On beauty


It all started this evening while I was making some turkey meatballs (I feel obliged to explain that though I am mostly a vegetarian I do every so often cook turkey and sometimes fish) (I suppose that doesn’t really make me a vegetarian at all) (alas). I went into the freezer to get some chili powder and found none (why do I keep my spices in the freezer? you may wonder. My ex-husband claimed that “a chef” told him that this is where to store spices and even though I have never found any evidence for this, I have found that it is an easy enough place to store them when you don’t have a large kitchen). I did find something in a plastic bag in the freezer that had been bought in bulk at the food co-op many years ago and was faintly labeled “mild cayenne,” and I thought, Mild cayenne is probably mild enough. But no, it was not. These are going to be some spicy meatballs, I thought later.

And then I remembered something. Years ago, I worked at a public radio interview show that is quite popular on WNYC, and one day the host mentioned quite incidentally to me that his mother had played the woman in a famous Alka Seltzer commercial. This is the one in which a man has to keep eating meatballs and saying, “That’s a spicy meatball!” take after take until finally, after all those meatballs, he needs Alka Seltzer. It’s actually pretty clever (but apparently some people had other opinions as the comments on youtube had to be disabled).

The radio show host’s mother played the smiling older woman who keeps setting out the plate of meatballs. She had been acting for years, and finally this was her big break. Now if I’m remembering this correctly, and I’m pretty sure I am, not long after this commercial aired and was a great success, the radio host’s mother used the money to get a nose job, which she had always wanted, in the hopes that this would also help her acting career. But, of course, in a tragic O. Henry-like twist, after the nose job she no longer had a unique ethnic appearance and could never get a job again.

Something similar happened to the actress Jennifer Grey too. I think in her case it was that no one recognized her anymore and she was no longer offered any parts. But this also happened to someone I knew, a non-acting civilian, a girl I went to camp with when I was about 14 years old. This girl was liked by everyone and was hilariously funny, but for some reason she was fixated on her nose. She would often say, I really think I’d be pretty if I didn’t have such a big nose, and in a way, you could squint and see that, even though she was pretty already, her face somehow hinted at a much prettier face. If you were to, say, erase the bump on her nose with your mind (and this, as a 14-year-old girl, I did every time she mentioned it), you could kind of see what she meant. But I still thought she had nothing at all to complain about. I was totally jealous of her.

And then one day, maybe about four or five years later, after we’d long lost touch, I passed her on the street. I almost didn’t recognize her and then when I did, I was totally speechless. She had, in the interim years, gotten a nose job, but (as I’m sure you can predict) it did not make her prettier. In fact, it did just the opposite. All the vibrancy was gone from her face. She looked ordinary. That bump on her nose had given her character, had actually, in fact, made her pretty.

I say this as someone with a unique ethnic nose as well, a nose that I have pretty much come to terms with, and maybe  even like. It’s been a while since I stared in the mirror and pushed my nose up to see what I’d look like if it wasn’t quite so long. It’s just my nose, the same one I’ve been looking at my whole life.

Frances McDormand (who I always say is the best thing about every single movie she’s in) is famously letting herself age onscreen and if you see her in movies these days, you’ll note that she looks like a real 58-year-old woman you might see in your actual life, and not like a 58-year-old actress (who usually looks 40) (or younger). I always think she’s beautiful. I am trying (so hard!) to keep in mind what that really means.


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