“It’s important to protect your beauty while you’re still young. By the time you turn 40, it’ll be too late.” That’s what Granny S used to say. Then she’d go to her thrice-weekly salon appointments to have her curls finely rearranged. At 10, I’d learned that imperfection was catastrophic. “There’s no excuse for weight gain,” she’d say, dishing out a fat-free plate for my 12-year-old self. By 13, I’d already learned to obsess about my body.
Gran S never arrived at breakfast without makeup.
She always wore heels.
She spent an hour each night applying a veritable pharmacy of lotions and creams: Estee Lauder, Chanel, Clinique—you get out what you put in, you know.
At 50, her eyebrows stopped growing back from all the over-plucking.
At 55, she had to have surgery on her feet to undo the effects of trampling the earth in stilettos.
At 60, she could no longer fight the liver spots and sagging, but she raged against them anyway.
My paternal grandmother was a different creature. “There’s no excuse for being normal,” she’d say, dishing out Kentucky Fried chicken underneath a blanket fort. At 10, I’d learned that nothing was catastrophic if you only knew how to escape into your imagination. At 12, I’d developed a sophisticated appreciation for nonsense. Alice’s caterpillar was so much more interesting than the state of my hips.
Gran H never arrived at breakfast with a scowl.
She always wore whatever the hell she wanted, even if it was a purple wig.
She spent an hour each morning in her art studio.
At 65, her inner Cheshire Cat could be seen in the smile lines around her eyes.
At 70, she told love stories at funerals. Death? Well, that didn’t seem so bad when she was around.
Even so, Gran S’ lessons remained. Prettiness was a rent you paid for occupying a space called female, so I starved and obsessed and painted and shopped. I applied a veritable pharmacy of self-hatred to my psyche.
At 32, I was admitted to hospital with a bad case of dehydration and malnutrition. Anorexia will kill you if you’re careful enough, and that seemed as good a goal as any. I spent a lot of years seeking out recovery after that. Most of what I learned in therapy was useless because it asked me to get rid of my own toxicity. It never taught me to add to my life. Then I met a woman who reminded me of Gran H’s lessons: Be who you seem to be, honour your weirdness, to hell with Other People’s Expectations™. I learned to grin like a Cheshire Cat and dance in the kitchen; to celebrate nonsense instead of normality.
Gran H still wears purple wigs sometimes.
I call it “freedom” because that’s how it feels to me.