On Having and Losing Beauty

“You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”’-Diana Vreeland

My sister was an adorable child. She had gorgeous blond curls that bounced around her face. When she smiled her mouth extended horizontally and her whole face changed shape. In a radical effort to show all her teeth she tensed every muscle in her face. The expression brought a whole new meaning to turning a frown upside down. Adults loved her, they praised her on her curls and were constantly affirming her adorableness. I stood next to her with brown straight hair and a cut that was aptly nicknamed after a mushroom. I went through a very long phase in my life where I only wore ‘boy’s’ clothes. I wanted to play in the dirt the way my friends who were boys did. I wanted to have what they had, the carefree sense that comes with knowing that your appearance is irrelevant. Next to my sister, I learnt what I was missing and what I was expected to be: cute.

Long before I could understand what it meant, I, like most young girls, was learning about the politics of beauty. It comes as no surprise to me now that this became evident so early on in life. In fact, it’s now clear to me that it is impossible for females to avoid this reality, because our bodies occupy it. Beauty is a currency that is owned by women and defined by men. Just like any other currency it can be bought, traded and stolen, and just like many other contexts women are commodities and men profit.

Most women do not acknowledge the separateness of their beauty or its impact on their lives until they’re much older. As is true with many things in life, we often do not recognize the value of what we have until it is gone. It was when I lost my beauty that I realized the separateness of this force from my individuality and how much these external standards informed the space I took up in the world.

Up until my years in university if anyone had asked I would never have used the adjective of ‘beauty’ to describe myself.   I had started off life as a tomboy and I had grown into an awkward body, much of which needed fixing in order to measure up: teeth straightened, contact lenses acquired. I suffered from anxiety, battled with depression, and lacked confidence. After my first year of University, it seemed that quite suddenly I noticed a change. My braces had finally been removed, I stopped wearing my glasses, and I started wearing makeup. When I walked through the courtyard at school people seemed to notice me. Guys would look me in the eye as I walked past, and girls would run their eyes up and down me quickly.   People would ask me things, and talk to me as I was buying tea at the cafeteria. As I became more comfortable in my ‘new skin’ I began to realize the power of this currency. I felt as though a magnetic force field had surrounded me and was now pulling people towards my centre. I became popular, I became more confident, I became a leader, I became more of myself, I became desired. This, I thought, must be what it feels like to be a woman. This, I imagined, is what it feels like to be seen.

Five years later I developed adult acne. All of sudden the force that had been pulling people to me was gone and only an insecure shell of a human remained. My face was constantly red and inflamed and I fell into a deep depression, I stayed inside, I hid, I once again became invisible. Suddenly much of my political power had been ripped away from me. Suddenly the space that I occupied no longer aligned with the beauty standard assigned by males. In straying from that standard I lost a number of advantages that I had previously enjoyed.

I no longer felt the same power in influencing men or gaining the respect of other women. I no longer had confidence not only in terms of my appearance but also my competencies, friendships, and love. I was lost because the world told me I was no longer beautiful and the rules told me I was less without prettiness.

I think most women go through this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point in their life, when they feel they lose grip of beauty as a means of social currency. Usually it is when they begin to age and they realize society no longer values them as it used to. I learnt before most, the ephemeral fleeting nature of beauty. I learnt that it was a false construct that would arbitrarily be assigned to me, or taken away, and that if I was going to be happy, I was going to have to learn to live independent of it.

I don’t owe beauty to anyone. Before I understood that beauty was a social currency, I was free from the arbitrary standards, independent of the male definitions that constrained me. I fit into my own definition, I played sports, I had a strange haircut, I wore tear-away pants. I was free from any obligation or expectation to appeal to someone else’s ideal. Instead of painting myself to be seen by others, I learnt to let myself be seen, without affirmation, without doubt, without shame. Beauty may come and go, but I won’t let my body be marked by it. I won’t allow my worth to be defined by it, for the minute I do, I am paying a price for femaleness and the money is going into a man’s pocket.

 

Allowed

In first grade I met Alanna. She spoke to me on my first day at my new school as tears flowed down my face and the national anthem rang over the P.A.   I giggled at her quick remark as I wondered to myself: didn’t she know talking wasn’t allowed? Allowed is a buzzword from my childhood, one that I used with a frequentness that is both startling and saddening. To this day, I find myself repressing the limiting word, confused and overwhelmed by the freedoms and privileges that my life affords me. I was always seeking reassurance that permission had been granted, that a stamp of approval had been impressed on the activity by a person of power, a mom, a teacher, a neighbour, someone who could affirm that we were on the right path, that we were obeying, that I was acting as I should, that I was a good little girl. I have spent years trying to unshackle myself from this word.

Alanna paid no mind when I asked her the allowed question, in her world she created her own should’s and allowed’s. And it was a world I wanted to be a part of.

Alanna wore track pants to school and loose fitting boys tees, she met Graham and Oliver and Andrew and all the other athletic boys in our class on the field at recess and I watched as she showed them how to play soccer properly. I was there when, in the middle of the game an older girl wearing cleats stepped on her arm. She got up and kept playing only to find out later that her bones were broken to pieces. She was strong and athletic, wore boy clothes and gave me stories like the one’s my father would end with “boys will be boys.” She was a force, on the field, and in life, she played by her own rules.

My parents hated her.

But she was kind and compassionate and sensitive. I watched her cry when someone at school laughed at her second hand clothes and helped her when she came to me worried about a school project and feeling incompetent. She was strong, she was bold, she was compassionate, she was herself.

My parents hated her.

It bothered them that I would come back from her house with tears in my pants. It bothered them that at her house my allowed questions were rarely answered with a no, over there I could walk to the convenience store, watch titanic and listen to the spice girls. In hindsight I think it bothered them that I would come back from her house happier, that I had gotten a taste of the world outside their control, and that I liked it.

Alanna and I were inseparable for ten years. For that decade I put up with passive aggressive comments from my family about her and her choices, until the dramatic day that our friendship ended with our mothers on the phone to each other yelling and destroying a relationship more dynamic, reciprocal and loving than they could know.

I ran into Alanna recently, her hair is died, her skin artificially tanned, her purse holding a pooch, and her clothes leopard. I’m not sure when she started asking the allowed question, since her and I are no longer close, but it’s because of her that I have vowed never to live my life according to anyone else’s version of allowed.

Empty Space

When you feel the emptiness of the air on your skin. When the quiet makes a space feel so daunting and elusive. When all the eyes turn to you and you are silently given the seemingly impossible task of filling the air. Synthesizing all of the buzzing pieces of your mind into letters, forming those letters into words and articulating those words into sentences, statements, paragraphs. It’s witchery, trickery, an art that you have yet to master. You stumble in the emptiness feeling it pushing its weight down on you, crushing you. You start, but falter, blood begins to rush to you cheeks, as your body tries to focus all of its energy on facilitating the transfer of the inner and outer worlds. The result is a concentration of blood in the outer capillaries, a beaming red face, a faltering stammer, and an empty space.

Thumbelina

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I often feel as though I’m just a wavering shadow of a woman, a slight figure with a step so gentle it goes unheard.  As a young girl I was taught to be small, fragile, and beautiful.  So I obeyed, as I always did, with my forehead to the floor and my smile indicating a placid and agreeable character.  The good and reliable child, the modest and humble girl, the delicate child; I was a rule-follower and an order-obeyer.  I had heard stories of my father’s rebellious years, of his childhood escapades breaking glass and covering walls in graffiti, but that wasn’t the work of girls, those were boys and boys they will be.  I was a girl.  And so I sat at the grown ups’ table, was sure not to interrupt, made my bed, and played in my plastic kitchen.  I was a girl.  I wore dresses and arrhythmically bounced to Bach’s concerto in a body that was never meant for ballet.  I aspired towards being able to fit inside a flower, like Thumbelina so that my most notable and admirable quality could be my smallness and fragility.  I’m tired of being a girl.

Empty

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It was 7:15am and I awoke to the sound of a muffled beeping, a chirp just loud enough to disrupt my REM cycle but quiet enough so as not to wake the rest of the hall. Everyone else was sleeping and would be for another few hours. I quickly pulled down the flowery duvet, before it was able to seduce me back into its rapturous delirium. Elsewhere, my peers continued to revel in their sleep, which I saw to be an indulgence. As I stepped my bare toes out of their cocoon and onto the cold tiles, their dreams lived continued. I wonder if someone down the hall was dreaming about me, if I had nestled my way into their subconscious, and their brain had built a story around my existence. I thought it doubtful because I hadn’t done much nestling into the lives, let alone brains of the people around me, but it was a nice thought to tread on.

As I stepped past my wardrobe any semblance of privacy granted to me by my ipod headphones and the plywood veneer of the wardrobe dissipated. This room, which was deficient of one wall, was not to be mistaken as one of those frank, open, loving places where roommates walk around in their underwear and tell each other stories of past lovers in the evenings. It was an uncomfortable collision of two separate spaces that just happened to lack a dividing structure. I looked over at my roommate, noting the absence of her obsessive, controlling, simple-minded, large boyfriend, who enjoyed throwing himself into the wall, further diminishing the structural integrity of the space.

When her eyes closed there was a goodness and innocence to her clear skin. Her dark and thickly defined symmetrical eyebrows framed her wide eyelids and bulky lashes, creating a first impression that was comforting, dauntless and pure all at the same time. I didn’t blame the brute’s obsessiveness, it looked like a face that you could melt into, a reassuring, well defined and outlined drawing that boldly stayed within the lines, like all her features had been fastidiously penciled in.

I walked into the bathroom and was greeted by an altogether different species, an image that was neither bold nor within the lines, it was a gloomy picture not remarkable enough to be tragic but too afflicted to be content. She was tortured. Her eyes were sunken and rather than their brilliance being highlighted by an outline of thick hairs, hers were surrounded by a purple sickly pigment. There was nothing shimmering about them, instead they gave the appearance of having been punched simultaneously with both an individuals right and left fists. That is also sort of what it felt like, like each night I awoke having endured another fight, manifested in the blemishes that encrusted by body and mind. The frustrating part was that while my other classmates were collecting bruises from bar fights, I felt the pain without the accompanying story. Without the college experience that I had heard my parents, the television, my cousins and music talk so much about. The bruises were not the result of an immature inflation of self-confidence or a naive experiment.

These marks would not teach me my identity or how to become an adult; they weren’t tales to share with friends and laugh about later; they were not the foundations or proponents of a legacy. They were, as they appeared: marks of affliction. The fights weren’t waged on the basis of lost love or a traitorous friend, they were waged to make an already small girl feel even smaller, and I was both the victim and the perpetrator. I was waging a war against myself, in a battle that no one could ever win. I gently ran a comb through my hair, the gentleness was partly because it was all my weak arm could muster and partly because I was watching my hair come out in clumps and fall to the floor.

I took my shirt off and ran my fingers down my bony and indented stomach, feeling my ribs poke through my thinned skin. Bones protruding where muscle and fat used to take its place.Despite seeing the reflection of my hair matted down against my forehead, I decided there was no time for a shower. I had already spent three minutes and forty four seconds admiring my emptiness, while my half-filled word documents were neglected. I had a 750 word essay on the pitfalls of technology due the following day, a calculus quiz that I was unprepared for, and a cogency analysis of an argument that I had yet to identify. My mind tumbled into the abyss of concern, over things which had little bearing on the world, but seemed, at the time, to represent the world in its entirety.

Fishing through the puddle of clothes on the floor I stood on, I pulled up a pair of pants over my legs and put on a sweater, with a lack of intentionality that I believed to be atypical of college girls fashion choices. I used to care. In high school I used to go through my clothes and catalogue all the pieces of my wardrobe to facilitate effective pairings. I even created and crafted my clothes myself, but now I had other more important outlets to focus my intentionality. Now, I didn’t care. When I experienced moments of feeling tired, dizzy, disoriented, or overwhelmed, which happened more often than moments of peace, I would imagine the red felt tip marks scribbled all over the page. I would take myself back to the moment when everything changed. The moment when everything that once seemed fixed and stable, collapsed. Before that moment, I had no idea that three innocuous digits could shake my world so drastically. Only in hindsight, did it cause me to realize how broken and shaken my world already was.

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When I first arrived at school and stepped out of the car to be greeted by singing, costumed students it took every will of my being to hold back my tears. I felt the anxiety travel from my twisting stomach and surface in my tear ducts. I plastered a smile on my face, that probably more closely resembled a response to a dentists’ order to show all your teeth, than it did an expression of genuine happiness. The first week was an extension of that smile; it was a facade of enjoyment and ease from a tense and strained body. It wore me down and each time I tried to introduce myself to someone I was forced to silence the voice inside of me, drowning out the noise that reminded me that people wouldn’t want to be my friend, the noise that said I was nothing more than an object of criticism.

At the end of that week I was exhausted, worn down by my strained effort to appear excited and the all-consuming fear that I was incapable, inadequate, not intelligent enough to succeed here. And so, on my first assignment I collapsed all of my energy into its creation. An hour did not pass where I was not examining the status of development in Haiti. I jotted down notes from the shower and would only pause momentarily to grab food from the cafeteria before resuming my position crumpled over the computer and fitting bites into pauses between paragraphs. Since, these pauses had become obsolete.

When the study group dispersed and everyone headed back to their rooms at midnight I tiptoed into my dark room and listened to the snores of my roommate or the unidentifiable sounds of her and her boyfriend rolling about, and continued to type until I could no longer feel the adrenaline and cortisone rushing through my brain and I collapsed into an unsatisfying and hastened sleep. While others had simply composed a 750 word essay, my document housed thousands and thousands of words; these characters gave me comfort. They were an insurance policy of sorts; they served to reassure me that I had more than I needed, that I was in a better position than others, that I was prepared. It was a false comfort, a strategy I used to manufacture a sense of security and stability, by reminding myself of what I had always known to be true: that I was a master of words and that despite my ugly face my mind was beautiful.

A week later, the assignment was given back. He called my name and I walked to the front of the room to be bestowed my fate. I clutched the paper and folded over the top half without so much as a glance, knowing that I was not ready to read the markings. When I got back to my half-space of a room I opened the sheets and took a breath before allowing my eyes to meet the page. Tears fell in a steady stream for the next 3 hours. It was the breaking point beyond which I could no long sustain the strained smile. It was an affirmation of all of my worst fears.   The one area in which I had always excelled and prided myself on was false; I was a fraud; I was inadequate; I was unworthy; I was stupid. When this destructive, cyclical drilling finally abated I vowed to work harder, to be better, and to prove to my professor, that he was wrong. Anything extraneous had to be cut: calls home, messages to my friends, food, any semblances of normality or sources of pleasure or enjoyment had to be abstained from. The narrative of most college students’ first year stood in stark contrast to my own. Sex, drugs, alcohol, partying and the freshman fifteen: for most it was a year of indulgence a year without foresight. My life, on the contrary, was operated by anxiety and stoicism.

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And so I functioned for the remainder of the school year on thoughts that were always half-formed and a stomach that was barely half-full. I turned myself into a machine, a robotic creature void of emotions, human connections and satisfaction. Satisfaction was the enemy, I could never be satisfied, because that would stop me from moving forward; it would stifle me. I could not slow my pace, if I slowed, I would fall behind; I would falter; I would fail. So I led a life without fullness; a life where desperate hungriness and painful emptiness drove me forward; a life where an apple a day was sustenance not starvation. I surprised and impressed myself by how functional I became; how the gaping hole in my middle made me feel powerful and in control. I was surprised by how easily my mind could be manipulated, and how quick my body was to follow suit.