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.

True Generosity.

“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

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