This is a power move.
Expressed by even the best of men, the sentiment likely originated to remind human beings of their own mortality. Typical first encounters with it, after all, are when children are warned to curb a vanity yet to develop. If this is true, it has since evolved to remind only women—and remind us that not only will we die, but even worse, that we will stop being beautiful. And despite the assuring pretenses of the phrase for the woman who agonizes over her appearance, it is commonly cited by men who equate the loss of beauty with the loss of a feminine power—and smugly so.
I was reminded of this yesterday when, leaning back against a wall waiting for my next class to begin, I held a small mirror in front of me and reapplied my lipstick. I don’t remember what self-depreciating thing I said next, but it prompted a male friend waiting with me to say cheerfully, “Don’t worry too much. After all, beauty fades. We all turn back into clay and return to the earth.” He beamed at me.
I gave him a blank stare. Then, as though having an epiphany, snapped shut my mirror and exclaimed, “Oh my God, you’re right! I never thought of it that way! I guess this really means I should shouldn’t put in any effort, ever. Come to think of it, do you think I should stop reading or completing assignments because aptitude fades? That’s so liberating. Maybe men should stop trying to be funny and failing so hard because senses of humor fade—”
“Okay, okay I get it!” he said.
Then he added, “You know, some people have normal reactions to these things.”
I frowned. What’s a normal reaction? To smile vacuously when men said I was pretty, and laugh orgasmically at sexist jokes?
It was the second time since hearing the phrase as a child that I’d confronted a man about it. The first was a stranger making an effort to have a conversation while I was far too busy daydreaming and had no interest in strangers.
“Sorry, I don’t give people that,” I said to him.
“I asked for your name, not your number.” He grinned. “Yet.”
“I don’t give people that.”
“You don’t give people your name?” His face made it clear this was absurd.
“That’s right.” My name was just as much personal information as anything was;–I had always been, almost inexplicably, reluctant to give it to anyone I felt ought not to be using it.
“You’re just stuck-up,” he snapped. “Women like you are always stuck up. Well, beauty fades so the joke’s on you! You might be beautiful but that’s all you have to offer.”
I repressed elevated laughter. There it was. The joke’s on me. There was the real purpose, the real reminder of the seemingly innocuous statement. The power you had over me will come to an end. “Beauty fades,” is a morbid calm wrapped in a sympathetic guise, a sly affront to the unwavering woman, a desperate lunge to secure a man’s authority—an accusation that feminine power is not everlasting.
I’ve got news for you about the Divine.