I don’t like to lie, and I don’t do it very often. But there are moments in life when principle must cede to the exigencies of pride. Which is why, on a recent Friday afternoon when my teenage daughter, Raye, was supposed to be mastering the subjunctive in French class, she was instead shaving her legs in my bathroom. I had called her school to pull her out early, saying she had a doctor’s appointment—technically, not a lie: I was taking her to a dermatologist for her first laser hair-removal treatment, right after school. But I’d forgotten you have to show up with newly shaved legs. Hence the call, the lie, and the air of unease as I stood by her side, hot water running, washcloth in hand, trying to play it cool.
“I can’t believe I’m missing class,” she said as she handed me the razor to rinse. She is a straight-A student. Missing school irks her. But so do hairy legs. She had been asking for months to try laser. I had resisted. It costs a lot. It hurts. And, as I told her while handing her the cloth to wipe away the shaving cream, my mother would not have approved.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She didn’t like things like makeup and, you know, shaving. She thought all this stuff was silly and vain.”
I laughed. Raye did not. “I don’t think it’s fair for her to judge someone for having different values,” she said. I could tell she was mad. “Why does she get to decide what’s vain?”
It is a question I never thought (or dared) to ask. Why should my mother—a tough, smart, accomplished professor of French and Italian literature at the University of Minnesota who could (and did) expound on the meaning of words in three languages before early-onset Alzheimer’s stole her ability to speak at all—have the last word on vanity? It’s a sin commonly defined as too much attention to one’s appearance. But who defines how much is too much?
According to Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, the nationally renowned dermatologist to whom I brought Raye for her laser treatment, your friends do. For the past 15 years, he has plumped lips, frozen frown lines, and smoothed wrinkles on clients from New York to Los Angeles, Miami to Atlanta. And he can always tell where they are from by what they want: “Women from the East and West coasts say, ‘Freeze me up. I don’t want anything to move.’ They want things tight and almost artificial looking. That’s the norm there.”
But peer pressure works the other way too. Local clients want to look “soft and gentle and natural,” he says. “If people can tell you’ve had something done, then we’ve done too much.” A successful outcome here: “Your friends have no idea you’ve done anything.”
The question is: Why must we hide from our friends? Because, I believe, we’re a little bit embarrassed about our vanity. In Minnesota, we practice self-
restraint; we do not indulge in excess—not too much spice in our food, not too much emotion in our relationships, not too much platelet-rich plasma in our cheeks.
Though a New York Jew, my mother was a perfect fit for the no-fuss ethic of her adopted state’s Protestant heritage. But for her, the refusal to accept traditional norms of femininity was purely political. From the moment she graduated from high school and her parents told her to go to secretarial school, she was fighting a war: to follow her dreams, to be taken seriously, to be given a seat at the table—not just set it for dinner.
My mother didn’t color her hair. She didn’t wear makeup. She didn’t shave her legs. She believed vanity was an enemy of self-realization, for her and her daughter, too. I begged her to let me pierce my ears; she lovingly but firmly refused. “That would be gilding a lily,” she said. It didn’t matter that I liked my lilies gilded. Mom was too busy writing books and battling her bosses for equitable pay to notice when, in an early act of defiance, I started to shave my legs. But I knew better than to put on mascara at home.
It didn’t occur to me, as it did to my daughter, that I, too, was entitled to self-determination. I thought my mother wonderful and brave; I didn’t want her to think me silly and vain. I snuck my Maybelline Great Lash in my backpack and put it on at school.
Years later, when Mom could no longer teach or drive or write her name, she became sweet, playful. I was working in New York when my father called to tell me she had pierced her ears. The news broke my heart. I bought her a pair of gold drop earrings at Barneys and moved back home. I wanted to be there when she put them on. And to put them on for her when the time came. I wondered, after she died, if the strange woman who laughed and sang songs and admired her earrings in the mirror was created by the Alzheimer’s—or released by it.
I wish I could have asked her. I wish many things: I wish I hadn’t had to lie about the mascara. I wish she could have taken her granddaughter to the dermatologist with me. They could have argued about vanity the whole way. My daughter would have liked my mother. She doesn’t see the world the same way, but she shares the same fight.