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FEELING PRETTY
August 22, 2011
 
"Yeah, toe cleavage is really in these days," Gibbi said, admiring my new shoes.

Toe cleavage? I looked down at my feet. Indeed, the spaces between my toes peeked out alluringly from beneath the curved vamp of my shoes. Alluringly, anyway, if one were a foot fetishist.

"Can you BELIEVE that dress?" My friend's teenaged grandchildren were being awfully hard on her, I thought, screaming with laughter as they came upon her in her mother-of-the-groom dress in the wedding album at their parents' silver wedding party. I remember that wedding very well, though, and I remember her dress. We all thought it was gorgeous.

I looked like a linebacker, I see now, in that yellow shirtwaist I liked so much in 1985. It was my favorite dress, and I wore it all the time. But we wore some serious shoulder pads in those days. Good Lord.

Some mistakes I caught before I ever wore them in front of anyone -- the gathered skirt I made out of a blanket in 1970, before realizing that there are people who just should never wear gathered skirts, or the flowered shorts I made in 1965 -- they just defied description. Most of them, though, we all made together, and so they didn't feel like mistakes at all, not at the time.

I had a red, white and blue striped paper dress. I had bell bottom trousers covered with flowers the size of salad plates. I had black rings around my eyes that made me look like a cross between Cleopatra and a raccoon. I had a wool coat in a green not found in nature: it was more or less the color of antifreeze. There was a period during which my mother refused to shop with me -- it was just too hard on her.

I'm so glad all that is over. Or is it? Who knows what fashion atrocities I may be committing right now, without knowing it? And what about other people? What about tattoos, so beloved of so many women now, an art whose beauty eludes me as cleanly as my fashion statements did my mother?

The Christian scriptures are curiously ambivalent about feminine beauty. Both the first letter of Timothy and that of Peter contain the same sour caution to women about relying on "braided hair and the wearing of fine clothing or gold or pearls" instead of on their inner beauty, as adornment. The Hebrew scriptures allow for a little more fun: the Song of Songs is nothing if not wholehearted in its approval of a pretty face, as well as of enough other body parts to cause the rabbis of old to forbid its being read by men under the age of thirty. The image of a bride adorned for her husband is a common one in the psalms. Even poor Leah, whose second-class status to her prettier younger sister in Jacob's heart was so embarrassingly obvious, is remembered as having had beautiful eyes.

Maybe it's fashion, not beauty itself, that makes those New Testament writers uncomfortable -- maybe it's okay if the package you arrive in looks good, but don't do anything to improve on what God gave you. Of course, Christians then thought the world was coming to an end at any moment. Who had time for makeup?

And, for all the ancient writers whose words we now call The Bible, and treat as if they constituted a single book, one more thing: they looked at women's beauty as important only because of its effect on men. But beauty isn't just merchandizing : it's

enjoyable on its own, not just because it appeals to someone else. I may not like tattoos, but the people who get them delight in them, and that's good enough. Because their beauty isn't for me. It's theirs.

+

I FEEL PRETTY


MARIA

I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.

I feel charming,
Oh, so charming
It's alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real.

See the pretty girl in that mirror there:
Who can that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face,
Such a pretty dress,
Such a pretty smile,
Such a pretty me!

I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy,
For I'm loved
By a pretty wonderful boy!

GIRLS

Have you met my good friend Maria,
The craziest girl on the block?
You'll know her the minute you see her,
She's the one who is in an advanced state of shock.

She thinks she's in love.
She thinks she's in Spain.
She isn't in love,
She's merely insane.

It must be the heat
Or some rare disease,
Or too much to eat
Or maybe it's fleas.

Keep away from her,
Send for Chino!
This is not the
Maria we know!

Modest and pure,
Polite and refined,
Well-bred and mature
And out of her mind!


MARIA

I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty
That the city should give me its key.
A committee
Should be organized to honor me.

I feel dizzy,
I feel sunny,
I feel fizzy and funny and fine,
And so pretty,
Miss America can just resign!

MARIA

See the pretty girl in that mirror there:


GIRLS

What mirror where?

MARIA

Who can that attractive girl be?

GIRLS

Which? What? Where? Whom?


MARIA

Such a pretty face,
Such a pretty dress,
Such a pretty smile,
Such a pretty me!

ALL

I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy,
For I'm loved
By a pretty wonderful boy!


Music by Leonard Bernstein.
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
1956

[n.b. for a photo of Barbara in the infamous yellow dress, go to Hodgepodge on www.geraniumfarm.org!]
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