Trying on Sweet Sixteen

HAVE lived three score years and more, but I still remember being 16, how confused I sometimes felt, how I longed to please everyone I knew.

That was the year I had the strange idea that one's beauty depended entirely on the curl of one's eyelashes. I desperately wanted mine to have the same sweep as those of Minnie Mouse, the cartoon character. And the only way I could think of to make it happen was to own an eyelash curler. I wanted one more than anything else in the world.

I pleaded with my mother to buy me one. She thought the idea ridiculous. As far as she was concerned, the curler was some form of torture instrument. She was quick to point out that if I insisted on using one, it was going to do away with the straight eyelashes I then possessed.

Her warning failed to deter me. I had to own an eyelash curler, that was all there was to it. I continued to plead and coax until finally one was mine.

The directions for its use were simple: Secure the lashes in its vice-like grip and then count to 20. But, since I have always been a firm believer in a little being good and a lot being better, I counted to 200!

My lashes, when they were released, pointed straight up toward the ceiling, which caused me some discomfort: They pricked my eyelids every time I blinked. I found it tolerable only because I was convinced that the effect was beautiful.

In my 16th year, I decided I was not at all what I wanted to be. I wanted to be tall, dark, and mysterious looking. In reality, I was short, blond, and giggly.

I began by trying to be what I considered mysterious. I wore a faraway look on my face; I acted bored; I sighed, not only loudly, but a lot and always without warning. A fact that startled those around me.

I was trying to be like the heroines in the books I was reading. They seemed always to be standing alone, either on the deck of some ship or on some distant railroad platform, often in fascinating places. They, too, always looked bored, sighed a lot, and wore a faraway look, while those who were around them, enchanted by their appearance, wondered who they could be.

No one wondered about me, however. Instead, everyone felt they knew what was wrong with me. Some thought I was not well; others thought I was just annoying. But all agreed, whatever I was doing, I should stop it.

I was no more successful when I tried working on the problem of being short. I was 5 feet 2 inches when I stretched, but I wanted to be tall and slinky. Every morning for a month, I tied my ankles to a bottom leg of my bed before stretching out on the floor. Then, using all the strength I could muster, I reached out for some distant object. Each time, I succeeded in moving my bed a bit further from the wall. But, at the end of 30 days, when my hard-working ankles were rubbed raw, I learned I had not grown a single inch.

That is when I adopted the theory: If I thought tall, I would be tall. That failed, too. The reason: a yellow leghorn hat with a wide brim. Did I say wide? The widest I have ever seen before or since. I am sure it was designed to be worn by a woman with huge shoulders and nearly six feet tall. Nevertheless, when I caught sight of the hat in the store window, every bit of me felt the need to own it.

When I told my mother I planned to buy it, she was shocked.

''Patricia, you're not serious,'' she said, hoping I was joking. ''That hat will have you looking outlandish. It's much too large for you.''

Still, she did not forbid my buying the hat, provided I paid for it myself. My mother seldom stopped me, unless what I wanted to do was likely to hurt me physically or morally. She seemed to feel that if I insisted upon looking laughable, it was my own business.

The saleswoman who sold me the hat was very kind. She tried hard to stop me from buying it. Over and over she kept saying, ''Really, miss, the hat is so large, and you're so small!''

Desperation made her voice rise a little more each time she said it, so that in the end she was almost shrieking. I paid no attention to her. The size seemed right to me, for I was sitting in front of a tiny mirror that reflected only my head and part of the hat. I thought I looked lovely! I bought the hat.

A short time later, while I was wearing the hat, I passed in front of a huge plate-glass window. I glanced into it, hoping to catch my reflection. I was sure I looked gorgeous.

What I saw stunned me. Something that resembled a giant toadstool. To my horror, a closer inspection revealed there was a tiny face hidden beneath the enormous hat. Sadly, it belonged to me.

When it came to clothes, I developed a passion for black. I found it hard to reconcile my mother's and my Aunt Mary's thoughts about me wearing this color. My mother said I was too young to wear black, and my Aunt Mary said it made me look too old.

I wore black every chance I could, until the day I ran into one of my favorite cousins while wearing it. I thought Johnny, who was 23, to be absolutely dreamy. Usually, he was a happy person who seemed to enjoy teasing me, but this day, when he approached me, he was very solemn.

''Who's dead?'' he whispered.

''Dead?'' I asked, bewildered by his question. ''I don't know.''

''That's odd,'' he said, ''I thought you were in mourning.''

That did it! His reaction made me realize black was not the color for me. So I developed a passion for pink, and everyone seemed pleased with the change.

I continued to try new styles and over time I learned what was right for me. Being 16 wasn't always easy: Sometimes I felt devastated by a silly remark -- and sometimes it still seemed that I couldn't do anything right.

But when I look back now, I realize that despite all my crazy experiments, I had a lot of fun learning to be me.

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