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Original Essays

The Way We Looked Then

by Sigrid Nunez
  1. The Last of Her Kind
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    The Last of Her Kind

    Sigrid Nunez

  2. For Rouenna: A Novel
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    For Rouenna: A Novel

    Sigrid Nunez

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  4. Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury
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There was a time in my girlhood when all I wanted was to be beautiful. Of course, there have always been girls who share this dream, but I believe in my case it was more pronounced. This may have had something to do with having an attractive mother, whose looks were often commented on when I was growing up.

It is the early sixties. We live in a small apartment in a housing project in Staten Island, New York. My mother, who is German, and who came to America as a war bride in 1948, has blond hair and blue eyes. She looks, speaks, and behaves differently from everyone else. But, however attractive others might find her, my mother is not particularly absorbed in her own appearance or its effect. Also, she is not a happy woman, which means I can't have associated the gift of beauty with happiness. (On the contrary, even as a child I knew good looks did not necessarily bring fulfillment to any person, of either gender.) Where she comes from, my mother says, lots of women look like her. And she says men wouldn't pay as much attention to her if she were a brunette.

Often I hear people say I look like my mother, but what could they mean? For one thing, I am not fair like her. I'm a brunette. My father is half Chinese, half Panamanian. In years to come, I will grow weary of the word exotic. But growing up in the housing project I am called other things: half breed, chink, spick. This is the way the world is, I think. And this is the way it will always be.

In junior high school, no one calls me beautiful, or even pretty. At best, someone, usually older — a teacher, say, but never a peer — might call me cute. Mine is a pixyish, undernourished, undeveloped look. Always small for my age, I am also a year younger than my classmates. When it was decided I should do both second and third grades in the same year, no one gazed into the future and saw me in the girls' locker room, mortified to be still wearing an undershirt. No one calculated the derision I'd face arriving at parties in white anklets and flats. But it was part of my mother's Old-World way to disapprove of how American girls were permitted to wear bras, nylons, and high heels at the first sign of puberty. And even when I am finally permitted to wear nylons myself, I am not permitted to shave my legs. As for wearing black, which I dearly want to do, my mother will still be insisting that black (with the exception of black velvet) is "too old" for me when I am well out of college.

What is beautiful? My mother is forever pointing to girls, not necessarily blond like herself but always white, whose looks meet her approval. To me, many of these girls are plain — and can it be a coincidence that they are all also demure types: clean-cut, well-behaved little ladies? Just as inevitably, the girls I am drawn to are always ones she frowns on. "She looks so wild," my mother would say — wild being, along with cheap, one of her favorite criticisms.

A French-Canadian family has recently moved into the building across from ours. Though she already has two children, the mother is barely out of her teens. I am fascinated by her Cleopatra eye makeup, her frosted bouffant hair, her skintight pants and skirts. My mother is appalled.

"Can't you see she's nothing but a tramp?"

My mother is indignant with me — and worried, too. What will become of a girl with taste as cheap as mine?

In those years, I am still growing, and I already look quite different from how I looked as a child. And so I can hold on to the fantasy that time might yet turn me into a princess. And perhaps I sense, too, that, along with all the other changes the sixties are rapidly bringing about, a change in the definition of beautiful is also in the air.

The era of the supermodel has recently begun with two glamorous but nearly opposite types. Jean Shrimpton is known as the Queen of Mod, but her looks are in the classical tradition: long pretty-girl hair, big blue eyes, round cheeks, and a slender but womanly figure. Veruschka, with her unfeminine height — over six foot: almost unheard of in a woman back then — her flat nose, huge hands and feet, and a look so mannish some people believe she was in fact born a man, seems to belong to a different species altogether, not human.

Both women are about a decade older than I, but it might as well be a generation. I revere them and devour every image and word about them I come across. But identify with them I cannot.

Meanwhile, outside the pages of the fashion magazines, sweater girls still rule. To be attractive (and this isn't just masculine opinion, either) a girl has to be — in a word that still has the power to make me cringe — stacked. (I don't know if it's true, but I remember hearing about a stipulation in Audrey Hepburn's contract that she would never be required to appear on screen in a bathing suit. So the verdict on the skinny body — forget the divine face — was clear.)

The appearance of Twiggy, in 1966, is like the answer to a prayer for girls like me. She is only two years older than I, and, at five foot four, only slightly taller, and we weigh about the same: ninety pounds. All glammed up, Twiggy is as beautiful as any model, but it's an illusion of a sort. For this is no goddess like Shrimpton or Veruschka. This is just a gorgeous kid.

Looking at old Vogue photographs now, I see that my mother was right when she said Twiggy often looked like a girl wearing her mother's clothes and makeup. (Especially true when she was modeling evening wear.) In a TV documentary broadcast during her first visit to the States, she moved gawkily and spoke inarticulately — every inch the shy, awkward teen. She was one of us — and at the same time she was the most famous beauty in the world.

It was a thing that could have happened only at that particular moment, when the whole culture was in the process of being taken over by the young.

Not everyone was smitten with Twiggy, of course. Pathetic, was how my mother described her. I remember other grownups laughing at her outlandishly short hair and at her figure ("What figure?"), and when boys at school called me by her name it was meant not to flatter, of course, but to wound.

And yet my mother, who made most of my clothes back then, was perfectly willing to whip up a number of little outfits in the style of designers like Mary Quant. Here at last my mother and I seemed to have found some common ground. Pinafore dresses with little white collars, cutaway armholes, halter necks, rib-fitting sweaters, patterned tights, short flat boots — my mother had to agree this new look might have been invented for me. Up and up went my hems, and I was no longer ashamed to show my skinny legs or to bare my arms and bony shoulders.

But there was another type Twiggy evoked, especially when she was photographed dressed down, or appeared as her natural self. This was, of course, the waif. As the sixties rolled on, the waif look would take stronger and stronger hold. But the hair had to be long now, and it had to be straight. And the makeup — every trace of it — had to go. A wan complexion was best: it would not do to appear too healthy. The very last thing you wanted people to think was that you'd spent hours and hours in front of the mirror — and in fact I no longer did. It was a look I blossomed into seemingly without any effort at all. And for a while, at least, it was the look every girl I knew on the cusp of womanhood like me wanted. spacer

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