I think of the Nora Ephron essay “On Maintenance” every time I feel guilty about spending $43 on a charcoal face mask that does wonders with ingrown hairs I am now certain only I noticed. “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death,” she writes. There are seven more paragraphs dedicated to getting rid of unwanted facial hair. Instantly I felt better about my own foolish womanhood.
Though Ephron spends the piece speaking to ladies of a certain age, there’s a universal quality to “On Maintenance” and the other essays that appear in her 2006 collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. Ephron was 65 when the book was released, though some of her brief essays on the female experience had been published previously, in O Magazine and elsewhere.
Her tone is that of a friend, even when she’s slagging off President Clinton in “Me and Bill: The End of Love,” and her pieces are never overwritten. She could balance a sentence on very little: “In my bathroom there are many bottles.” It makes me mad, how effortlessly she wrote. But I’m also glad she did write, even after she didn’t have to. Her classic rom-coms (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) would have kept her legacy (and bank account) intact until her surprising death in 2012. And so Ephron had nothing to prove when she dedicated an entire essay to the disdain she felt for her disorganized handbag. It would have come off a bit, “purses, am I right?” (read that in a Jerry Seinfeld voice, please), if Ephron hadn’t approached her topics with so much heart.
“I Feel Bad About My Neck”: Not just for your mom.
To some, these subjects may seem frivolous. Having spent her pre-film days tackling The Big Topics serious female nonfiction writers are supposed to ponder (chief among them the second-wave feminism of her Crazy Salad), Ephron likely felt free to explore her everyday life by the time she reached menopause. The results are not all that different from one of her most famous Esquire columns, 1972’s “A Few Words About Breasts,” though I can see how face cream and parenting tips could feel safe in comparison to the subversive notion of a small-breasted woman liking her boobs. The latter feels like revolt, whereas pearls of wisdom such as, “Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of 35 you will be nostalgic for at the age of 45,” sound like wisecracks from your sassy aunt.
Feminist writing continues to be absolutely necessary, but I would argue that Ephron’s essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck are essential feminine writing. Women’s magazines routinely explore these same topics — loving one’s home and traditional domesticity, beauty and aging, empty nest syndrome, personal humiliation — but very rarely with this much self-deprecation, light-touch humor, and relatability.
Ephron is an everywoman with sharp opinions on topics far more complicated than manicures, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to hear her stories about schlepping to the salon. As she writes here, paraphrasing her own mother, “Everything is copy…. When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” One caveat Ephron fails to mention: this only works if you know how to tell a story well. She accomplishes so much with anecdotes that are so little.
It’s a bit like the rom-com vs. Important Film debate. Few would say a rom-com can change the world, much like an essay about beauty products can’t alter one’s opinions on war, politics, oppression, etc. When Harry Met Sally tweaked the public perception of platonic friendship, leaving me (and many others) questioning to this day whether men and women can be just friends. Ephron never claimed these were important conversations, but she was upfront about them being personal. Turns out they were, to steal a phrase from Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, personal to a lot of people.