The other day I worked out at the gym in the 60s era condo building where I’ve been housesitting. It’s about what you’d expect from a gym in a building built in 1960s – small, with low ceilings, mirrored walls and outdated equipment.
Seeing as it was a dead time on a Friday afternoon and everyone living in the building is approximately 80 years old, I figured I’d have the place to myself. I planned to do some cardio and a quick shoulders workout via an app on my iPhone. Being alone for this was important, because the workout is kind of embarrassing. (It was only shoulders, so there would be no jump squats or anything really mortifying, but I find all calisthenics workouts kind of tough to do in public.)
So I jumped on the bike, which had a super uncomfortable seat, but was nonetheless a more appealing option than the treadmill from 1984. I had my Kindle and was planning to read and knock out 20 minutes of pedaling as fast and hard as I could. Within five minutes, a man in his late 60s/early 70s came in, smiled and nodded at me, and got on the treadmill. He was wearing jeans and had an old school Sony cassette Walkman. OK fine, I thought. I don’t mind him being in here while I do the app workout. His concentration would be on staying on the treadmill, so that was fine.
And then a woman walked in. She was terribly thin and dressed all in black, with thick-soled black shoes that added at least three inches to her height. I couldn’t tell how old she was – somewhere between 55 and 80, maybe. Her hair was slicked back in a bun and dyed pitch black, and her face was covered in foundation that was far too light for her actual skin tone. She’d capped off the look with harsh black eyeliner and a garish shade of red lipstick. She looked like an elderly, emaciated geisha.
This being LA, she had a trainer with her. The trainer and I briefly made eye contact, and I tried not to stare as they got started. The guy on the treadmill greeted the woman.
“Hi sweetheart,” he said. “You’re looking great, as always.”
I couldn’t hear what she murmured in reply. But of all the things I could think of to say to that woman, telling her she looked great would not be one of them. To me she looked like a walking fright mask, a perfect extension of what a girl could potentially end up looking like if she bought into all the ‘be-thin and take an inordinate amount of interest in your looks’ bullshit that fashion and beauty culture perpetuates. Of course, this woman had lost perspective on what’s considered attractive to most people, but her appearance clearly reflected that she cared so, so much about what people think about her looks. And that sweet man obviously recognized that and did her a small kindness when he acknowledged them.
Living in LA you do see this kind of thing fairly often – this was an extreme case, but you can set foot in any grocery store in Beverly Hills during daylight hours and find any number of stick skinny women with abnormally smooth foreheads and an unnatural tightness around the eyes. And the lips, yikes. Always with the overly plump lips.
Anyway, I soldiered through my workout, foolish looking though it was, wondering what the woman made of me. I’m not super young and I’m not super thin – both of which I assume are her beauty ideals - but I’m young enough and fit enough. I didn’t see her looking at me, which almost made me wonder if she just didn’t register me at all.
There’s a big chasm between that woman and me both age-wise and philosophy-wise, but the reason her appearance disturbed me is because I’m not exactly free of the beauty culture bullshit myself. The question I always wrestle with is how much maintenance is enough? I watch what I eat, I work out, I wear makeup, I spend money on stylish haircuts and clothes and shoes. But it can be a slippery slope from there. Should I bother covering the gray hair that’s coming in? How about laser facials and microdermabrasion to smooth the lines coming in on my mid-thirties face? After that, what about a shot of Botox? Where’s the line? I’m on it, I know that. Coming right up to the edge.