Stella Ridley Two


Deflecting the Gaze

Things always had to be just so in Matu’s world. For example, after puberty, females had to wear makeup and it had to be just so—not too much, not too little, just enough to establish and maintain the mask that you would present to the world as your face from the time you started wearing makeup until you died. Matu would drill it into us that how you wore your makeup, how you dressed, how you stood and walked and sat said things to other people about where you came from and who you were, marked you as being or not being a good person from a good family.

I know now that she was trying to save us from the world of grief that comes from not looking and acting just like everybody else, for in our world, not “fitting in” would, at the very least, call attention to one and lead to negative speculation about one’s character, and would, at worst, bring shame to the whole family, leaving them open to the criticism that they couldn’t keep their offspring in line, that some “bad breeding” had gone on somewhere. To have a hole in your stockings in a public place or not to wear makeup or to wear too much makeup was to violate the social contract and start down that slippery slope that led willy-nilly to jail or to ignominious death after passing through boozing, ingesting illegal substances, driving entirely too fast, dancing the dirty dog, and getting pregnant outside wedlock.

Molly and I were the first children to be the object of Matu’s policing of puberty—a demanding and thankless task–so she was much more energetic and fierce about it than she would be later with the younger children (perhaps to her dismay as things turned out). As soon as puberty appeared on the horizon for Molly and me, Matu tried to make us feel as if social scrutiny extended even to our most private clothing and thoughts and acts.

But we were clever little girls. We soon figured out that the makeup, the hair and all the rest of it actually served the function of deflecting the gaze of others, that outward conformity was not intended to make other people think well of one but to keep other people from thinking of or talking about one at all.

This meant that as long as we appeared to be who we were supposed to be or assumed to be, we could actually do as we pleased in many ways not open to public scrutiny and in some cases not open even to the scrutiny of Matu (I do have to say that Molly was far bolder in her transgressions in this regard than I was). Of course, our cool self-absorption kept us from seeing that Matu knew everything we thought we were the first people in the world to figure out, and she knew it very, very well.

Stella Ridley One is here:

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