What passes for beauty


Riding the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan a few weeks ago I became fascinated by the variety of the human form. There were the usual clean cut men in well fitting suits reading the paper on their iPads. There were young men in tee shirts, their arms and necks mapped with tattoos, who jumped off the car at Jay Street, skate boards under their arms.

There was the man who nodded and wavered on a seat at the end of the car, his face collapsed in on itself and a smell coming off him of dried urine, sweat, unwashed skin.

There were elegant women in pastel jackets, pale blouses and pencil tight skirts. Groups of young women poured onto a car, sharing head phones, moving their heads to the beat, school uniforms bunched and wrinkled at the end of the day. Other, more worn women of indeterminate age sat quietly on the bench, their work clothes tucked in brown paper bags, to be taken home, washed and brought back the next day.

Some had Kindles and read books while holding onto the straps when the car was packed to bursting. Others flipped open library books in their plastic covers and read without looking up until their stop came, when they closed the book and stood at the doors to depart. I always wonder how they keep track of the stops while totally lost in a book, as they seem to be. Perhaps it is a New Yorker’s talent, to absorb information around them subconsciously and respond to it when needed. Perhaps we all have ways of taking in information about our environment, in a car on the highway, a bus downtown, a path along the river. We ride or drive or walk on automatic pilot, allowing us to listen to the news, write in a journal or notice the depth of the river.

Because I needed to keep track of stops and changes in order to get from the Atlantic Stop in Brooklyn to 54th street in Manhattan, I was able to observe it all, no book, no music, no wandering thoughts about what to cook for dinner. And I noticed most of all the way beauty is rough hewn and disparate in its human form. It is in the lean of a woman into her man’s muscled arms; it is in the weary smile of an older woman as a child sings his own, invented song, oblivious to all of us who listen. Beauty is in the profiles of boys with their ear locks and black hats, sitting turned toward the door, ready to exit at Delaney Street. It is in a Jamaican accent and in the song a man sings at the exit from the station when we emerge late in the morning.

What struck me most of all, is that the beauty we see every day has nothing to do with the women I see so carefully made up who are walking the streets in the North Loop stopping into Bar La Grasa, Burough, The Loop or any of the hot spots that have sprung out of nowhere in this neighborhood that was all warehouses and Bunker’s Bar when we moved in. The women I notice come in groups or with a partner, are coupled or single, and have a similarity of style in clothes. They have long hair they can toss out of the way of their faces when such a gesture is called for. They wear boots in the summer or sequined sandals, all with the appropriately high heels. There is a kind of imperiousness, a kind of too obvious self- confidence in their look as they wait for a table, a place at the bar. They adjust their skin-tight clothing, lean forward over pastel colored drinks, and smile, but the smiles do not seem to contain happiness; rather, they appear almost desperate.

I am reading a lot into what I have been observing over these last years. This did not strike me until I was away from it for a few days, when I noticed the women on the subway for the variety in their clothes, their body shape, their clothing, the flip-flops and the bandanas on their heads. I know that some of the women I saw that day got dressed up in heels and sequined shirts in the evening. I know that others had high heels that tipped them at an odd angle as they scurried down a New York street heading toward a party.

Maybe it is merely that young women always choose the plastic, the artificial beauty dictated to them by magazines or fashion designers. Maybe it is just my age that sees so little loveliness there. And maybe “lovely” is an old fashioned word in itself.

I want to say to them, relax. Relax your skin and your shoulders and your round hips, your skinny breasts. Wear 2 inch heels instead of 5 inch heels or better yet, flat, silver sandals that allow you to dance. I want to say that there is such an over abundance of beauty in varied shapes and ages, you don’t have to “fit”, literally, into the costumes you wear. Because some nights, when I walk down Washington Avenue, in my almost seventy year old body, I cannot tell you, one from another.

In a movie I recently saw, Before Midnight, the main character, played by Julie Delpy, wanders the screen with her husband in an ordinary dress. She has a slight paunch and some loose skin here and there. She is not made up and her arms do not present clear evidence of continual work-outs. She is luminous in her beauty, in her reality. She is not plastic or out of reach. She could have been sitting on that subway car, watching the young boy sing a song.

I do not mean this to be homage to New York subways or the people who live there. I do not mean it to be a piece about anger and regret as I age. I do mean to reach for a complicated way of perceiving what is beautiful. I do mean to describe a hope I have for all those women who spend time aching for the bodies they will never have, that they can soon learn they can go through life without running up credit card debt on the next dress that they hope will make them suddenly perfect of feature, of form.

I want them to accept that there is no perfection: bodies have gone from Renoir voluptuous to Degas ballet dancers to Alice Neel’s gritty portraits in the art world. This is beauty, this variety. How we fit into it, where we fall on some continuum is determined by what we do, how we navigate the world of work, the long ride to the job, the way we laugh at a colleague’s joke. It is the man on the subway who makes way for me to sit because he notices my gray hair. It is the ears that stick out on the man I love. I want them to finally, focus outward, lose the look of dissatisfaction, the struggle for false levity. I want them to grow older and wiser. Perhaps this is all it is. I hope so.