Like virtually every woman on earth, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of beauty. Through this post I do not want to imply the uniqueness of my experiences – or that they were any more traumatizing than others’ – because i know this is not true. This is just a recording of my experiences as I thought a lot about beauty this weekend. And a disclaimer that this post is heavier than most, so skip or take with the necessary grain of salt.
I get so frustrated when women (particularly beautiful women) say things like “If you believe you are beautiful, you are beautiful.” I know this is said with the greatest intent and probably some sound basis in behavioral psychology – but it is completely frustrating bunk to me. In many ways, all of us are guilty in some way, we tell little girls that beauty/sex appeal/being a princess with flowing hair is the most important thing for girls and yet the standards provided are unattainable, and out of the other side of our mouth tell them if they just “believe” they will be beuatiful. Cuhrap.
Along with the complications of getting b-cups and my period while still in grade school, I had an older female relative who damaged a lot of my ability to “believe”. She would blatantly and constantly say that a woman could not make it in the world unless she was pretty – one of her deepest-held beliefs. (Being a natural beauty who men flocked to even into her 50s, of course she thought that.) And while telling me that beauty was the utmost, if not only, ideal for women, she would remind me that I was anything but beautiful. She would criticize my figure, criticize what I was eating, cut down other women ane me constantly. There even was a phase when I had short hair and she referred to me as a boy. Oh, and then there was the time at her birthday party she told a group of people within ear shot of me that a young, beautiful woman there looked like her relative, not I. Painful memories – but like most pain we live through, it taught me many things about my resilience, about the people I wanted to surround myself with when I grew up, and forced me to form a positive self image out of the wreckage of these comments. I may not be pretty but I am smart, competent, and gosh darnit, people like me. And I never, ever, ever have to wear a swimsuit in front of that woman again. I love being a grown-up.
But these experiences mean I can’t just “believe” I am beautiful and therefore be beautiful. I would have as much luck believing I can fly or that the world is flat. Most of my experiences from being in grade school to college and beyond inform me that I am not beautiful. And, yes, I am hypersensitive to comments, oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. I fully admit I need to improve in that. Comments from schoolmates, relatives, strangers did not toughen me, it made me very thin-skinned.
Because I have formed my view of myself as absolutely amazing but not pretty, I don’t pay enough attention to my looks. I am religious about brushing and flossing because my parents spent so much money on straigtening my teeth, but other than that, I don’t have a strict “beauty” regime. I am an irregular moisturizer and spfer. I stray away from outfits that bring attention to me. I don’t get my hair cut and colored regularly enough. I wear sandals without getting a pedicure. I know I should straighten my hair but don’t. Honestly, I don’t see the point of bothering with the time, money, and hassle of it all. My beauty is not physical.
So, fast forwarding to the last couple of weeks. At times I reach a breaking point, I feel so blech about my hair, skin, clothes, everything, I decide to do something about it. I started Thursday by skipping an aerobics class to get a pedicure (yea, not good, I know). And then this weekend I got my hair cut and colored and had a facial (my first one ever.) The facial was great, I need to have many more and keep up with my skin care regime to have lasting benefit, but I got really freaked out because the aesthetician pointed out that I have some age spots on my right cheek. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!! I don’t like that one bit. I still have a vague dream of being “hot” at least one day of my life before I turn 35 (tick tock), and age spots don’t figure into that.
So I went home and read up about age spots and there is hope. Medicine that was once prescription and isn’t any more can be applied to reduce hyperpigmentation. I got a bottle of it. And I am calmer now – it will be ok, it really will – it was just, well, shocking. And if I am to indulge myself in just another sentence of self pity, I don’t think it is fair that I am showing signs of aging when I never had a moment to be young and beautiful. But setting that aside, and all of the jumbled, painful history of my experiences of physical beauty, I have learned two things.
Like the wise-beyond-her-years Mandy Freud blogged recently, you just have one chance to be the person you are on this day – do what you can today to make for a better future. I recited this pledge to my bottle of SPF 30 this morning. And if you interact with any young woman, tell her in subtle or blatant ways that she is beautiful. Even if you don’t believe it… let her think you believe it. We have all got to band together to break the tradition of making girls and women doubt their worth because of their physical beauty. We can’t teach one thing and then tell them to “believe” another. WE JUST CAN’T.
Which brings me to my favorite quote from my favorite book from childhood. A book another older female relative (my dear, sweet, everyday-missed Muner) read to me often – and provided me with lots of knowledge to counteract all the arrows life slings at me. From The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (well, more specifically the fantactic movie adaptation of the book):
Sara Crewe: Papa? Maya told me that all girls are princesses.
Capt. Crewe: Maya… is a very wise woman.
Sara Crewe: Then it’s true?
Capt. Crewe: You can be anything you want to be, my love, as long as you believe.
Sara Crewe: What do you believe?
Capt. Crewe: I believe that you are… and always will be… my little princess.
And to end on a happy note and a list…
So, after all the turmoil of the age spots of this weekend, last night I ran into get beer from Quiktrip. I plopped it on the counter and got ready to pay. The clerk said, a little testily, “I am going to need to see some ID.” I produced it and he said, “Wow! 1974! Good for you. You look great, hon.” I could have kissed him.
And for the list, and to counteract the hyperbolic sadness of this post…
(list 67) Times I have felt beautiful
1. At my wedding.
2. Painting sets at the theater after I had lost 40 lbs on Weight Watchers. The two cutest boys in the theater flirted with me the whole time.
3. In my Christmas dress riding in the carriage on the Plaza with my parents when I was 7 years old.
4. On my first date with DH.
5. Once when my father looked at me across a table and said “you are so pretty! Carol (my mom), isn’t she pretty?” I don’t remember the specifics, I just remember the moment.
And that is the list, sure it is small, but I can make it bigger, I surely can. And maybe someday the moments I feel beautiful will outnumber the moments I felt anything but. I will try, try, try to believe in that.
Ok, so that really did nothing to counteract the hyperbolic sadness of this post… so here are signs I am healing from my painful relationship with physical beauty.
(list 68) Signs I am getting better
1. I have some absolutely gorgeous friends. I never could have done that 10 years ago.
2. I am thinking of actually putting on a swimsuit in front of some friends this weekend. There is like a 60% chance I will go through with it.
3. I go to aerobics classes.
4. I wear eye makeup – even if it calls attention to me.
5. I workout at a gym.
6. More often than not I don’t counteract people when they pay me a compliment.
7. I wear shorts and sandals in public. (Sleeveless shirts are the next frontier.)
Everyday I see the beauty in others – and for years I have had the resolution of paying at least one compliment to another human being for their physical appearance – and I haven’t missed a day since I was 28. And I am starting to see that beauty on my own person.
That is a better, happier list, a better, happier ending.