You're looking at the Blue Mountains up there, just west of Sydney in Australia. I was living there ten years ago with Dave. I flew out to be with him a couple of months after we met, and the first time he took me to this spot—the Three Sisters, an ancient rock formation near the town of Katoomba, which may be the grooviest mountain town in all the world—my mouth was sewn shut in the face of that stupendous beauty. It wasn't comment-able upon. That giant, quiet valley hummed...see, I'm screwed already because I need a new verb. Hummed isn't bass enough to describe the depth and force of that place and how it seeped into me, shutting me up, leaving me wordless, unable to praise. It's just as well, as you can see. I still don't have the words. The not-comment-able-upon ruling stands.
We lived in Katoomba for a while, as well as a couple of other towns in the Blue Mountains, but Katoomba was where it was at. We started out together in the town next door, Leura, which is a little more posh and a little more uptight, and everybody goes to sleep there at 4pm. But Katoomba is a happening hippie town and we lived right on the main drag, which is almost unfairly lined with fantastic restaurants and cafés. Bam, bam, bam, all crammed next door to each other. We were in heaven.
But the greatest thing about Katoomba for me was its style ethos, or its amazing lack of one. It's the most liberating place I've ever lived, sartorially. People dressed however they wanted. And I don't mean that they were all artsy, hip, creative dressers. No, I mean that people dressed like they had just emerged from burning houses in the middle of the night just that second before you saw them. Colors all doing any old damn thing. Tee shirts and floppy pants—and I can't express how much I don't mean cool ones. Do you remember Garanimals? If you were a kid in the seventies, you probably ran across Garanimals. They were animal-coded tops and bottoms so kids could dress themselves and have things go. Giraffe-tag top, giraffe-tag bottom, check. This'll work. Katoomba was an anti-Garanimal nuclear bomb going off on the hour. Getting dressed when I lived in there was the easiest thing conceivable. Does this match? was not a question. You didn't even have to sweat is this flattering? You were good once you'd covered is this on.
I'm thinking fondly about Katoomba because I'm thinking about beauty—more specifically, beauty standards for women—and cultural expectations and smallness and bullshit. I was talking about this today with a teacher of mine. We were investigating just how mired I am in all of these messages, and the answer is pretty fucking mired, as so many women are and have been since they were little girls. (Men have a different dragon to slay, we discussed, which is the lie about how their worth is wrapped up in their ability to acquire resources. Good luck, fellas! Take that dragon out!) A nickel for every time my focus wanders to how I look instead of how I feel or what I think and I could take myself out for a swish dinner a couple of times a week. It's tiring.
You know how sometimes you don't notice the ambient noise in a room until it stops for some reason? While I was talking to my teacher, Jim, that cultural noise stopped in my head for a few minutes. I can move it aside in the abstract for a little while when I remember to do it, but this was different. The lie dropped away for a bit, the noise stopped, and the contrast was dramatic. The high-pitched beauty-standards buzz was missing, and what took its place was not so much quiet as space. Looseness. More room to be myself. Then what I can only describe as anger-laughter arose. What the fuck? What the actual fuck had I been bothering myself with all these years? What is that? What is this idea that if I don't look a certain way, or remain somehow young forever, I'm failing, I'm not here, I might as well go? What the living fuck is that about? And then I thought of all the magazines I have lying around my house, Vogue and Elle and the like, and how I'm feeding myself this diet of lies. And I recognized that this matters. Vogue sells us the notion that there's a Right Way to Go About It All, and even though I roll my eyes with every issue—and tell myself that's part of the fun of it, and that I'm just here for the design, the appealing colors and shapes and patterns—another fearful, conforming part of me salutes my commanding officers there. Feeding that scared little conformist is probably my worst vice, in an unglamorous group of contenders.
From when I was twelve to when I was twenty I wore makeup every day. Eye makeup in particular. No exceptions. Fuck no, are you kidding? It was unthinkable. The sun rose and I traced a cat eye with eyeliner and ringed my lids with dark eyeshadow and blotted my mascara wand on a tissue to prevent clumping and lo, it was good, amen. A friend in high school offered that I might look prettier without so much eye makeup but ten other friends asked me to do their eye makeup so I ignored the first friend and blessed the ten friends with cat eyes of their own. And then one winter break morning when I was home from college, I looked at my bare face in the mirror, my untraced eyes, and—inexplicably—I looked okay. I stared at myself for a few minutes, and then I ran downstairs. "Mom! Mom! Look. I'm not wearing any eye makeup. I think I'm going to go out Christmas shopping like this. Don't you think I look okay? Like, this is a gentle beauty or something?" She laughed, bemused, and said I looked fine. I was disappointed, because I felt like I'd discovered electricity.
Conversely, right before I went to Australia to be with Dave, I got a bad haircut. The stylist misunderstood what I was asking for and chopped the back very short. It wasn't horrible but I definitely did not feel beautiful. I was mortified, furious, inconsolable for a couple of hours. Here I was, about to embark on the biggest romantic adventure of my life, and I felt like I'd been robbed. A few days later I went out to dinner with a couple of friends and bitched. My friend Robert, who was older and wiser, told me that my hair didn't make any difference. I had that glow from being in love, he said, and nothing imparted more beauty than that. I thanked him but I didn't really hear him. I still felt ruined.
This is the problem. Here it is. If a genie were to appear in front of me right now and offer me two choices:
1. I would look beautiful as long as I live
2. I would never care any more, and I would be eternally free of the question
I would hesitate. I don't like it, but I would hesitate. And that's not who I want to be. That hesitation is not what I want to feed. I want something larger and more raw for myself out of this life. I want freedom, I do. And if I'm talking about beauty, I want to let actual beauty be what I mean, the thing that hums and rings out from inside an experience. I want to strip the word from all industry that would make women feel small, and keep it for myself to aim where it's so true, so present it stops my mouth.