There were a lot of very interesting responses on the subject of grooming, in the comments and in emails. I was interested in your personal experiences of this matter.

There was a suggestion that my failure to, as it were, know where my towel is all the time is my mother’s fault.

It is true that I was brought up in a family in which attention to one’s appearance was considered frivolous. With all the important issues in the world, how could any sensible woman devote her time to thinking about clothing and suchlike?

But it is also true that I grew to womanhood in an era when refusal to pay attention to one’s looks was part of being a feminist.

We didn’t shave our legs, wear makeup, put on bras or girdles (which existed at the time, I believe, though I have never seen one), have our hair cut by someone who knew what she was doing, or otherwise kowtow to male expectations about us. We wore painter’s pants and T-shirts, and unwittingly spawned a whole industry intended to give “the natural look” to girls who weren’t prepared to follow our lead. We caused employers to quit admitting that they hired receptionists on the basis of their looks, and to feel uncomfortable about their continued policy of keeping women (though not men) out of the public eye once they were no longer decorative.

There were girls for whom this was a sacrifice, who could have looked pretty had they made some effort, and who never got to date anyone except fellow revolutionaries all the way through college. They deserve some credit for bringing a greater degree of freedom to today’s women.

I was not one of those girls. I was a dancer with a Pre-Raphaelite face and hair, and braless and unkempt was actually a great look for me. So much of attractiveness is actually about the luck of having the look that is in style at the time.

But there is an essential distinction here, I think. Attractiveness is the not the same as beauty. Ozarque had a discussion a while back about the idea that older women are by definition ugly. One commenter pointed out that it would be maladaptive for the species to define postmenopausal women as sexually attractive. The best thing, from the standpoint of reproductive success, is for fertility to be highly attractive. He has a point.

But that is sexual attractiveness, not beauty. People can also be beautiful as a tree is beautiful, in a purely aesthetic way. The Water Jar used to argue for this, though he limited his claim to women and illustrated his essays on the subject with pictures of strippers and movie stars, thus robbing them of some degree of their moral authority.

There is the beauty that comes from having a beautiful spirit. There is charm, which is much longer lasting than a pretty face. There is style.

Any of these things might be what your clothes and face and hair are saying about you, but they can also say much more abstract things.

But sometimes — as with my youthful feminist statement — the things our self-presentation says aren’t entirely true. I got all the benefits of being a pretty girl (and the disadvantages, too, of course) while also having the self-satisfaction of my feminist statement. Now I am not as self-deceiving. I have never curled, permed, or colored my hair, and I actually get some credit for this from other women, as though I were making a statement about getting older. In fact, I have thick, healthy, curly hair which is graying nicely. What I mean by a hairstyle is that I go to the trouble of getting a haircut, from the wonderful Cecilia, to whom I explained that I wouldn’t do anything but wash it, so I had to have a really good haircut. I know a woman with a mousy pageboy who claims to spend 45 minutes fixing it every day. I would have thought that 45 minutes would be sufficient for Marie Antoinette to fix her hair, but I may just be lucky. I obviously don’t deserve any credit for, as one woman put it, resisting the pressure to change my hair.

It is very easy for me, being mostly interested in the abstract and inclined toward absentmindedness — and yes perhaps because of my upbringing and early experiences, to make a statement with my self-presentation that says something like “I am unable to care for myself” or “I am an eccentric” or “I live alone, possibly in an alleyway, and have no access to mirrors.” This does not affect my level of charm or beauty of spirit, but it isn’t the effect I want to create.

Well, in honor of my mother, who is in fact an excellent role model, I offer you as today’s song  “The Star Carol” by Sydney Carter. If you click on its name you will get the lyrics. Click here for midi file, pennywhistle notation, sheet music, dulcimer tab, etc.

I have never heard this song done by anyone else but my mother and was very surprised to find it in the Oxford Christmas carol collection. I didn’t remember all of the verses, but the first verse is enough all by itself to explain why you don’t see it in hymnals:

“Every star shall sing a carol!
Every creature, high or low,
come and praise the King of heaven
by whatever name you know.
God above, Man below,
holy is the name I know.”


Praising God by whatever name you know is not an option in your average Protestant church. The song goes on to suggest that there might be other incarnations of Christ on other planets, making it a science fiction carol but also theologically unorthodox to say the least. Thus, while Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” is one of the most commonly sung modern hymns and included in most mainstream hymnals, this one is not generally heard in churches, and maybe not ever. And yet, even a heretical hymn is religious, and cannot be sung in schools. So grab your dulcimer and pennywhistle and sing it yourself. It has a beautiful haunting tune, with a folksong feel, and should be better known than it is.