Let’s Face It

That’s this pretty girl, second from right, at 17.

A pretty girl grows accustomed to being the center of attention. She is on the A-list, selected for teams and sleepovers, to star in school plays, and to go to ritzy beach houses on summer weekends and on ski trips in winter.

A pretty girl grows accustomed to being sought after by A-list boys, and longed for by boys on society’s fringe. If charm accompanies that pretty face, she often is teacher’s pet, with latitude granted for missed homework and poor quiz scores.

When I was in school in the 50s, a pretty girl believed it wise to compete with girls for boys, and not to compete with boys. Collecting varsity pins of stars who vied for her attention trumped any desire she may have had to pursue academic excellence.

A pretty girl who attended college in the early 60s, often on a quest for an M.R.S. degree, received high grades for work that might be mediocre, from professors (they were mostly men then) who primped as she entered the room, hoping to gain her admiration. Accustomed to “getting by on her looks,” a pretty girl sometimes felt bewildered by changing expectations of the era, but found that a pretty face serves as hard currency in any world.

A pretty girl is accustomed to being noticed as she enters a room. The waters part for her. She is fawned over by plain girls wanting to share the glow of her aura, and men are courtly. In the office or lab, she is offered raises and promotions (to a point), foreign travel and prime assignments. In marriage, her failings are happily forgiven by her besotted husband.

Woe to this pretty girl as she ages. We all know her story. Often her position at home or at work is usurped by a younger woman. She doesn’t quite get why her status has changed, because disappointment is a strange bedfellow. And when she looks in the mirror, she still sees a pretty face. She feels pretty. Her Gestalt is “pretty.”

Over time, this self-image wanes. The faces of her friends become lined and she may muse, “Is that how I look?” Then, one morning the face that greets her in her mirror is not the pretty girl.

I was a lucky pretty girl, in that I had it both ways. I never fully incorporated a pretty-girl persona because by the time my swan emerged, in late adolescence, I was used to being ignored by boys and had developed other interests.

My mom is on the left, Aunt Clara on the right.

But in the end, I am that woman looking in the mirror wondering where the pretty girl went. Because my pretty mother died young, I no longer see her face in mine. I see my Aunt Clara, who lived a long life.

I am sharing these thoughts because my friend wondered if the novel I’m writing addresses metaphorically my preoccupation with aging and the loss of physical beauty. My protagonist, Brenda Corrigan, is attacked and undergoes facial reconstruction. As she tries to cope with the reality that her pretty, though aging, face has been usurped by one misshapen and scarred, she is determined to rely on other strengths, noting that the blind hear everything, the deaf see all. Wit remains her mainstay: When a group of women enter a posh Beverly Hills restaurant, Brenda observes their plastic surgery results. “Were those faces all cut from the same stencil?” she asks her daughter. “They all look like gaping fish.”

Aging indeed is a theme of this novel. We all confront the loss of physical beauty and learn to rely on other strengths, if we are lucky.