Issue #62, Joy

It Wasn't Until I Was an Old Woman that I Began to Enjoy Being Beautiful

Essay

Toi Derricotte

It Wasn't Until I Was an Old Woman that I Began to Enjoy Being Beautiful

                           Tell myself
Trust in experience. And in the rhythms. 
The deep rhythms of your experience. 

- Muriel Rukeyser

It wasn’t until I was an old woman that I began to enjoy being beautiful. I had come to the art of self-possession. For many years before that, I would look into my closet when I wanted to feel pretty. I would go through the clothes, asking myself, What would Carolina Herrera wear? I tried to fit myself, as one cuts the cloth to the pattern. Perhaps the first person I compared myself to was my mother. I watched her in the mirror as she put on makeup, understanding that, no matter what I did, I would never be as beautiful. I remember following her in Hudson’s when we’d go shopping. People’s eyes would turn toward her and stay far too long, as if her face were a hook. I had given up the hope that my own face would capture them, so I attended her beauty in a priestly fashion.

***

As I studied my mother, I studied other poets, mostly men. I immersed myself in learning, cutting my words to their patterns. But, as hard as I tried, I didn’t feel kinship. I felt heir to the rage in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and the pain in Billie Holiday’s blues. These were women who focused on their private worlds, forbidden feelings, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. I wanted to express a buried horror and make it shine, and I used what I learned, as a builder uses tools, to make something all my own and therefore forbidden. Now that it is done, I find myself reading, not to learn, but for pleasure. Reading Ernest Hemingway, I am walking on the banks of the Seine. I am a ghost of spring air, but I eat everything—textures, colors. I can taste the Pouilly-Fuissé and the salty silver oysters, cold on their bed of ice. I am famished for sweets.

***

During bouts of insomnia, I think of my wardrobe. I have arranged the closet by color and use; the dresses begin with white, go through cream and beige, then colors and prints, to brown and, lastly, black. Everything is ordered this way—the skirts, pants, shirts, sweaters, jackets, and suits. I go over them in my mind. Tonight, I want to build an outfit that begins with the smoky blue-gray mesh top with a round neck and three-quarter sleeves. I picture the black strapless dress I will wear under it and think how svelte I will look. The strange uneven hem rises in front to just below the knees, making my legs seem longer and more naked. I get up and try it on to see if my mind has pictured it correctly. I try on various pearl necklaces, three in increasing lengths down to my waist, as they wore them in the twenties, and a pair of black fabric shoes with a cutout for one blunt red-lacquered toe. 

***

I only do this for myself in the middle of the night. It’s a ritual like the act of reading—private. I move through fabrics, feeling them against my skin, braless, without underclothes. Tomorrow evening when I go out, I will carry this bold square silver purse, which will shine against the blue-gray of my top and the black of my dress, my tanned throat and chest appearing more naked then if they were naked through the smoky mesh top. 

***

People don’t stare at me when I go out, and I don’t like it if they do. I don’t like being too visible in a crowd; I prefer to fade away as I did behind my mother. When I feel people’s eyes on me, I blink and turn sideways, trying to make myself smaller, and when I look again, they’ve looked away. Sometimes, at the theater, when I feel I’m so beautiful that I’m vivid, hot, I pass through the crowd and no one seems to notice me, and I wonder if I think too highly of myself. 

***

But when you are old, you are willing to make mistakes for beauty, willing to wear a silver purse that might make someone wonder, Why would she wear something so obvious and loud when the rest of her clothes are subtle? You will wear something only because it makes you smile inside for its square of light against the darkness. It is your choice, and, for the first time, you dare to appear out of character. I’ve had students who dress in wild patterns or wear nylons with holes in them and outlandish jewelry. Perhaps they, too, are dressing from the inside.

***

One who has begun to see the stars approaching—like another Paris boulevard, the city that opens to the oldest city—I will dress during the night and walk in front of two mirrors. I will admire the best things about me: my broad shoulders and the high bones of my chest. And, in such a way, I will write.

* Illustration by Lauren Braun


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Author Bio

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte's most recent book is The Undertaker's Daughter. Her honors include the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained... read more

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