The Conundrum of Superficial Beauty

spencer on stairsI know I’ve been writing a lot about appearance and body image lately. It’s been on my mind more than usual, as my book, Leaving the Beach launched this week. The book—a novel—is about a woman who, among other things, suffers from a serious eating disorder. And although almost all experts these days believe that EDs are rooted in more than just looks—in other words, people who end up with bad EDs tend to have other things going on aside from dissatisfaction with the way they look—obsession over personal appearance is still a huge part of the illnesses.

So here’s a story, and a dilemma. If you read through to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

First of all, I should tell you that for over a year, I’ve been running with my dog, Spencer, almost every morning. He’s an extremely active animal, and wakes up ready to go, regardless of the weather. So I crawl out of bed—sometimes before the sun comes up—brush my teeth, feed the dog and cats, then toss on whatever clothing is appropriate for the time of year. It’s fun, and it feels good to start the day with a little fresh air and movement. But glamorous? No.

Spencer and I see plenty of other early morning dog-walkers on our daily journey, but like me, I doubt most of them even bother to look in the mirror before heading out (except maybe to make sure we haven’t developed some sort of rash or pox overnight.) And although everyone’s friendly and we sometimes stop to chat if the dogs want to play, nobody seems to pay much attention to how anyone else looks. And I can honestly say that until a few weeks ago, no dog walker has ever commented on my appearance, nor have I commented on theirs. Sure, we talk about how cute and adorable the dogs are, but that’s different. Animals almost always look good. (That’s Spencer in the picture, getting ready for a run.)

But one day a couple of weeks ago—as Spencer urinated on a rock—a dog-walker-woman I know casually passed me and told me I looked great. That surprised me for couple of reasons. First, because—as I mentioned—dog walkers don’t talk about stuff like that. Then there was the fact that I wasn’t feeling too great. I was actually very nervous about my book launch, and feeling pretty stressed and anxious. Still, I said “thank you,” and continued on my way, perhaps stepping a bit more lightly.

Then, about five minutes later, I passed a man I often see out walking. He’s older than me, and friendly, but I don’t think we’ve ever exchanged more than a brief hello or perhaps discussed the weather. But on that day, the guy stopped and said, “Excuse me, but I must say you look truly beautiful today.”

I was stunned. I mean, what the hell? I thought back to the days when I was pregnant for the first time and people kept telling me I glowed. But what were these people seeing? After thanking the man—and feeling quite awkward about the whole thing—I ran along, almost afraid to see anyone else. Quietly, I assessed myself: baggy sweatpants, old gray sweatshirt, dirty black sneakers. No makeup or jewelry. Oh, and I was carrying a bag of dog poop.

I must be giving off some sort of good vibe, I decided. Or maybe this really is like being pregnant. Maybe these people can see that I’m about to give birth to a book. (Sure, that sounds crazy, but it was early in the morning, and I tend to overthink everything.)

In any case, I have to admit that the compliments made me feel better. And of course, when I got home, I looked in the mirror. And that’s when I saw it: my hair color. The day before, I’d dyed my hair a new, lighter shade of blond. You see, I dye my hair quite frequently, but I don’t use a standard color. Instead, I tend to buy whatever brand of dye is on sale at the drugstore, and I’ve gotten so used to doing it that I don’t give it much thought. (If you’d like to read about some of my misadventures with hair color, here’s a blog post I wrote a while back.)

Anyway, when I realized that those dog-walkers hadn’t been seeing anything special about me—when I realized that they’d only been noticing my damn hair color—I felt a little disappointed. I guess I’d been hoping for something deeper. Something more significant.

So since that day, I’ve been asking myself if perhaps it’s time to stop coloring. Because the truth is, there’s no real blond left in my hair. I started using hair color seriously back when I was recovering from my eating disorder. In those days, I felt like my life was beginning all over again—it was, in fact!—so when the hairdresser told me she could see a bunch of gray coming in, I immediately asked her to fix that. Somehow, being reborn with gray hair didn’t suit my vision.

But why keep coloring now? Why keep doing something so completely fake? Do I want to look younger? Do I still believe—as I did back in the 70s—that blondes have more fun? Certainly the act of coloring isn’t fun. It’s smelly, and may very well be dangerous to my health. More importantly, I’m always telling people that I’m extremely comfortable with who I am now, and that I no longer obsess about weight. Which is true. But if I’m so comfortable, then why do I continue to alter my hair color? Am I a lot more insecure than I think?

Again, I’d love to hear opinions of others who’ve been down this road.

And thank you for reading!

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About Mary Rowen

My novel LEAVING THE BEACH (a 2016 IPPY Award winner) is about music and obsession, and LIVING BY EAR focuses on divorce and following your passions. I live in the Boston area with my family, cat, and dog.
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4 Responses to The Conundrum of Superficial Beauty

  1. What a great post! I work out in the morning as well – go running or to the gym – and like your experience, no one really comments on each other’s appearance so early because no one really cares. But I can imagine how nice it felt to be told how great you look and, like you, I assumed it was because you were glowing with happiness about your book launch (despite the stress). I can understand why you were slightly let down to discover it was probably the color of your hair, but it was still a compliment and it made you feel good nonetheless. I see no reason to undermine the compliment because it was based on your outer beauty. As much as I want someone to think I’m beautiful on the inside, I don’t think I will ever lose the desire to look pretty on the outside – I care about my appearance because if I feel good on the outside, it helps me feel good on the inside.

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    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you, Meredith! That makes me feel better. And I agree that the way people feel about their appearance can have a real impact on how they feel overall and how they act too. I guess I just wish people could look deeper sometimes. Although I know I can be as guilty as anyone.

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  2. Mary, congratulations on your book launch! I have so much to say about your blog post. Since you have suffered through an eating disorder your take on hair coloring is different from mine, but either way, it’s a very personal thing to us, women of a ‘certain age.’ So, thoughts in no real order:
    1. Had you ever colored your hair the day before a run before? Of course you had. Did you get comments? No. What caught their eye was some sparkle, some glow that was coming off of you, and yes, it probably was the excitement and joy of the book shining through.
    2. Sometimes a personal obsession with appearance, as you know, can take a weird turn. Refusing to primp is one way to ‘rebel.’ Our obsessions come out hard when we’re stressed.
    3. I have colored my hair one way or another since I was 13. (Husband’s joke about the only way to see my natural color omitted here!) I love to color my hair. I am very grey (according to my roots) but I really like all the different colors I put on. I don’t wear much makeup, but I do love hair color and jewelry. Some women like clothes, some like shoes, but with me it’s hair colors and jewelry. So, I wouldn’t say it’s any more ‘fake’ than makeup, wearing flattering colors or styles, or running to stay in shape. It’s a thing we do, some of us, because it looks nice.
    4. Last, when my daughter was about 10, she asked me when she could start coloring her hair. ‘Thirteen,’ I said reflexively. And she does! She sure doesn’t need to, but she says it’s fun, kind of like shoes… oh well!
    All the best to you.

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  3. Mary Rowen says:

    Thank you, Claudia! I love your perspective on all of this. And I hope you’re right about the excitement about the book shining through! Also, I totally see your point: if almost everyone does something to improve their appearance, then why should hair color be considered more fake than other stuff? And it certainly can be fun. Maybe I’m just trying to figure out if I’m still having fun with it? I don’t know! In any case, I’m glad you and your daughter share a passion for hair color–that sounds like a nice bonding thing for the two of you. My girl hasn’t asked about doing any permanent color yet but I’m sure she will soon, and I’m sure I’ll allow it. Thank you again!

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