Beautiful Girls

Beautiful Girls

By Anndee Hochman

WO Beauty Art

The problem was an infected earlobe.

Sasha, my 13-year-old daughter, had been diligent about swabbing the new piercing twice a day, but the air is full of germs, and somehow one of them had crept inside. Now the ear throbbed scarlet, and a lymph node had swollen just behind it, an unforgiving pea beneath the satiny skin of her neck.

The doctor was not Sasha’s regular pediatrician, but a warm and competent partner in the cozy suburban practice. She wiggled the earring from its hotbed of infection, while my stoic daughter held back tears and my partner winced in empathetic pain. Then Dr. B. prescribed an oral antibiotic and a prescription cream.

The visit was over, nothing left to do but grab coats and write a check for the co-pay, when the doc called out, “She’s beautiful…does her daddy lock her in the closet on weekends?”

Suddenly, we had a new problem, far more inflamed and resistant than the pinkly painful earlobe. There is no daddy in our family. Closets aplenty, but we’d spent years breaking out of those, thank you very much. The only things closeted in our house were winter coats and warped umbrellas.

You could write off the incident as a moment’s thoughtlessness, one of those times when the ancestral brain overrides all rational filters. Except the comment was no fluke. Just a few days earlier, my cousin had said, nodding in Sasha’s direction: “She’s gorgeous. You guys better get a shotgun.”

And the day before that, in the moments immediately following Sasha’s bat mitzvah, during which she had chanted words of Torah and spoken eloquently of “everyday miracles,” my mother’s boss offered similar caution. “She’s a beauty. Better lock that one in the closet.”

How do I even begin to unpack these remarks, let alone respond to them? What I said to my mother’s boss was, “We don’t believe in locking kids in closets. We believe in teaching them to manage the world.” Humorless. Preachy. What my best friends later called “a classic 1980s feminist response.”

So, okay, how about humor? I wish I’d told my cousin, the one who recommended we arm ourselves to preserve our daughter’s innocence, “Yeah, we’ll put that shotgun on the shopping list, along with a chastity belt and a windowless tower.” And oh, for the presence of mind to lob the good doctor a snappy rejoinder: “Lock her up on weekends? Gosh…don’t you think that would be…child abuse?”

Here’s the truth: My daughter is indeed beautiful. And smart. And tough. And it enrages me when acquaintances, colleagues and strangers in the food co-op see only one aspect of her gorgeous complexity, then feel entitled to say something Medieval about it.

On Sasha’s birth announcement, we quoted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” And fierce she was, even at one hour old and less than six pounds, when she did a one-armed push-up in her hospital isolette. At three weeks, she flipped herself from tummy to back with a torque of her tiny legs and an exertion of sheer will.

Fast-forward 13 years. Late on the night of her bat mitzvah, I found Sasha doing push-ups, barefoot in her silver party dress, on the carpet outside the synagogue’s social hall. Some nights, between face-washing and tooth-brushing, she hangs upside-down on the pull-up bar that is bolted into the bedroom doorway, her fleece pajama shirt bunched to reveal abs hard as cedar.

My daughter loves a good gel manicure and likes to fringe her ice-blue eyes with dark mascara. She also likes to argue, arm-wrestle and run a mile in less than eight minutes. When my partner, Elissa, explained what the doctor meant by her unfortunate remark, Sasha declared, “No one’s going to touch me unless I want them to!”

So when people suggest we keep Sasha under lock and key, they’re grossly underestimating her strength, ingenuity and pluck. But that’s not all they’re saying. Embedded in those remarks are centuries of poisonous myth: Beauty is dangerous. Women are helpless. Men are wolves. Parents (fathers, especially) must guard their daughters’ sexuality by any means necessary. And of course, there’s the assumption that she’s straight.

It would be laughable, except that it’s a short walk from those deep-seated beliefs to cultures where daughters are forbidden to read and wives are forbidden to drive, where girls suffer painful genital mutilation because their sexual pleasure is so suspect and their virginity so prized.

But my daughter isn’t being raised in Afghanistan or Somalia. She’s growing up in a progressive pocket of Philadelphia in 2014, a century and place teeming with strong, funny, competent women and men who call themselves feminists. Why, then, these retro words from the mouths of people—including a female pediatrician, for heaven’s sake—who certainly should know better?

Old stories take a long time to wither and die. The image of beauty bespoiled is a potent one. In a culture that sometimes feels as though it’s spinning out of control—Sexting! Online pedophiles! Thongs marketed to pre-teens!—maybe the sequestered adolescent or the shotgun-wielding papa is an appealing trope.

But not where I live. So, no, we will not be installing a padlock on Sasha’s bedroom door. No rifle on my shoulder as she strides down the front walk to meet her sweetheart.

Yes, the world of social and sexual interaction is rife with risk (chlamydia, pregnancy, almost-guaranteed heartbreak), but it’s not my job, as a parent, to police Sasha’s journey. It’s my job to help her learn tools to navigate on her own: Audacity. Self-regard. Candor. Communication. It’s my obligation to share every story I know about girls and women—stories from mythology and Torah and history, stories to critique and stories to admire. True ones, too, from Elissa’s life and mine, about times we said yes and times we said no and with whom and what happened next and how it all felt.

And this: When I was a teenager, my mother passed along the words of her grandmother, Ethel, a woman always described in family anecdotes as “a feminist before her time.” Ethel ran the business side of the bakery she and her husband owned in Philadelphia; she took a train to Chicago alone to visit relatives. And she advised her granddaughters, in salty Yiddish, that if a guy got fresh, they should “varfn im inem yam un pishn arayn zayn oyer.” Throw him in the ocean and pee in his ear.

Now, there’s an idea.

About the Author: Anndee Hochman is the author of Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home, a collection of essays, and Anatomies, a book of short fiction. She writes about family health, the arts, and spiritual life and community for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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By Anndee Hochman

PatchedOn La Avenida de los Cocos, with a hundred pesos in your pocket, you can buy a tortilla press, a liter of Lala milk, several strings of dried chiles, a fringed sundress made in India, or sweet rolls and café con leche for three. Maybe, once upon a time, the street lived its name: a dirt lane snaking between leafy fronds, with hard, green coconuts bunched overhead. But by the time we visited, in the spring of 2006, it was a pitted road hemmed by broken sidewalks, a market yanked inside out, with people and products spilling in all directions.

“Pásele, pásele. Buen precio! Good price for you. Over here!” Strawberries heaped in a wheelbarrow. Exhaust huffing from an idled taxi. Dead chickens dangling their necks over a tiled counter; a woman fanning them with what looked like last year’s cheerleading pompom. Nasal honk of the Petatlán bus. Crushed marigolds. Ripe avocados.

Sasha twinkled her way through the chaos, a five-year-old sparkplug of energy and bravada. On our first days in Zihuatanejo, my partner and I were nervous to let her dance ahead of us like that. Then we realized we weren’t likely to lose sight of her: ivory-skinned girl in size-three Land’s End sandals, chirping “hola” with a north-of-the-border accent. The taffeta-skirted dress she insisted on wearing, even on an excursion to buy bottled water. And the patch, a circle of pink felt, embroidered with a butterfly, that slipped over her glasses and occluded her right eye.

At home, we’d become adept at fielding questions about the patch, which Sasha had been wearing since age four. At her check-up that year, she held the plastic paddle over her right eye and began to “read” the chart: “A square? A star? A pig?” I squinted my own myopic eyes. There were no pigs. “Hmm…” said the pediatrician. “Let’s try the other eye.”

A week later, an opthamologist delivered the startling news: Sasha’s left-eye vision was 20/400, meaning letters a perfectly sighted person could read from 20 feet away would need to be magnified to, say, the size of a movie marquee before Sasha could decipher them. If the diagnosis was extreme, the prescription was mild: patch the “good eye” four hours a day, forcing the “bad one” to pony up and learn to see. Amblyopia, the doctor said. Lazy eye. Pretty common. Easy to fix. Good thing you caught it early.

What wasn’t so easy to fix was the myth of our motherly omnipotence: You mean, she hasn’t been seeing out of the left eye, all these years, and we didn’t even know? Then the patches arrived, three of them, from an online store that sold 40 different varieties—dragons and soccer balls and ballerinas, spoonfuls of design sugar to make the medicine go down. Sasha didn’t mind so much, once she got used to the tickle of felt against her nose. But to me, the patch looked enormous, a clumsy billboard on my child’s perfect landscape of a face.

I took it personally: Would people think we’d blackened her eye and were trying to hide the evidence? Would they imagine an unspeakable accident involving a garden tool and a moment’s parental distraction? Would they won- der if Sasha even had an eye under that little pink cloak?

Kids were the first to ask. “What’s wrong with your eye?” demanded a stocky boy at a Denver playground. Sasha shrugged, punting the question to me, and I launched into my earnest rap: “Well, one eye is stronger than the other, so she wears that patch on the strong eye to make the weaker one work harder.”

Adults were more tentative. Some- times they whispered, as if we might not have told Sasha that a felt disc was covering one-quarter of her face. “Is she … okay?” they’d say, sotto voce. And I’d do the rap again, a PG-13 version that included the word “amblyopia,” while the person nodded sympathetically.

We never used the words “good” or “bad” to describe Sasha’s ocular problem. We tried not to parse the world that way. Girls who came home from birthday parties without ice cream on their clothes weren’t necessarily “good,” and the boy at daycare who sank his little dragon-teeth into the teacher’s fore- arm was no monster; he was “still learning not to bite.” I didn’t want Sasha thinking that a part of her body was “bad” or deficient. I didn’t even like the word “lazy,” which, to me, conjured a bloke in a Barcalounger eating Pringles straight out of the can.

Nope. No lazy eyes in our family. Just stronger ones and ones that, well, needed to do their exercises! Like when Mama and Ama go to the gym! Just four hours a day! Make it work! We sounded like Jane Fonda, amped up and a little insane, touting an exercise video for wayward toddler eyes.

In Mexico, it was a different story. We’d come as the fulfillment of a fantasy older than Sasha, a fantasy conceived in our late twenties, when new love made any crazy scheme seem possible. “Let’s live in Mexico someday,” one of us said, over microbrews in a Portland pub. “Yeah… for a whole year. In a casita painted just like Frida Kahlo’s place.” Then we blinked and turned forty; we had a kid, a mortgage, and jobs that—sorry!—didn’t provide paid sabbaticals. We downsized our dream to three weeks in Zihuatanejo, the spring before Sasha started kindergarten.

When people asked, “Why Mexico?” we said we wanted to immerse ourselves in another culture. But what did we really mean by that? Was it a yen to eat corn tortillas instead of poppy-seed bagels for breakfast, or to brush our teeth with bottled water, or to swat at southern-hemisphere mosquitos? For me, Mexico was partly a linguistic challenge: had six years of weekly Spanish lessons equipped me to communicate beyond “Dónde está el baño, por favor?”

I hadn’t done much traveling outside the United States, but I knew this: Mexico would be a kick in the khaki shorts, reminding us that the things we took for granted—dental care, clean tap water, windows made of glass—were actually privileges. Three weeks in a town of 120,000 sounded about right: long enough to learn where to mail a letter and how to find the best café con leche. Long enough, I hoped, to smudge the line between “foreign” and “familiar.”

That first morning on La Avenida de los Cocos, who were the real strangers? That broad-bosomed woman in the impossibly white dress, stripping muddy leaves from bunch after bunch of radishes? The one-legged man, guitar slung across his back, limping across the street with a rough-edged 4×4 as a crutch? Or us, las Americanas, winter-pale in our summer clothes, two women scurrying to keep up with a waltzing girl in a party dress and a mariposa eye patch.

“Que pasó con su ojo?” Luz Maria asked just minutes after handing over our key. She owned the bungalow that would be our home for the next three weeks. I tried to explain, but my Spanish was limited in opthamologic vocabulary: “Ella tiene un ojo que es mas fuerte que el otro, entonces … um, el otro ojo tiene que trabajar mas. Me entiendes?”

Sasha’s patch, of course, wasn’t the only—or even the most obvious—sign of our foreignness. We were Americans, with the means to spend nearly a month abroad. We were a lesbian couple in a Catholic country—a modest culture, judging by the local women’s bathing suits—and I wasn’t eager to alienate our host on the first afternoon. So when she asked, “Quien es la madre?”—”Who is the mother?”—I swallowed before answering.

“Nos dos. Somos una pareja, y noso- tras cuidamos a Sasha juntos.” We’re a couple, and we take care of her together. Luz Maria nodded—did she really get it? She glanced at Sasha, who was rocking her doll in a green hammock. “Pobrecita.” Did she mean Sasha was a poor little thing because of her eye, or because she didn’t have a father, or something else entirely beyond my cross-cultural understanding? Luz Maria went inside and shut her door.

During our stay in Zihua, we cooked glistening fish we’d bought in the mercado and ate mangos every day. I slaughtered a flying cockroach with a rolled-up copy of Philadelphia magazine. Sasha, with her weaker eye, spotted a giant iguana that, to me, looked like dirty stonework on the roof of our bungalow. We all turned the color of toast.

My Spanish lessons served well enough to inquire about whether the ice was purified and explain to Luz Maria that we needed liquid soap to wash our dishes. My challenge, it turned out, was not linguistic but existential. I had to learn to relax, to surrender to the rhythms and whims of Mexico: a place where a concert advertised for 6:30 p.m. might get underway by 8, where computers in the Internet “café” (really, a cement-walled garage with a couple of ancient Dell desktops) crashed for no apparent reason, where people seemed resolute rather than restless with their lack of control.

Gradually, I stopped making lists in my head. Stopped worrying about whether we had enough pesos or whether raw tomatoes would give us turista or whether it was safe to snorkel out beyond the rocks. It helped to nap every day, until the great aching well of sleep deprivation was finally filled. It helped to find our own Mexico routines: fish tacos at La Sirena Gorda; papaya juice bought from a man named Jesus; talks with other guests, in a mezcla of English and Spanish, about crime in Mexico City and the presidential campaign posters flapping in the plaza. I even learned to slow my walking pace in the sticky afternoons, when the air was thick as molé.

Though Elissa and I didn’t kiss in public, or walk hand-in-hand the way we would have in San Francisco or Greenwich Village, we didn’t hide the fact that we were a family. We took turns with Sasha in the ocean and traded nights of putting her to bed while the other one sat, reading or writing in her journal, in Luz Maria’s courtyard.

Sasha’s eye patch never stopped drawing stares and questions, particularly from older women. I learned to ex- plain it better, with the help of a pocket dictionary: “Ella tiene ojo flojo”—liter- ally, lazy eye—and the abuelas would laugh. Maybe they were imagining their own version of the muchacho in the Barcalounger. Or maybe “flojo” had a different connotation here—more like “playful” or “easygoing” than “indo- lent.” The abuelas on Avenida de los Cocos remembered us after that, giggling as we came up the street and repeating, as if it were a little song, “Ojo flojo. Ella tiene ojo flojo.” We grinned. They grinned. The gringa girl with the lazy eye. The woman with the kerchief and the missing teeth. Every one of us, blighted. Every one of us, so much more than the thing we lack.

On Mother’s Day, when Mexicans pay extravagant tribute to both La Virgen and their own matrilineage, we returned from our breakfast of huevos and waffles to find Luz Maria waiting in the courtyard. She smiled at the three of us, as if she’d finally glimpsed some- thing with an eye that was a little bit “flojo,” that needed to work hard to see what was right in front of it.

“Buen dia de las madres,” she said, and hugged us both—first Elissa, then me. She bent down and kissed Sasha on the temple, the tender spot where the butterfly patch met her browning, peachy skin.

Author’s Note: I’d been attempting to write this piece for several years, but it took a return trip to Mexico (solo, this time) to finish it. Ten days’ immersion in context—the smells, sights, flavors and painful contradictions of life in Zihuatanejo—helped me find the larger story here: a story not just about my daughter’s amblyopia, but about the partial blindness that prevents all of us from seeing one another in our stunning, imperfect wholeness. Meanwhile, the patches did their job, spectacularly; Sasha’s vision is steady (with glasses) at 20/25. At 12, she’s now petitioning for contact lenses.

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Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

By Anndee Hochman

Hair Today art 2“Ama, you should grow your hair long,” my 11-year-old daughter Sasha says, watching me in the fogged mirror over the sink, her round brush paused mid-stroke. I shake my head like a terrier, scattering warm droplets. Then I reach around her—it’s small, this bathroom—to the shelf where Elissa and I keep the tools of our pragmatic grooming routines: mint dental floss, paraben-free deodorant, contact lens solution, a tweezer to tug the occasional wayward hair from one another’s chins.

I rake my fingers through my short, damp hair, fluffing it with a dab of green gel—the bargain brand, $3.99 with my Acme supercard—to keep my curls standing at shiny attention for the next fifteen hours. Sasha continues to brush her own tupelo-honey tresses, like some Victorian heroine, 100 daily strokes in pursuit of radiance and contentment.

“If I grew my hair long, it would be a mess,” I say. “A fuzzy, tangled mess. C’mon, you’ve seen the pictures.”

I’m thinking of a photo snapped in the courtyard of Trumbull College my sophomore year. I’m wearing the khaki-colored sack I favored in those days to hide my body’s bulges—overalls cut loosely through the thighs and hips, cinched at each shoulder with a strap poked through a buttonhole and then double-knotted. My round cheeks are framed—no, more like swallowed—in a cloud of wild, coal-colored frizz. It looks like a long-haired animal, in shedding season, has draped itself miserably over my head.

I am not going back. I am not going back to Barry Leonard, Crimper, circa 1975, where Barry himself, rayon shirt unbuttoned nearly to his copper belt buckle, stands behind my chair, comb in one hand and mournful look in his limpid brown eyes. “Such hair. Such texture. Some day you will just let it be,” he says, lifting one thick, wavy section. Women in hot pants serve Chardonnay and brie to waiting customers; a white shag carpet hugs the walls. Pink lava lamps undulate on the reception desk.

My mother is paying Barry Leonard $25—a lot, at the time—to be one more adult telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, insisting that today’s stinging regret will, eventually, morph to gratitude. I really don’t care. I am 13 and I want straight hair like Cher, like Karen Carpenter, like Lise Abbott, the tallest and most stunning girl in my class. “Please just blow-dry it,” I say. I can see myself in the infinite mirrors, endless tunnel of shaggy-haired Anndees, all of them lock-jawed with impatience. My mother, complimentary wine in hand, fades toward the carpeted wall. Barry Leonard looks as if he might cry. The blow dryer roars, and he pulls a hank of my hair taut with the wire brush, lashing it over and under, over and under, with electric heat.

I stopped trying to straighten my hair at 16, around the time Josh and I began making out on the black leather couch in his father’s study. I’d like to say it happened in this order: I threw away the giant rollers, unplugged the blow dryer and, with a joyful, newly liberated spirit, attracted my first real boyfriend. But I think it was really the other way around: Josh gave me a stuffed koala bear, wrote cards in barely legible print saying I was pretty, and his sheepish affections buoyed my confidence enough to stop fighting my natural instincts—or, at least, the natural instincts of my hair. Josh managed to blaze a path through the tangle; his tongue found my earlobe, and he held my curls when we kissed.

Fast-forward eleven years. I live in Oregon, I kiss girls—including the one who will become my life partner—and, one impulsive afternoon, I ask Mary Newcomer at the 37th Street Salon to cut my hair short. Really short, I tell her, making a chop-chop motion around my ears. I watch as eight-inch squiggles, threaded with gray, tumble to the floor.

My mother, when she sees me a month later, will think I have done this because I’m a lesbian; short hair goes with the ripped jeans, second piercing in the left ear and requisite copy of Sinister Wisdom on the bookshelf. She’s worried: what next? A motorcycle? A labrys tattoo on my left hip? But she’ll be wrong. I’m not cutting off my hair in order to join the club. What I see in the mirror as wavy skeins fall from Mary’s shears is this: a woman who no longer needs to hide in a khaki sack or a helmet of hair.

Yes, that was me in Barry Leonard’s salon chair, crackling with want, cringing in self-mortification. Me, blistering my forehead with blow-dryers. Me, staggering through freshman year on a diet of coffee and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. That was me, at war with my hair, with myself, until—gradually, finally, blessedly—I grew up and made peace. Such hair. Such texture. Let her be.

Fast-forward once again. Sasha wants contact lenses and high-heeled sandals and permission to wear pink lipstick out of the house. She wants to look like the girls in the Justice clothing catalogue, willow-legged and flirty in their flounced skirts. We compromise and negotiate. We give in on lip gloss, stand firm on the strappy heels, promise contacts when she turns 13. She rolls her eyes. We raise our voices. And each Friday night, we lay our palms on her silken head and whisper: “Hayei asher ti-yih, vehayi b’rucha, b’asher ti-yih. Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.”

She can barely tolerate our murmured blessing—”Stop. You’re messing up my hair,” she hisses before we’re finished—and I know, in the end, we can do only what my mother did—fade toward the wall, witnesses as Sasha finds her way.

Back to the present, our steamy little bathroom. “If you grew your hair long,” Sasha muses, “you could put it in a high ponytail—look, Ama, like this—and tie it with a pink ribbon. It would be so cute. I want you to have long hair. Did you ever? I’m going to let mine grow, down to here, and then get it layered…Will you make me a ponytail? Really tight. It’s bumpy on top; I don’t want it bumpy on top. Make it so there aren’t any little strands sticking out? No, not like that! Why won’t that piece tuck in? I. HATE. MY. HAIR!”

“I know, sweetie.” But I’ve moved on, my one-minute beauty routine is wrapped up for the day. I poke earrings through my lobes, shrug a silver bracelet onto my wrist, grab socks from the basket in the corner. Sasha continues brushing her hair, alternately beaming and scowling at herself in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to tame the wild, electric strands.

 Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.