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There are costs for cashing in on looks

June 12, 2003|Samantha Bonar | Times Staff Writer

My mother lives in north Florida, in an area she calls the Redneck Riviera, and she is fond of saying such things as "I never want to live anywhere where I can't wear sequined flip-flops!" and "I just injected 400 bucks into my forehead!" (post-Botox).

My sister and I experience a lot of mixed feelings about our mother, a fourth-generation sunny blond California girl. Sister Liz and I identify more with our father's Midwestern German family (they are Church of the Brethren, an offshoot of the Amish) and their firm avoidance of vulgarity at all costs.

Still, there is something fascinating about our mother. We have to admit, she has power.

From as far back as I can remember, she used her beauty to get perks, from better cuts of meat from the butcher to cheaper rent. And boy did she get freebies. All she had to do was make eye contact, smile, giggle and act dumb and cute. As kids, Liz and I would stand back and watch her work, impressed and mortified.

But at 59, Mom is losing her mojo. She still piles on the glitz and glam -- "I think Mom is turning into Mrs. Roper," Liz said to me a few months ago after Mom tried dying her hair red -- but the hocus-pocus no longer melts men into puddles so easily.

Liz and I have reacted to our role model for female behavior differently. Liz, an astronomer and NASA fellow, has downplayed her looks as a way of being taken seriously in her male-dominated profession. She wears her thick, bittersweet-chocolate-colored hair in a bun and hides her gold eyes behind glasses. Her favorite lipstick is Chap Stick.

Liz can't help being gorgeous, though she is mortified at the mere thought of using her beauty in a manipulative way. Still, I wonder if her husband of 10 years would have noticed her brains and personality if they weren't housed in such a pretty package, and I wonder what will happen down the road as she gets older.

Studies are always hammering home the point that men are much more "visually oriented" when it comes to romance than women. Instead of fighting this or denying it, what's wrong with using it for our benefit?

"It's one of the only legitimate forms of power women have," I tell my sister.

"Maybe, but is it really worth humiliating yourself by acting like a simpering idiot for a better cut of steak?" she asks.

"Well, no," I agree. "But maybe for an upgrade to first class

The danger of this manipulative behavior, we've realized, is you almost inevitably end up with contempt for men ("A chump's a chump," as Marlene Dietrich's gold-digging character says in the 1941 film "Manpower") and seriously eroding your respect for yourself.

For most of my life I have been obsessed with the pursuit of prettiness, to the detriment of the development of other, more interesting personal qualities. But now I see the cost in my aging mother.

The only thing Mom ever got validation for was her looks. Now that she is losing them, she is flailing about for something to make her feel good about herself.

She has many other good qualities: She is smart and funny and charming. But no one ever got past her face, body and hair to tell her so. Including her two husbands.

Even though my stern German dad made nail polish and hair dye verboten, I'm pretty sure the main reason he married her was because she was a young babe. Ditto for Mom's second husband; ask him what first attracted him to her and he says nothing about her inner self but rather that she was tall and slim with this "big blond bubble" around her face.

This is my mother's lesson to her daughters: You can use your looks to get the goods from men, but ultimately you risk ending up empty-handed.


Samantha Bonar can be contacted at samantha. bonar@latimes. com.

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