By Amy Scheiner
People used to compliment my long, thick eyelashes so one day I went to my grandmother’s vanity, took a pair of scissors, and cut them.
I remember this because it was the weekend of Princess Diana’s funeral. I didn’t know who she was but every TV station showed a long procession of crying people wearing black so I assumed she must have been someone important. I was newly seven and all I knew about Diana was that she was beautiful and that her beauty was now gone.
A four-foot portrait of my grandmother hangs on the wall in our living room. She commissioned the painting in 1950 when she was in her early 20s, a young wife, and in her first trimester of pregnancy with my mom. In the portrait, she wears a bluish-silver ball gown, the off-the-shoulder sleeves revealing her bony frame. Her lips are painted red and her hands are delicately folded in her lap, clasping a pink rose. Her expression is reminiscent of the Mona Lisa’s, her mouth attempting a smile, eyes following you wherever you go.
I’ve always been concerned with my appearance mostly because my appearance drew attention in a negative way. Because I wasn’t slender or delicate, my appearance made me a target. My large physique was the first thing people noticed about me and they never looked past it.
During my adolescence, my mom told me that part of her was glad I wasn’t thinner because then there would be a line of boys waiting for me outside our house. When she said this, I envisioned a group of my male classmates stretching down the steps of our front porch, through the driveway and into the street, all perfectly standing in a neat line. I desperately wanted a boyfriend but the only time boys talked to me was to make crude jokes or shout insults to my body. Walking through the halls in school, my shoulders tensed, my breathing halted, and I’d cringe waiting for the next cruelty to be hurled at me. I knew early on the consequences of the male gaze.
My grandmother was a model in the 40s and her father taught her that her appearance was her only value. “Such a beauty” they would say in those old New York accents. Maybe they pinched her cheek, or somewhere else. She enjoyed having people look at her. We have photographs of her posing in a beauty queen sash over a bathing suit at the Jersey Shore, stills from department stores in fur coats and stockings with the seam down the back, her teeth bearing a blinding grin.
My grandfather would say that he married my grandmother because she was beautiful. He didn’t say this with humor or embarrassment, rather as a sober statement. What other reason could there be?
“She barely graduated high school and definitely didn’t go to college,” my mom said. “She didn’t need to.” She and my grandmother had a volatile relationship, my earliest memories comprised of them fighting. Over what I can’t remember now, but their history of anger predated my birth. My mom resented her mother’s failure in parenting and yet visited her every week when I was young, her loyalty binding them together.
My mom had a career of power and responsibility and while she wore makeup and dressed professionally, she didn’t place value on her appearance. She didn’t want to be like her mother and believed the way you looked should have no factor in your life. “It’s about what’s inside that counts,” she’d tell me and point to her chest. I automatically put my hand to my chest but didn’t know what I should be feeling. I thought I should agree with her, but I grew up in a world where I learned that my appearance had a direct correlation to my worth.
After she married and had children, my grandmother “lost” her looks. Lost as in escaped, vanished, wasted. She became depressed, some days unable to get out of bed. What value did she have?
I had always been ashamed of my body. My body betrayed me, took away my youth. I couldn’t shop at the stores where other girls shopped because I couldn’t fit into any clothes. I was ostracized by my peers, never had a date in high school, and was bullied frequently. People looked at me with disgust. My appearance was a problem that needed to be fixed. What value did I have?
“There are more important things,” my mom would say when I looked at myself in the mirror at thirteen, straightened hair and black eyeliner. She’d clench her jaw and narrow her eyes, her expression somewhere between annoyance and fear, and I felt the disappointment in her gaze. I didn’t want to be like her mother. I didn’t want to wager my life on beauty.
Maybe I had internalized my mom’s resentment of valuing appearance. Around the time I cut my eyelashes at seven, I would become irritated when people called me “cute.”
“I’m not cute!” I’d say and stomp my foot.
“You’re beautiful, then,” my mother would tell me, a different person when I was small then when I was a teen. But that didn’t feel right either.
Maybe I just didn’t like being looked at.
My grandmother bore anger that now lives in my bones. I don’t know if her anger began before she lost her beauty or after. She may have been born with it or it may have accumulated over time, growing like a tumor. I fear my anger just as my mom feared her mother’s.
“She hit me so hard once that my nose started bleeding,” my mom told me. I thought about the times my mom pulled my hair, screamed at me, called me fat and worthless. I thought about the times I slammed my fist into a wall, broke my door off the hinges, threatened to kill my younger brother.
I remember once talking to a therapist about the anger in my family, the way it was passed down from my grandmother to my mom to me as a family trait, like our thick eyebrows or toothy grins. Anger was the currency in my house and we traded it freely.
The therapist shook her head and said: “That wasn’t anger, that was rage.”
What is rage but beauty lost?
What is rage but a girl taking scissors to her eyelashes?
My grandmother had one skill besides being beautiful— she loved to paint. Her paintings hang on our walls, not far from her portrait. There are eight paintings of various sizes signed with her name. Some are pastels with smooth strokes, others are darkened with blurred faces. They are nearly all paintings of young girls.
My mom would say she didn’t have any artistic skills but she was an actor in her youth, dramatizing scenes of romantic quarrels and family strife, hovering on stage above an audience, the spotlight on her.
I too believed I lacked creative talent, perhaps stemming from nearly failing Art class in school, but most would say writing is an artistic outlet. To me, it is a way of simultaneously being seen and being hidden.
My grandmother died when I was ten. They found in the toxicology report that her blood had high levels of the medications prescribed by the nursing home. I heard suspicion in my mom’s voice when she told me, and it wouldn’t be until decades later that I learned my grandmother had made a tearful, desperate call to my mom the year before her death. She had overdosed and my mom had called the EMT to knock down her door and pump her stomach.
Pump her stomach— almost as if someone pressed the rewind button on a movie. Going against time, against nature. An undoing. An assault on the body, defying its instinctive process. Princess Diana attempted to reverse time, unveiling the contents of her stomach. She had bulimia. So did I.
One day, when I was about five or six, my grandmother and my great-grandmother were babysitting me while my mom ran errands. Four generations of women. My grandmother and great-grandmother—mother and daughter— lived together in their golden years; the men in their lives had died or had left them.
I didn’t think much about my appearance then. I was happy to be in my body because my body could do things like dance and tumble and play rather than be something to be looked at, although I was beginning to watch other people— how they moved, dressed, spoke— and I felt them watching me.
I stood on my tippy toes in the dining area in their small apartment lifting my head over the counter to get a better look at the round fish tank full of shiny stones. I never understood why they had that tank because they never had any fish.
There wasn’t much to do in their apartment although occasionally we played card games like Go Fish and Old Maid. We’d laugh when my grandmother ended up with the Old Maid card and she’d jut out her bottom lip in annoyance.
My great-grandmother and grandmother loved card games, specifically when gambling was involved. They’d frequently take trips to Atlantic City and sit at the blackjack table for hours. On the bus home they counted their winnings and griped over their losses.
My mom liked gambling, too, and she almost always won or broke even. The one time I gambled, I lost and swore I would never gamble again. Why would someone risk losing something they already had?
“I’m running to the grocery store. I’ll be back in an hour or so,” my mom said, turning toward the front door. She kissed me on the head and told me to be good.
My grandmother and great-grandmother were in the back of the apartment when I ran to my mom. “Hug!” I said and she grabbed my face in her hand and kissed my cheeks.
“My baby,” she said. She swung her heavy purse over her shoulders, her turtleneck sweater tucked into her high-waisted jeans. I skipped in my polka dot socks to the living area. The carpet in the apartment always felt extra soft to me and I loved to roll around on it like a cat.
My grandmother had decorated the apartment according to her taste: a lime green and brown wooden dining table with four fabric seats, pink polyester sofas, trinket boxes small enough to hold a thimble, porcelain figurines of dogs, and the portrait of herself hanging above.
On my hands and knees, I meowed at the window, waiting to see if any cats heard me. I lay on my back, bored with the lack of attention. My bangs hung long into my eyes and I brushed them out of my face.
“You doing okay?” I heard my grandmother’s voice.
“I’m bored,” I said.
“Go watch TV, we’ll be out in a minute.”
I stood up and went back to the fish-less tank instead. I tried to count how many beads there were inside when I heard shuffling and leaned my small body toward the right, past the tank to see the both of them face-to-face in the hall. They had been arguing, their mumblings something I had learned to ignore. I was surprised when I heard a yelp rise from my great-grandmother.
My grandmother’s hand was raised in the air and I saw it come down on her mother. I stared at them, unable to move. When she realized that I was watching, my grandmother smiled and giggled, playing it off like nothing happened. I felt my skin grow cold.
I replayed her hand striking down in my mind as my great-grandmother nursed her bruised arm and returned to her room. I became silent. Children learn to be silent when they’re afraid.
I didn’t tell my mom what had happened that day just as I didn’t tell anyone when my mom and I fought. The rage on my grandmother’s face would transfer to my mom’s and eventually, I would catch my own face in the mirror—the same look. Chaotic, menacing, animal.
I’ve been told I look exactly like my mother and my mother was told she looked exactly like her mother. A genetic fate. An inescapable future.
I’d watch my grandmother stare at herself in the mirror, age spots, sagging skin, thinning hair. She didn’t take care of herself later in life and her health was poor. “Care” as in tend, nurture, protect.
But who had taught her how to care?
Who would teach me?
Perhaps my grandmother was angry that she lost her beauty. Perhaps my mother was angry that her mother’s beauty was more valuable to her than her own daughter. I was angry, too, at the mixed messages I received about my beauty— my lack of beauty, the potential of my beauty, the consequence of my beauty.
At seven, I stared at myself in my grandmother’s vanity— round face, reddened cheeks, a pleading gaze looking back at me. Maybe it wasn’t pleading but fearful. Maybe desperate. Desperate for the reflection looking back at me to unveil a future better than the one I would be destined for. One of anger and rage and beauty— chasing it, protecting it, losing it. And understanding it. Understanding the risk I was taking if I followed the path of my grandmother or the path of my mother, one that seemed inevitable but which I would eventually sever.
It was in front of that vanity where I cut my eyelashes while listening to the world grieve the loss of a princess.
Amy Scheiner’s writing has been featured in Slate, HuffPost, Blue Mesa Review, and Longreads, among others. She is the co-founder of the literary journal Moonlighting by Lit Pub and is currently seeking representation for her memoir. www.amyscheiner.com