Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha Appearances

By Arthur Golden


In the years since, I've been called beautiful more often than I can remember. Though, of course, geisha are always called beautiful, even those who aren't. But when Mr. Tanaka said it to me, before I'd ever heard of such a thing as a geisha, I could almost believe it was true. (1.73)

At an early age, Chiyo learns that compliments on her physical appearance feel good, so she will put her physical appearance at a priority above anything else. This is something a geisha must do in order to be successful.

It struck me as odd that even though no one could have called her a beauty, Mr. Tanaka's eyes were fixed on her like a rag on a hook. (2.78)

Young Chiyo makes an interesting observation that some geisha aren't pretty. They're simply pretty because of all the makeup, which shows that the allure of the geisha is in the general mystique, not necessarily in the individual attractiveness of the geisha. However, Sayuri actually is pretty, which is how she becomes a top geisha.

The problem, as I later learned, was that in her geisha days she'd used a kind of white makeup we call "China Clay," made with a base of lead. (4.15)

This is why Granny's face has a strange appearance. The lead-based makeup damaged it. Geisha will do anything to achieve their perfect appearance. We have a feeling that even if they knew the damage it would cause, they'd still use it to appear beautiful and mysterious.

The contrast with [Hatsumomo's] friend Korin was like comparing a rock along the roadside with a jewel. (6.55)

Here again we see an unattractive geisha, and the more attractive of the pair, Hatsumomo, is the more successful one. Looks may not be absolutely necessary for a geisha, but they are a very nice benefit.

Every young geisha may be proud of her hairstyle at first, but she comes to hate it within three or four days. (14.12)

The geisha sure look pretty, but Sayuri describes them in a way that starts to seem gross, like how they won't wash their hair for days and days. A geisha's motto might as well be that looks are deceiving.

"Here's a case where the name and the girl go together. I believe she may be even prettier than you, Mameha!" (17.33)

To Mameha's credit, she doesn't get jealous. If someone said this to Hatsumomo about Sayuri, she'd be steamed.

I found angles in my cheeks and around my eyes that I'd never before seen. It may seem odd, but when I realized that the shape of my own face was a surprise to me, I had the sudden insight that nothing in life is ever as simple as we imagine. (23.5)

This quote foreshadows World War II, when Sayuri's face will change a lot because she doesn't have as much food to eat. That is definitely a time in her life that is far from simple.

I was dressed in the most formal costume an apprentice wears, a black, five-crested robe and underrobe of red, which is the color of new beginnings. (24.13)

There is a meaning to everything the geisha puts on her body. To an average onlooker, they just look pretty, but we see here that every garment and accessory has a deeper meaning below the surface.

Though if you were to see an apprentice and a geisha side by side, their collars would be the last thing you'd notice. The apprentice, with her elaborate, long-sleeved Japanese kimono and dangling obi, would probably make you think of a Japanese doll, whereas the geisha would look simpler, perhaps, but also more womanly. (25.8)

The apprentice geisha is like an animal ready to mate…which she pretty much is, because of the ritual of mizuage. A fully formed geisha doesn't need to show off as much as an apprentice does. Her reputation—good or bad—is pretty much set.

"I see angles in your face I've never seen before," [Nobu] said to me. "Don't tell me you're going hungry like everyone else. I'd never expected such a thing of you." (28.53)

Here is the quote about Sayuri's appearance changing during the war. Count on Nobu to point it out in the most callous way. But it also shows that by the time Sayuri is a mature geisha (in her twenties) her reputation is solidifying. A younger geisha would have a much harder time getting work if her looks faded like this.