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When I was in middle school I wore coke bottle glasses, braces on my teeth and my hair looked like someone had placed a bowl over my head and traced its shape with a pair of scissors. If that wasn’t bad enough my mother insisted I wear matronly dresses that hung midway between my knees and my calves. Halfway through an unairconditioned, Texas school day, those dreaded dresses were wet under the arms and the edges were ringed with a white circle of sweat and deodorant. I looked like I’d been hit with an ugly stick. I never told anyone, but secretly, I wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor.

Since then a part of me has wanted to be like Elizabeth Taylor: a brave, badass woman.

Every move “La Liz” made set the paparazzi buzzing like overly ambitious mosquitos. They feasted on her life, loves and near-death experiences with photos of her on the arms of famous men—including eight marriages to seven men—relaxing on yachts and private beaches, accepting two Academy Awards, receiving death threats for being the first to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS, and photos of her when she was transported on stretchers, airplanes, and boats to more than 100 surgeries.

I loved this woman not just because she was beautiful, but because she was different from any woman I knew growing up. Elizabeth Taylor showed me you could survive what life throws at you and still have good humor and a lust for life. Even when I was a kid her story made me realize there were women, unlike my mother, who didn’t play the “poor pitiful me” card. Women who kept charging at life again and again. Who stood up for themselves, and others, and never gave up.

I made mental notes about how she weathered the storms, be they marriages or health problems. Elizabeth Taylor broke her back five times, had two hip replacements, a golf ball-sized benign brain tumor removed, radiation for skin cancer, two life-threatening bouts of pneumonia, an emergency tracheotomy, diabetes, depression, addiction, crippling neck pain from osteoporosis and scoliosis that confined her to a wheelchair, a leaky valve in her heart and at 78, she had a risky heart procedure to treat congestive heart failure which ultimately killed her the following year. 

“I enter hospitals as often as others enter taxi cabs,” she said.

Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy scar on full display in the film, Cleopatra.

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my breast surgeries and chemo left me with numerous scars, and once again, Elizabeth Taylor was my role model. I loved how she wore her tracheotomy scar in the middle of her throat as though it were another one of her legendary jewels, and so I wear my scars like survival badges. Since childhood she was celebrated for her beauty, but she wasn’t afraid to let us see her bald, overweight, white-haired, walking with a cane or on oxygen and confined to a wheelchair. She showed us that surviving life’s storms was more important than the storms themselves. 

As we age many of us will suffer from some of the same debilitating illnesses or live with chronic pain and worry about taking pain meds and steroids. It’s disheartening mentally as well as emotionally and physically. I know. It’s not easy.

“You just do it,” Elizabeth Taylor once said. “You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and you refuse to let it get to you.

You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.”

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  1. Interesting…I had NO idea she broke her back 5 times…was that done while shooting a film? Thanks for sharing …she had a great attitude!

    • Karen, When Elizabeth Taylor was a little girl she first broke her back when she fell off a horse while filming National Velvet. Other breaks were compression fractures. I think those were caused by her scoliosis. Thanks for reading and leaving me a comment! Brenda

  2. Great post! I have never really given much thought to Elizabeth Taylor as a role model but after reading your post I can definitely see your point. She definitely had a great attitude. Never knew she had dealt with so many challenges and yet kept pressing forward.

  3. Well, you made me sit up and smell the coffee. I never thought of Taylor as a role model for getting old. But, you’re right. She had everything you could imagine and was still out there doing good work! I kinda always thought of her as a little bit of a mess. I prefer your version. Look at what she did for AIDS!

    Now I must tell you that the vision of you sweaty in a dress with sweat stains is just too much. What a visual. Great job. I’ll not be forgetting that one!

    • Ditto. I thought of her as a hot mess, though beautiful. Making bad decisions. But you point out that she did a lot of great things, like AIDS benefits–I knew about that but it certainly wasn’t in the forefront of what comes up when one says “Liz Taylor.” And when you mentioned the surgeries, I figured they were for cosmetic procedures–I didn’t know she had so many health problems. Yes, a strong woman indeed.
      As for your tween years, it’s a moment when hardly anybody looks good. And you certainly look fantastic now.

      • TOF, Middle school strikes many of us with an ugly stick and Elizabeth Taylor came along at a time I needed a strong female role model. Other wise, I might not have remembered her many traumas and tragedies. She was much more than a hot mess. Oh! I forgot to mention she also had a stroke. Thanks for weighing in on the Liz discussion. Brenda

    • Hi Sandy, It’s always interesting to hear someone else’s perspective on something, isn’t it? Oh, yes! I was a vision when I was a tween! Thankfully my fairy godmother blessed me with a little of her fairy dust as I got older. xoxox, Brenda

  4. Were you tallest the girl in the class too?
    I was………..not fun!
    This was a BEAUTIFUL write up on Elizabeth TAYLOR!
    Shall we call YOU LIZ from NOW ON?

    • Elizabeth, Yes… I was the tallest girl in my class at that age. In high school I became friends with two other tall girls who are still my best friends! No… Let’s not call me Liz… Please don’t jinx me with her bad health. xoxox, Brenda

  5. Love your stories, both about yourself in high school and Liz Taylor!
    You have a way with words that paints pictures!

  6. Wow, now I can see why you admired her. I had no idea she suffered from so many ailments, but you are right she was a survivor and a do it own way woman ahead of her time. I liked your lead paragraph. Your self description of middle school years sounds so familiar to mine.

    • Hi Pat, I’m glad I gave you another perspective about Elizabeth Taylor. Why do we go through the ugly duckling phase? It’s cruel beyond measure! I’m sorry to hear you were a fellow duckling. xoxox, Brenda

    • DA, Elizabeth Taylor was the polar opposite of my mother. A dramatic look at a more viable way of getting through life than lingering in bed with the shades pulled and a bottle of Valium. Yes, I loved Ms Taylor and overlooked her flaws because no one’s perfect. xoxox, Brenda

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