I remember the first time I began to notice my own appearances. I noticed that my skin was tan, and that my hair was brown, and that I was darker than my toehead siblings. And somehow, I knew that pretty girls were blonde and had blue eyes and worried that I was too dark to be pretty. I was four years old.
A couple years later, my favorite babysitter picked me up and set me on the sink in front of a wide bathroom mirror. She brushed my hair, and looked into my eyes and cupped my face in her hands and said with love and adoration, “When you grow up, you are going to be such a beautiful woman.” This meant something, and the words stuck with me. I am not sure if it raised an expectation or was some kind of confirmation, but nothing anyone has ever said to me about who I was or my value in the world was ever spoken to me with such conviction.
From even these early years, so much of my self-worth began to hinge on appearances and its tandem sexuality. I remember the way older men stopped to stare, the comments made in passing, in public, or in secret. When I was eight years old, I went to soccer camp and the adult coach used to tell the other counselors I was his girlfriend. It made me feel special and important, and, confused about the attention. On a family vacation in Florida, a man who worked on the parasailing boat pulled me aside and said, “You are beautiful. Come back and see me when you’re 18.”
Whenever men said things to me in secret, I felt ashamed, but internalized the inherent value. I learned how to dress and put on make-up, and adhered to those standards of beauty that were always made clear to me, even as a child. I went to modeling school when I was 13, and even though I was too short and didn’t have the model body, I wanted the approval, this external validation of my currency in the world.
In college, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. A few months later, I cut off all of my hair and decided that I would have more control over my sexuality if I had none. I dressed plain, stopped wearing make-up and believed that if I could sever myself from this sexualized version, this feminine self, I could focus on more true sources of strength—other virtues, like intelligence or creativity, I wanted to be seen.
Almost immediately, I felt completely deprived and stripped, not only of my femininity and sexuality, but in the power that it held. It wasn’t long before I decided to grow back my hair and return to a style that was more comfortable for me—sexy and feminine, and with effort. I wore platform shoes, got hair extensions, and before I turned 30, I did something I never thought I would do as a feminist—I got breast implants. It wasn’t that I felt trapped by these beauty standards either. They made me feel more beautiful, and even more comfortable in my own skin. I continued to attend to this version of myself, enhancing my beauty, without much thought to my identity attached to it, except that basic feeling, that it just felt natural.
Even more, it felt exciting. It felt glamorous. It felt powerful.
White is privilege. Beauty is privilege. Being a woman is not.
In every opportunity since I was 21, I was hired by a man and not a woman, and many of my jobs have ended with a sexual harassment component. After I noted that he missed a discovery deadline, an attorney I worked for told me he no longer had legal work for me, but if I wanted to continue getting paid, I could clean his office. I needed the money and I will never forget the day he handed me a duster and pointed at shelves while he watched from his desk. In some ways, I have never been able to escape this female part of myself.
And even worse, the simple act of writing this feels shameful. The very nature of writing about beauty means that I think that I am so, and that I have some authority to write on the topic, though it is thoroughly subjective and we take in the way that the world responds to us. But that is exactly what I mean by the gravity of it—the way that the world responds to women and beauty, and the way that we dance with it, and for women, why beauty is shameful—because whether we have been told that we are, we have also been told that we are not enough, or that we shouldn’t think about it too much, or too little. Whatever we are told about beauty, we are told it often enough, that we know so clearly, how much it shapes us, how much it matters.
Somehow beauty has the power to shame and define me at the same time.
I know that our value as humans is much deeper than either appearances or intellectual or professional accodates–it is about how we treat eachother, how kind we are, what are we actually doing to make the world a better place. That is what I want to teach my daughter. That is the kind of human I want to be. That is the world I want to live in.
I wonder, how do I tell my daughter not to care about beauty in a world where it so obviously matters, even beyond our superficial understanding of it? How do I teach her not to chase attention for her beauty or sexuality, while at the same time, acknowledging that there is something affirming about being told you are beautiful? How do I explain the way our professional and personal success demands that we strive for it?
How do I teach my daughter that true beauty is within, when everything in her world tells her that beauty is real and can be measured, even in colors, shapes, sizes, and dimensions? How do I explain to her that I get Botox, even though I want to teach her to accept herself as she is and learn to age gracefully? Have I already failed her? I’m asking because, I don’t know. I don’t know what it means, I don’t know how to talk about it, but I know that all of this, this conversation, this perception and manifestation of a woman’s beauty, as a thing, is more real and tangible than any other feedback I have ever gotten from the world.
I am not more afflicted by The Beauty Myth, than most women I know, and for that reason, I wonder why the conversation has ended. I wonder if we have become complacent. I wonder if beauty’s power has somehow eclipsed this less frequented discussion around it’s correllary powerlessness, primarily that beauty will come to a very swift and steady decline for each of us.
Or maybe that is why we don’t talk about it, like death, we are too fearful about what this means and we quietly battle the reality that it ever had any meaning at all.
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