives, not a feminist manifesto. Unlike some of my friends, I don’t have a career that demands an airbrushed face. I do have a horror of painful procedures, medical accidents and large outlays of cash that don’t buy a permanent result. It has crossed my mind more than once that I may soon be the only woman at the party who does not look “rested,” as the compliment goes. If I’m going to let time have its way with me, I’ll need help getting used to the idea.

And so I find myself observing women like Naomi, who are clearly at the far end of midlife or have already passed that boundary with style and grace. I used to ignore these women, along with most of the world. They generally don’t draw caressing glances from men. Unless the hint of money surrounds them like perfume, they don’t create a flurry of helpfulness by strolling into a boutique. But they’ve become my beauty role models.

Sometimes I wonder why I care so much about my looks. It’s not as if they’ve ever been my strong suit. Growing up in the shadow of a painfully pretty younger sister, whose soulful eyes and pixie gestures were the talk of every supermarket checkout line, I learned early that some girls have a sheen that is almost too perfect for this world. I was not that kind, so I chose wisdom as my goal. And yet, being female, I harbored secret longings for beauty. In fairy tales the wise woman lives alone in a cave, working magic. The beautiful woman rides off to the palace with her prince; she is magic. Ever since I can remember, I have looked for that magic in women, hoping a little might rub off on me.

As a preschooler, I’d watch my mother apply her lipstick for a party and dream of the day when I too could have a Cupid’s bow that gleamed like rubies. Soon enough, I dropped her for other role models: high school classmates whose hair flowed in shining panels instead of exploding in frizz like mine, tweed-suited young careerists who tied their silk scarves with a mysterious Parisian flair. At my first gym I would watch svelte women work out and borrow their moves to sculpt my own body. Dogged mimicry served me so well that I once heard a new member whisper to her friend, with an awestruck nod in my direction, “I want to look like her someday.”

At 40 or so, I had become what the French call “bien dans sa peau,” at ease in one’s skin. After cobbling a style together from borrowed ideas, like an amateur decorator with a notebook full of swatches and tearsheets, I finally had a style of my own. For years I inhabited its comforts—the signature haircut, the fluid pants and soft sweaters—as if they were a room designed for my pleasure. I liked my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and in all the other mirrors that caught my eye while I darted here and there. My husband asked with a wry smile, “Have you noticed that you never pass a mirror without looking?” What a question! Mirrors proved that I’d transcended my pudgy childhood self. By reminding me who I was-no competition for Linda Evangelista, but touched with my own kind of hard-won beauty-they gave me confidence and courage. For more than a decade, they told me I’d hardly changed at all.

I’m not sure quite when it was that mirrors got tough with me. I was turning into someone different, they said. It was time to get comfortable in this new person’s skin, which looked a little tired in my cherished black wardrobe. But I wasn’t alone in this challenge I faced. Older women were pointing the way. At my local greengrocer, I spotted a 60-plus woman in a shapely white jacket that lip up her face and swung when she walked. If I could be her in a few years’ time, would that be so bad?

To mark this new season of my life, I bought myself a big white stole, airy as a cloud. At the mirror I found at least half a dozen ways to drape it—including several that would have escaped me in my staid younger years. Not bad, I thought. In fact, beautiful.

First published in More (Canadian edition), April 2008.

 

Posted by Rona

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