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.

 

Shame

she was all too familiar
with beauty
she had been admired before
en masse

she had felt all the eyes
land on her cheekbones
felt their gaze on her body
rubbing her up and down

with their stare
she had felt the intense
power and vulnerability
in her beauty

felt the reductiveness of it
as her insides
melted away
from irrelevance

she had also known
how it felt
to lose beauty
to crave invisibility

to feel judged
to feel undeserving
of skin
or space

she had known
the experience
of occupying
a female body

and so she
knew shame.

Photo Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/lIYhwFaWfY4

Mother

Sitting here watching 
the birds resting on the rocks 
the rocks nestled in the water
the water kissing the shores
the shores leaning on the mountains
the mountains reaching for the sky
the sky holding the clouds
the clouds cushioning the sun

how beautiful this world is 
how fortunate I am to be on it

with my feet grounded in the earth 
I too am resting on the rocks
nestled in the water
kissing the shores
leaning on the mountains
reaching for the sky
cushioned by the clouds
brought to life by the sun

she is the strongest force 
of unconditional love
mother earth

in her presence I am never alone.

Poetic Archaeology

I want to capture that feeling when the words slide off your pen effortlessly, as if they had always existed in that unique combination. They only use your hand to bring themselves closer to permanence. Like painting watercolour over a message scribbled in white crayon, the script was always there it just needed to be noticed, to be uncovered. And so I’ve blissfully resigned myself to a life of poetic archaeology.

Connecting the Dots

I love staring up at the stars; it is humbling. Somehow staring at the rest of the universe is the only way to bring myself back to earth. As I gaze up, whether it is grass, sand or pavement at my back, I am reminded of my smallness. I remember that the earth is just a small step in a much larger choreography.   Smallness is good for humans, with billboards, television, and social media it is far too easy for us to be fooled into thinking we are much bigger than we are. The context that I get from looking up both disorients me and soothes me.

When I stare up at the sky what I don’t see is constellations. To me, the glowing dots resemble a bag of dropped marbles; there is no conceivable order or pattern to their placement. Thinking about them connecting together to form images is beautiful, but also inconceivable. I have never seen the big dipper, and I don’t know if I ever will, and that saddens me.

I crave human connections. I am energized by the type of love that keeps people up at night, the interactions that make strangers feel at ease, or share an emotion with you. These connections are what string people together to create something beautiful and strong. I crave this, I want to be a part of this larger image, but I don’t know how to connect the dots.

I am an observer, and so I watch. I watch at the airport as families and lovers are reunited; I watch at the coffee shop around the corner as customers come in for coffee and leave a part of a community; I watch at the grocery store as a grandmother advises a man on which type of crackers to buy; I watch a mother at the store help her daughter pick out her first bra. It is these small moments that bind us together, that make us entangled, that show us love and make us feel beloved. These moments are the building blocks of all things good and beautiful in this world. These moments also remind me of what is missing. When I enter into a coffee shop I open my laptop to work; when I grocery shop I put in my headphones, when I shop I cringe at the thought of having someone look at my body when I try on clothes.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I am blind to these connections, or maybe light pollution has made them impossible to see. Regardless, I don’t think we give enough attention to the constellations. We need smallness, but we also need each other. Until I can connect the dots I will continue to look up.